Animal lovers, comic book fans and unofficial adjudicators of narrative continuity, action and style in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Lend me your ears. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is not the movie for you.
Perhaps this dour, visually off-putting two-and-a-half-hour A.S.P.C.A. nightmare of a film is only for completionist fans like myself, arriving at the theater armed with overpriced popcorn and the hope that the director James Gunn’s latest could replicate the romp and anti-gravity gambol of the first.
For those who need help getting their multiversal timeline untangled, “Guardians” is the second film of the so far ecstatically bad Phase Five of the M.C.U., after the, to quote my colleague, “thoroughly uninspired” “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” We last caught our whole team of lovable riffraff together in “Avengers: Infinity War,” when Thanos (Josh Brolin) threw his adopted daughter and galaxy guardian, Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), into an abyss to get one of the Infinity Stones, which he used to snap away half of the universe. (There were some dancing Groots and a cute holiday special about abducting Kevin Bacon, but — sorry, Kev — they were irrelevant.)
Now the Guardians are settling in at Knowhere, a community in the severed head of a celestial that serves as their home base. With Gamora gone, Peter (Chris Pratt), a.k.a. Star-Lord, is still grieving, unaware of the fact that somehow Gamora — or, rather, a variant — is alive, sans her memories of him and the Guardians. When, a few minutes into the film, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) becomes victim to a deadly attack, the team is reunited with a hostile, partially amnesiac Gamora, who is reluctantly dragged into their plot to save him.
While Rocket is in critical condition, Peter and company do some risky snooping through Rocket’s traumatic back story to figure out how to save his life and stop the man pursuing him, the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). A powerful god-figure, the High Evolutionary has genetically altered Rocket, other animals and even children to create a perfect race to inhabit his imagined utopia. (Yes, that’s another Nazi-coded villain for your Bingo card.)
So much of “Guardians 3” seems to erupt from left field, most prominently the main story, which is driven by Rocket, even though the Guardians have mostly played second-string to Star-Lord, the plot-driving hero. The shift makes sense given the role this film plays as the end of the trilogy, resulting in a Guardians team with a different starting lineup and an unclear position in the context of the rest of the M.C.U. But the shift also feels belabored and emotionally manipulative; scenes upon scenes of shot, blown up, tortured and incinerated C.G.I. animals with big, emotive eyes are as merciless as clips of injured animals set to a Sarah McLachlan song.
It seems “Guardians” needs this much gratuitous trauma bait to establish its stakes and prove that the bad guy is, in fact, bad. Which is unfortunate because Iwuji, who offered a much more nuanced performance in Gunn’s edgy-fun DC Extended Universe series, “Peacemaker,” is left with just a thin silhouette of an antagonist to work with here. (Will Poulter and Elizabeth Debicki also appear as idiotic secondary antagonists, for no real reason.)
Something like Thanos Lite or a knockoff Dr. Frankenstein, the High Evolutionary represents one of the central problems the franchise is facing in a post-“Endgame” M.C.U.: characters and circumstances that pale in comparison to Thanos and his cataclysmic, conclusive multi-arc-spanning plotline. Because at least the extent of Thanos’s power and the roots of his villain philosophy were clear. “There is no god — that’s why I stepped in,” the High Evolutionary says at one point. This tiny germ of a motivation does nothing but indicate all the questions that the film could have answered about this character to make him more interesting. Surely an atheist with a narcissistic personality and obsessive-compulsive disorder has some deeper psychology to unpack. Ah well.
Though this “Guardians” is certainly less fun than the others, there are still glints of joy in the more mundane and ancillary quibbles among the found family of misfits. Dave Bautista gives another priceless performance as Drax, and Bautista’s signature chemistry works with Pom Klementieff as Mantis. Groot (Vin Diesel) has leveled up in the bang-bang-shoot-em-up category, as has Nebula (Karen Gillan). Though the film makes no attempt to explain the logic behind Gamora’s magical reappearance (“I’m not some infinity stone scientist!” Peter exclaims after trying to puzzle things out), it does at least give Saldaña the opportunity to reinvent her character, which she manages beautifully. The same for Rocket, who gives an Oscar-worthy performance — via Cooper’s great voice acting, of course, but also via the animation, which makes his faces, postures and movements look so unbelievably believable.
Gunn makes the curious, bold choice to chase an unpleasant aesthetic that’s part Cronenberg, part “Osmosis Jones.” A series of scenes take place in a ship fashioned like viscera and innards, with fleshy globules and architectural dendrites, often in nude tones. Squishy sound effects add an unwelcome layer of grossness.
Even when the movie switches back to the more lambent palette of nebulae and the luminous shine of the stars, Gunn’s direction doesn’t serve the full tableau. His camera is too voyeuristic, spinning enthusiastically on every axis during group fight scenes rather than giving us a steady look at the choreography.
At least this “Guardians,” like the previous ones, stays on beat with a fantastic soundtrack of Spacehog, Beastie Boys and Earth Wind & Fire. But pumping soundtrack aside, after a breakout hit and the sequel, “Everything Would Have Been Fine if Your Dad the Space God Played Catch With You: The Movie,” this final piece of the trilogy makes one thing apparent: “Guardians” was just a one-hit wonder.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Rated PG-13 for some swearing and a zoo of horrors. Running time: 2 hour 30 minutes. In theaters.