In a shocking shift of tone, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOLUME 3, the threequel to one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most comedic franchises, exits the stage leaving an utterly nasty taste in one’s mouth. What was previously a rollicking, broadly caricatured, and kid-friendly superhero series completes its trilogy with an overwrought epic stuffed with neck-breaking violence, a vicious, one-note villain, and so much animal cruelty, it felt like a sucker punch. It’s not fun, it’s unseemly.
The MCU has a major problem on their hands these days and it’s not just the PR nightmare that the actor playing their big bad in the fifth wave of films and TV shows has become. It’s a tonality issue coursing through their output – increasingly dark and disturbing, turning off audiences and driving down Disney revenue alike. The unnecessarily bleak ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA was one of the worst-reviewed MCU films ever with a 48% Rotten Tomatoes score and its ticket sales reflected audience distaste by plummeting 69% in its second weekend. The MCU’s series streaming on Disney Plus have also struggled to help add new subscribers, perhaps because they come off as too dense with dark themes. All of this displeasure has spurred MCU president Kevin Feige to cut back on the company’s streaming efforts, as well as retool numerous film sequels in the pipeline. This film certainly feels stuck in such malaise, making for an uncomfortable sit almost from the start of its 150-minute run time.
After the high-water mark of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and AVENGERS: END GAME, the Guardians had their work cut out for them. How would they top such greatness in their upcoming film? It seemed encouraging that the egotistical Thor (Chris Hemsworth) was set up to join the crew of insecure Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) for a hilarious adventure, but that idea petered out at the beginning of the Thor sequel LOVE & THUNDER. But rather than aim for something just as funny as Thor’s inclusion seemed to promise, writer/director James Gunn zagged towards something darker and far less funny instead.
What Gunn has given us here is teeming with negativity right from the start. A seething Gamora (Zoe Saldana), back from the dead, doesn’t remember her past including being Quill’s paramour, and spends most of the film in a bitter state. Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is suffering from flashbacks to his fraught beginnings when he was picked out of a litter and became a victim of horrendous animal experimentation by a megalomaniac scientist giving Joseph Mengele a run for his money. Meanwhile, back on Quill’s ship, Drax (Dave Bautista), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) spend most of their time carping at each other, albeit not in the snarkily fun way they generally do. Most of their dialogue is pretty pissy without much wit to it. Even Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) isn’t much fun this outing, not only failing to get the usual amount of laughs he has in the past, but he’s strangely looking too human here and far less like the tree he resembled in the other films.
It all makes for a gloomy start, but things get grimmer almost immediately when an attempt is made to kidnap Rocket resulting in the beloved character getting injured and waylaid in a coma. The culprit is a new baddie named Adam Warlock (Will Pouter), an artificial being created by the Sovereign, seen in the second film. He’s working on behalf of this outing’s primary villain known as the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), the irredeemable prick responsible for turning Rocket into an animal/machine hybrid years earlier. The Evolutionary’s scheme this time out is to reuse Rocket’s brilliant brain to continue his quest to create more hybrid species. The Evolutionary lives up to his name by trying to splice creatures with machines to make them greater workers doing his bidding. And the more we see of his world, the more ghastly the film becomes.
In a series of extended flashbacks, we’re subjected to witnessing the repeated torture and body modification of Rocket and a number of other trapped animals. He and three lovable creatures are stuck in cages, having been turned into fuzzy Frankensteins. They are Lylla (voiced by Linda Cardellini), a female otter given mechanical arms; Teefs (voiced by Asim Chaudrey), a Walrus whose amputated legs have been replaced by wheels; and Floor the Rabbit (Mikaela Hoover) who sports multiple mechanical legs that give her the appearance of a spider. They all bond together and what little warmth is found in this sequel comes through in those scenes. Still, such moments are still very hard to stomach because of their inherent abuse themes. Perhaps, Gunn is trying to make a scathing commentary about our society’s cruelty to animals. If that’s the case, he has succeeded, but watching such lovable characters suffer makes for 2.5 hours that are far too harrowing to be billed as a comedy/adventure.
The High Evolutionary also tortures a brood of children he’s enslaved, so perhaps Gunn is making a commentary about child trafficking as well, but again, is that right for this franchise? Unfortunately, the villain is a complete downer, devoid of any wit, overplayed in every scene, and acting wholly vicious throughout. The creep thinks nothing of trashing entire planets in order to carry out his ‘vision’ of a more perfect world. Indeed, his end game ensures big stakes for our heroes, but it all makes for far too much unpleasantness. I can’t imagine children not squirming in their seats as the scenes of animal and child abuse spool out. I barely could watch.
Thankfully, Gunn injects the proceedings with some superb wit here and there. A number of hearty laughs come from the banter between a Russian space dog name Cosmo (voiced hilariously by Maria Bakalova of BORAT: SUBSEQUENT MOVIE FILM ) and Kraglin Obfonteri (Sean Gunn). That duo is a hoot, but they’re not enough when too many of the other characters are stuck squabbling in unfunny ways. Drax and Mantis bicker so much they could give George and Martha from WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF a run for their money. Combined with all the violence, it makes for a needlessly and ceaselessly morose outing.
Not surprisingly, given all that, even the post-credit sequences aren’t particularly amusing. Maybe it’s a good thing that so many of the cast members, from Bautista to Saldana, have expressed interest in never returning to their characters again. I can’t help but wonder if it might have to do with their shock at the turns this franchise has taken. I’m with them. In such a state, I don’t want to spend any more time with the Guardians either.