Review: The Groot of all evil: Bloated Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 can’t save the Marvel Cinematic Universe

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From the left: Pom Klementieff as Mantis, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord, Dave Bautista as Drax, and Karen Gillan as Nebula in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.Marvel Studios/Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

  • Written and directed by James Gunn
  • Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista
  • Classification PG; 150 minutes
  • Opens in theatres May 5

Oh, thank Groot: We finally have a Marvel movie that is worth the many hundreds of millions of dollars that have been thrown at it. After a string of high-profile disappointments for the Marvel Cinematic Universe – including the underwhelming Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and the ugly and interminable Ant-Man and the Wasp: QuantumaniaGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 arrives as a breath of fresh cosmic air from writer-director James Gunn, inarguably the most talented filmmaker working in the superhero business today.

Big-hearted in its emotions, imaginative in its world-building, sly in its comedic beats and almost completely untethered to the grinding gears of the larger MCU continuity machine, this new entry in the GOTG series single-handedly rescues the reputation of a mega-franchise whose wear and tear is increasingly hard to ignore. Conceived and executed like it’s a real-deal movie and not an algorithmically programmed piece of intellectual property, Gunn’s film features a story whose narrative beats dovetail with its characters’ development, a visual sensibility that is singular in its disparate and estimable influences, a killer soundtrack, and an overall commitment to wringing the best elements of comic-book craziness into a cinematic ride that is transfixing, transporting.

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Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.Marvel Studios/Courtesy of Marvel Studios

At least for its first hour and a half.

Because at around the hundred-minute mark, everything in Gunn’s perfect little cinematic galaxy falls apart in a magnificently depressing fashion. It is as if the MCU higher-ups got wind of what was going down and quickly engineered a black hole of studio notes to suck the Guardians into a tesseract of meaningless set pieces and prolonged B-plot detours. The result is a beautifully frustrating mess of a capstone to Gunn’s Marvel career, a love letter mistakenly employed as a scrap of toilet paper.

In the beginning, Gunn creates his own weirdo space heaven. It is a few years after the events of Avengers: Endgame, and our ragtag group of heroes is trying to recover from the events of that film, in which they lost one of their own, the green-skinned warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana), to the mad titan Thanos. Guardians leader Peter (Chris Pratt) is a drunken mess, strong guy Drax (Dave Bautista) seems without purpose, cyborg assassin Nebula (Karen Gillan) looks ready to murder anyone who crosses her way, Rocket (that would be the talking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) is so bummed that he’s listening to Radiohead’s Creep on repeat, and monosyllabic tree-man Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is, well, you know … he’s still Groot.

But then a mysterious figure from Rocket’s tortuous past blasts back into his life, threatening to upend not only the Guardians’ lives but the existence of the entire universe. So off the team goes to save everyone, including themselves. (Oh, and for those with strong MCU memories, it turns out that Gamora isn’t actually dead … well, no, she is. But a different version of her from an alternate timeline is kicking around now.)

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Will Poulter, left, as Adam Warlock and Elizabeth Debicki as Ayesha in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.Jessica Miglio/Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Listen, it is all mostly, extremely silly superhero stuff. The heroes live on a planet that is the severed head of a gigantic alien god. One character uses a magic arrow that is controlled by whistling. And there are so many wise-cracking animals walking around who carry horrific memories of abuse that the film doubles as an effective PETA ad.

But if you are still reading, then you have at least a minor investment in the shenanigans on offer – and for a good 70 per cent of the film’s runtime, Gunn delivers more than any one filmmaker reasonably should.

While his GOTG series suffered a dip in quality in Vol. 2, the director clearly possesses a huge heart for his characters and their world(s). As har-har funny as Peter, Drax and Rocket can be, they are also the most fleshed-out (branched-out, in Groot’s case) heroes populating the MCU, and Gunn has been careful over the course of three films now to dig as deep as any mega-franchise can into their inner lives.

The combination of Gunn’s history at Z-grade studio Troma and his affinity for turning gross and gooey splatter into remarkably touching dramedy – Vol. 3 is easily the most disgusting of any Marvel effort, in almost as delightfully messed-up a way as his 2021 DC gore-fest The Suicide Squad – gives us a movie that stands apart from the overwhelming sameness of the MCU. Until, well, it doesn’t.

I’m not sure how Gunn was convinced that his new movie should end on a supremely bloated note. But after executing one rather impressive set piece, which in any other movie would act as a final kind of mega-kaboom moment, Gunn keeps piling on more and more pyrotechnic contrivances on top of each other until his galaxy contracts into nothingness.

Beloved heroes become annoyances, impressive villains get sidetracked in favour of secondary bad guys, and Gunn’s signature needle-drops go from fun (Faith No More, Spacehog, the Flaming Lips) to aggravating (an overused Beastie Boys track, a Bruce Springsteen shout-out that is pitched above the film’s station).

Even Bautista, who seems to be having the time of his life as Drax, appears worn down by the time that his lunkhead hero is asked, yet again, to jump from one spectacle to the next. (Given that they weren’t required to actually be on-set, Cooper’s and Diesel’s vocal energies at least never lag.)

Perhaps it is just hard to say goodbye. Vol. 3 is being billed as the final GOTG go-round, after all, with Gunn leaving Disney’s MCU to sit on the creative throne of the rival DC kingdom for Warner Bros. (he’s already got a new Superman movie in development). But what starts off as a warm group hug for the Guardians ends up being a chokehold. In other words: I am Groot … ly disappointed.


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