Reel Thoughts: James Gunn brings DC spin to Marvel in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3”


Illustration by Danny O’Grady

The final film in the “Guardians” trilogy is the last full-group performance from the band of extraterrestrial misfits that first appeared in 2014.

Jacob Wendler, Copy Editor

Warning: This article contains spoilers. 

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is not just the end of the road for Marvel’s favorite band of extraterrestrial misfits. It’s also James Gunn’s goodbye to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The final installment of the trilogy, which hit theaters across the globe Friday, marks Gunn’s send-off from Marvel as he departs to lead DC Studios with producer Peter Safran.

In the threequel, Gunn presents audiences with the jovial banter and ensemble dynamic Marvel is known for while bringing a darker edge that has set DC stories apart in the past.

Lucky for Gunn — and for viewers — Marvel granted him the leeway to imprint his mark on all three “Guardians” entries, and it paid off. Gunn’s beloved troupe of eclectic guardians has avoided the relentless churn of the MCU content machine that has chewed up other franchises like “Ant-Man” and “Thor” and has led to disappointing sequels.

Picking up where the lighthearted “Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” left off, the film establishes a somber tone from the first frame, acknowledging the bittersweet sentiment of the movie for the cast and Marvel fans. The plot is then jump-started by a gilded Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a near-indestructible newcomer to the MCU soon revealed to be the human weapon of the merciless High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji).

As per usual, the guardians traverse bizarre and bewildering worlds such as an uncanny “Counter-Earth” and a flesh-like corporate headquarters to help save their friend, cracking jokes along the way. Rocket’s (Bradley Cooper) dark backstory simultaneously unfolds through flashbacks interspersed throughout the film. 

While Poulter’s performance as a depthless supporting character lands flat, Iwuji gives audiences one of the most compelling antagonists Marvel fans have seen in years. While Jonathan Majors’ “Kang the Conqueror,” set up to be the predominant villain of Marvel’s new phase of content, is needlessly complex in “Loki” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” Iwuji is simple and frightening.

It helps too that the film’s protagonists give some of their best performances yet. Zoe Saldaña brings a new and sharper edge to her portrayal of Gamora, Karen Gillan reliably delivers Nebula’s dry humor and Pom Klementieff gets a well-deserved spotlight as Mantis.

The cast is rounded out with a pleasing guest appearance from Nathan Fillion, who fits seamlessly into the universe Gunn has built and provides some of the strongest punchlines of the film. 

While Cooper’s voice-acting is strong in the flashbacks, Gunn’s heavy-handed approach to Rocket’s origin story — coupled with bumpy and unnatural transitions — impedes the movie’s flow and lends itself more to pity than empathy, a challenge Linda Cardellini’s second MCU character, the sentient otter Lylla, is unable to save. While Gunn’s vision is clear, he ultimately fails to deliver the dark humor Tim Miller achieved in 2016’s “Deadpool.”

While the movie suffers from the same protracted runtime of other recent movies, the film’s primary plot gives the group the send-off it deserves. Thankfully, Gunn resists the temptation to further the broader MCU story arc and allows the guardians to tackle their personal battles without distracting cameos from other Avengers. He also pushes aside the now-tired multiverse trope for a more straightforward battle-centered plot.

With an ending that had many in the theater tearing up, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is able to overcome its rough patches to round out one of Marvel’s strongest franchises. Still to be seen is whether Gunn can achieve the same tactful balance of humor, sentiment and gloom with his new DC Universe.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jacob_wendler

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