There’s a sense of an ending in part three of the Guardians trilogy, but not in the sense of the franchise actually, you know, coming to an end. Like almost all Marvel movies these days, it presents a continuum, giving all the main players an out while leaving the door wide open to a fourth iteration should they have a change of heart. From the evidence here, that’s entirely possible — there’s no sign of burnout in the adventures of Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord and co. However, there are signs of wear and tear in the conventions of the series: once its most refreshing aspect, the mixtape soundtrack seems more of a burden now, having long abandoned the conceit of the original C90.
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The kick-off this time is an acoustic version of Radiohead’s “Creep”, which serves as a motif for Rocket Raccoon, whose backstory is the crux of Vol.3. Though he refuses to discuss his ordeal with his friends, Rocket lives with traumatic memories of the scientists who experimented on him as a child. The Guardians are now living quietly on (or is it in?) Knowhere, a giant disjointed skull floating silently in space, and, as ever, it’s a moot point as what the quotidian life of a galaxy guardian really involves. Nevertheless, this momentary peace is shattered by the arrival of Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a highly evolved entity with superhuman strength, who appears out of the blue, duffs everyone up, and disappears just as quickly, leaving Rocket at death’s door.
Attempts to revive Rocket, however, quickly hit a seemingly insurmountable obstacle: there is a trip switch in his brain, installed by the scientists who created Rocket, that will kill him if they try to operate on him. With just 48 hours until Rocket’s heart gives out, Peter Quill’s team must infiltrate the lair of The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), who lives in a fantastically fleshy planet-cum-spaceship known as The Orgoscope. What they don’t know is that The High Evolutionary wants them to come; one of the first of his mutant creations, Rocket has a fierce, natural intelligence that has fascinated him ever since. So while the Guardians search for Rocket’s medical records, The High Evolutionary dreams of liberating Rocket’s brain from his head for research purposes.
After a messy start, giving Poulter a surprisingly brisk entrance that culminates in the usual biff-bang-pow, Vol. 3 snaps into focus with the introduction of The High Evolutionary, played by Iwuji as a camp mixture of RoboCop and Skeletor from Masters of the Universe. Typical Marvel villains are usually in pursuit of some kind of tedious whatchamacallit that changes hands between interminable fight scenes. Vol.3, however, sets up an enjoyable standalone story with an interesting twist: a Dr. Moreau who has populated whole worlds rather than just the one island, The High Evolutionary is a maniac on a mission. “I’m not trying to destroy the universe,” he says, “I’m perfecting it.”
For anyone unfussed by the minutiae of the Marvel Multiverse, returning director James Gunn is surprisingly cavalier — in a good way — about backstory, not only in terms of the first two GotG movies but in the wider world of The Avengers, too. How Quill and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), once lovers, came to be estranged is covered with a witty scene inside an elevator, and references to Thanos are scarce. This absence of clutter allows the cast to shine, notably Dave Bautista — who’s really on a tear right now in the wake of Glass Onion — as the funny, charming and only mildly psychopathic Drax the Destroyer. Newcomer Poulter, on the other hand, is sorely underused, and his presence in certain scenes seems strangely superfluous at times. Not quite as superfluous as Sylvester Stallone, however, whose return at the end seems to serve more as a reminder that you hadn’t imagined his insanely brief cameo in the first place.
Every new Marvel comes with the announcement that the film is somehow “a risk”, but for once that might actually be true of Vol.3. In focusing on Bradley Cooper’s Rocket, Gunn not only puts a lot of faith in his animators, he doesn’t flinch from the realities of vivisection. Rocket’s friends Lila, Floor and Teefs — an otter, a rabbit and a walrus respectively — have been horribly mutilated, a sight that’s at odds with the overall feelgood nature of the film and will probably not sit well with younger viewers. But, for once, this is an origins story that not only advances the narrative but introduces some thoughtful ideas about mortality and the ethics of genetic engineering.
Unfortunately, everyone’s having so much fun, Gunn’s film doesn’t quite know where to end, drawing out the obvious climax forever and then hovering around in a kind of existential limbo while characters um and ah about saying their goodbyes until the curtain comes down. Even after that there are two more post-credit stings, both fairly cryptic (in very different ways) and both pointing to a future in which GotG will still very much be a thing, if not exactly the same thing we’ve seen up till now. Which is just as well, since every franchise needs a freshen-up every now and then, but die-hard fans will find that this news is broken to them gently in a largely breezy comedy that perfectly counterpoints the po-faced intrigues of the Dune saga while delivering — especially in IMAX — a similarly high level of visual expertise and mastery.
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