Filed under: Reviews
When Marvel announced that they hired James Gunn to direct a Guardians of the Galaxy film, my first reaction was "huh?" A Troma director with a problematic social media presence whose biggest claims to fame were 2 films about worms -- one big (Tremors) and one small (Slither) -- and a deconstruction of the superhero genre (Super) starring Rainn Wilson and Elliot Page that has a tentacle scene that can not be erased from the mind. He'd be making a movie about C- to D-list characters in a team that had a revolving door of members going back to Marvel Super-Heroes Issue 18 in 1969 that could be generously described as "problematic".
Now, almost ten years later, an alt-right smear campaign, and one brief firing (against Fiege's wishes) later, Marvel bids farewell to possibly the best member in their roster of creatives. I love Marvel movies, 32 films that have invariably amused me and brought me joy. Black Panther, Captain America: The First Avenger, and the Infinity War Saga were all great, but one weakness in the Marvel canon is their weak second act in their trilogies, and oft times almost missing the landing on their final film. A lot of this comes back to a lack of a vision of an arc to the characters, especially with the earlier films.
For example, with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), we end his trilogy with him giving up the suit, only to be back in the suit 2 years later and yadda yaddaing it away. To be fair, it's a very Tony Stark move, but from a viewer's perspective, it negates all the growth experienced over the three Iron Man films.
But then in 2014, we got Guardians of the Galaxy, the first movie to embrace humour but reject the ripped-from-a-Buffy-script banter. We were given a story that knew the silly in comics wasn't to be rejected or toned down, but if done right it could be leaned into. Drax (Dave Bautista)'s literalism, Quill (Chris Pratt)'s pre-teen mentality of what cool was stuck firmly in 1988, and Rocket and Groot being a cyborg raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper and a talking beefcake tree voiced by Vin Diesel with literally one line. This all came together in a charming mess that also started pulling together the MCU's infinity stones plot into something more than vague references and purple dudes in floating chairs tacked at the end of the film; into a cohesive, universe-spanning threat.
This established a pattern: Guardians of the Galaxy films have consistently created stakes that may at times seem galactic but remained grounded and personal. The films had consequences and the characters grew and changed from film to film. Over the course of 3 films and a surprisingly consequential Christmas Special on Disney+, we saw 2 members of the family die -- one (Groot) to leave behind his progeny and the other (Yondu) to be replaced by his first mate Kraglin (Gunn's brother Sean). This is one of the few Marvel films where people actually died who were on the screen for more than a few minutes, and these deaths had genuine consequences. You see the Guardians all take on a role in raising Baby Groot, you see Kraglin slowly grow into the group, and when James Gunn was told Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) died during his absence from the MCU but an alternate universe version of her now existed, you see Gunn tackle that new relationship.
Gunn's work did what all the best adaptations do; it took the key elements from the source material, the moments and pieces that gave it strength and power, and then created something of his own from it. He used these characters as inspiration, but the story was all his own, drawing on disparate elements to create a story about family, grief, loss, and rebirth.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is the culmination of James Gunn's hard work, where over the course of the series we come to love these characters, even the ones we hate. They all have moments to show their strengths and weaknesses, and their weaknesses are what make them who we love. Even the addition of Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) in all his blazing glory is handled in a way that doesn't take away from the existing protagonists, and deftly transforms him from a problem to a partner. Gunn also knows that a villain needs to connect to the plot in a way with meaning, and weaves the mythology of The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) -- who first appeared in the comics in Thor #134 and tangled with the X-Men -- tying it back to several deep cuts in the Marvel Universe but in a way that simply provides colour without you needing to know anything about these easter eggs.
This is the end of a journey where the creator clearly had a vision of where he wanted to go and how he wanted to get there. Because he knew how to deconstruct a genre, it also meant he knew how to build within that genre and how to stay away from the tropes that make it at times ridiculous. This is how we got a film with a meaningful and personal narrative, truly earned emotional moments, and a feeling of finality, while at the same time moving into an exciting future.
Do yourself a favour and see this film. Don't just see it because after the DC executives see it they must be very excited to see what James is going to do for them and their roster of heroes. See it because it's a well-written emotional film where the entire cast put in an amazing performance that truly elevates the genre.