“Everyone deserves a second chance,” says one forgiving character about another’s transgressions (attempted murder, in this case) in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.” The line written by screenwriter James Gunn refers obliquely, or at least coincidentally, to his own firing off the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise after Disney took a look at his Twitter feed’s jokes about rape and pedophilia and the like. Then they gave him a second chance. And here we are.
It’s the usual pale male instance of who gets the do-overs in Hollywood and who doesn’t. If you stretch for a more charitable reading, it’s an indication of some theoretically reassuring but, in this case, fruitless creative latitude afforded a highly skilled, highly uneven wiseacre.
To wit, or in this case, witless: The MCU’s gunkiest, most grotesque and most aggravating product to date comes from the same writer-director who delivered a zippy first “Guardians” entry, followed by wobbly but fairly diverting yo-yo of a middle installment. Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3,” so named because volumes are so much more impressive than “parts” or plain numbers, already has its ardent fans who (based on the one-word quotes in the TV ads) respond, on some cellular level, to the wanton brutality mixed with notably callous zingers, plus a heavy load of “Endgame”-style pathos. Life and movies and fandom: They’re all funny that way.
I’m in full agreement with my 13-year-old MCU devotee stepson who, on the long ride home after the “Guardians 3″ screening, called the movie “a lot of animal abuse, plus killing, and four hours of angry people yelling at each other.”
The movie’s 150 minutes feel like 240, and Gunn spends many of those minutes dealing with flashbacks and present-day scenes of Dr. Moreau “Island of Lost Souls” cross-species experimentation in what feels like a particularly vicious animal shelter. If a superhero movie’s quality could be quantified by close-ups of bleeding, shivering, terrified digital-but-real-looking creatures, some of whom are shot point-blank for maximum traumatization of the audience, “Guardians 3″ would sail straight past the Oscars to the Pulitzer committee.
The movie’s a blur of detours. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, whose eyes get wider as his material gets dumber) and the rest of the Guardians must rescue Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) from the Dr. Moreau rip-off, “The High Evolutionary” (Chukwudi Iwuji). The antagonist schemes to perfect the utopian nightmare he has begun constructing on Counter-Earth, which is “Don’t Worry Darling” suburbia populated by genetic mutants in slacks and frocks.
There’s more, notably a wary reunion of Quill and the memory-wiped reborn version of Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and a trip to the Orgosphere, which is pink, skeezy-looking joint. There, and on an already broken-down Counter-Earth, Gunn favors little touches of Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” and, more innocently, the 1966 “Fantastic Voyage,” if “Fantastic Voyage” set course for a pus-flecked version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
These details aside: I’ve enjoyed much of Gunn’s work, especially the first “Guardians” and the recent box office flop “The Suicide Squad.” At his most intuitive, he cracks the elusive code of violence mixed with macabre humor. Here it’s just sourness and chaos the whole way, with every thundering golden-oldies hit setting the tone of things, mostly ironically, always, always obviously. The full-on assault on the audience’s tear ducts in much of “Guardians 3″ may be sincere, but the rhythms and pacing of the film never find the beat. We end up waiting for the reductive punchline, or for another round of wanton slaughter.
Is there really much of a difference between Gunn’s notion of fantasy brutality and suffering and “realistic” bloodletting? As designed and executed here, with the usual digital viscera flying around just quickly enough to ensure the (frankly idiotic) PG-13 rating, I don’t think so. The tonal clashes don’t stimulate; they flatten the collective response. I saw “Guardians 3″ with a full crowd ready to whoop, and the whooping ended with the opening credits. The snark tastes like ashes in your mouth: If it’s not a casual beatdown of a mugging scored, jauntily, to “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” it’s a fuzzball of a mutated pet peeing itself for a laugh while fireballs and mayhem consume the frame, expensively.
What’s enticing to Disney and Marvel Studios doesn’t necessarily have to feel like punishment. But it does, sometimes, and maybe more often lately. The third and desultory “Ant-Man” movie, “Quantumania,” laid there like a green-screen lox. “Guardians 3″ is considerately worse; it trashes the camaraderie of its core ensemble (Dave Bautista’s Drax remains the deadpan standout) in favor of one deafening, vicious flourish after another.
Worst MCU ever? I know a 13-year-old target audience member who thinks so.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3″ — 1 star (out of 4)
MPA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, strong language, suggestive/drug references and thematic elements)
Running time: 2:30
How to watch: Premieres May 4 in theaters
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.