James Gunn | 2hr 29min
There is a sharp irreverence baked into the Guardians of the Galaxy series which goes beyond tension-diffusing quips thrown together in a writer’s room, or facile jabs at a super villain’s ridiculous comic book name – though no doubt it has featured its own fair share of both in the past. James Gunn’s greatest strengths are as a director of weirdos and misfits, often allowing him an escape from the typical studio trappings of restricted artistic control. His great success with The Suicide Squad in 2021 has rocketed him right to the top of the DC Films hierarchy just as his time with Marvel Studios is coming to an end, though with a farewell as playfully spectacular as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, there may be some concerns as to whether this move into producing might hold him back from a more hands-on approach. He might not be the next Terry Gilliam or Steven Spielberg, but his cartoonish eccentricity and creative reign over blockbusters certainly puts him in the lineage of both, injecting mainstream movie culture with his own colourful sense of humour.
What one might not be so prepared for when entering the most recent instalment of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise is just how painfully brutal it is, introducing a new group of ragtag oddballs in tragic counterpoint to Peter Quill’s team. While they set off on a mission to save a wounded Rocket, his comatose mind is reliving his past as an animal experiment. Gunn, being a self-proclaimed fan of the 1932 horror film Island of Lost Souls, wears his influences very clearly on his sleeve. The High Evolutionary is the Doctor Moreau of this story, cruelly mutating lower life forms into bizarre humanoid figures, and essentially positioning himself as their God. Lylla, Teefs, and Floor are the disformed mutants produced in the rejected Batch 89 alongside Rocket, whose extraordinary intellect makes him a reluctant accomplice to the High Evolutionary in his mad experiments.
These flashback sequences mark some of the most visceral scenes of Volume 3, turning Rocket into as sympathetic a character as a CGI raccoon can get. If there was ever a song to underscore his own self-loathing and trauma, then Gunn does well in expressing it through Radiohead’s acoustic version of ‘Creep’, accompanying him through a series of tracking shots in the film’s opening as he saunters through the team’s headquarters.
On an even broader level, Gunn’s development of his entire ensemble also deserves recognition. With an alcoholic Quill grieving the loss of Gamora, Drax getting in touch with his paternal instincts, Nebula completing her redemption arc, and Mantis finding new companions in a trio of unseemly monstrosities, only Groot is really left with little growth of his own in this film. Still, where each are left by the end of Volume 3 is perfectly fitting, lining up with the most gratifying needle drop of the series since ‘Come and Get Your Love’ and earning the shift from late twentieth century music into the 2000s.
More than just a talented writer of quirky outsiders, Gunn backs up his characters with a peculiar cinematic style that has always been well established in the Guardians of the Galaxy series, yet still competes with fellow Marvel directors Ryan Coogler and Taika Waititi in terms of pure visual audacity. Perhaps the trademark slow-motion walk is a bit played out at this point, but the production design during the extended heist scene within the Orgosphere, the biotic headquarters of the High Evolutionary’s nefarious operations, is quite easily a stylistic highpoint of the film. As Quill and his gang descend in a technicolour assortment of spacesuits and explore its fleshy interiors, Gunn lets loose with a string of amusingly bizarre set pieces, turning everything from the staff uniforms to the vibrant architecture into warped, Cronenberg-adjacent visions of whimsical body horror. It is hard not to wonder what Gunn might be capable of should he craft an entire film around such daring aesthetics.
As it is, there is still a lot in Volume 3 which expands it to a bloated two-and-a-half hour run time, including the introduction of the largely functionless Adam Warlock. This has less to do with Will Poulter’s amusingly airheaded spin on the comic book character, and more to do with his relative disconnection from the narrative. That said, Gunn still finds ripe opportunities to centre him in visual gags, paying homage to Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’ in one scene that clearly parallels Noah’s Ark, and later awkwardly hanging him on the edges of a group hug. For all its flaws, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 rarely lets its humour get in the way of its character drama, and vice versa. As far as storytelling in the Marvel Cinematic Universe goes, this fine tonal balance and stylistic playfulness makes it a terrific send-off to the franchise’s most colourfully eccentric series.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is currently playing in theatres.