Marvel Studios have had a lean time of it lately, with audiences and critics alike underwhelmed by their offerings, even if they do continue to generate huge profits. From their many properties, only two have continued to hold any allure for me: Spider-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy, mostly by virtue of the fact that neither of them takes itself too seriously.
Of course, since the previous GOTG, a lot of water has gone under the proverbial bridge. Writer/director James Gunn has been cancelled, sacked by Marvel and then installed at DC films, where he’s risen through the ranks like a meteor. He’s finally back at Marvel as a revered guest to helm the third (and allegedly final) instalment of the franchise he created.
But the fact that Volume 3 has a running time of two-and-a-half hours gives me cause for suspicion. Is it going to go all earnest on us? Well, yes and no.
When we hook up with The Guardians, they are struggling to get on with their everyday lives in a place called Knowhere – a quirky new colony they’ve set up. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is mourning the death of Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who Marvel fans will remember was one of the many characters snapped out of existence by Thanos in Avengers: Endgame. A version of her still exists, mind you, but she has no memory of her previous life and is now a Ravager under the command of Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone, who appears to be cruising through his role on autopilot). Gamora has no memory of the fact that she and Quill were once lovers, which is… awkward to say the least.
Volume 3 devotes a large part of its running time to an origin story for the team’s most enigmatic member, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and for me – against all expectations – these are the scenes that have the most impact, effectively adding heartbreak to a story that previously relied more on its comedy chops. There’s still plenty of the latter in evidence, especially in the bickering between Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and the endearingly dim-witted Drax (Dave Bautista). Meanwhile, Nebula (Karen Gillan) seems to have beef with just about everybody she encounters, which can get a bit wearing.
But the Guardians’ everyday life is rudely disrupted by the arrival of a remarkably buff Will Poulter as genetically-engineered golden boy, Adam Warlock. He’s been sent by megalomaniac geneticist, The High Evolutionary (Chuckwudi Iwuji) to collect Rocket (with whom The High Ev has an old score to settle). Pretty soon, there’s a major battle going on.
While I appreciate this is a comic book movie and there have to be some large scale punch-ups, I surely can’t be the only viewer who’s getting a little tired of watching spandex-clad characters being repeatedly smashed through brick walls, causing multiple explosions as they go? Sadly there’s an awful lot of that going on, and another issue for me is that, as the story progresses and the Guardians get split up, I’m not always sure where said punch-ups are taking place at any given time. Indeed, there’s so much fighting going on that, even with that portentous running time, the film sometimes feels curiously over-stuffed.
I know I’m fond of using the curate’s egg analogy but it’s never felt more appropriate than it does for Volume 3. Yes, there’s plenty to enjoy here; I won’t argue the point. But there are also some extended action set-pieces that have me wishing for access to a fast-forward button. Maybe it’s just me. Perhaps there are people out there who want more of that and less of anything new. I don’t know. Die hard Guardians fans will probably want to sit through till the bitter end for the by now obligatory post-credit sequences, the first of which is slightly baffling, while the second can only have significance for the kind of people who would choose GOTG as a specialist subject on Mastermind. (I confess I had to Google it. It helps if you’ve seen the Guardians Holiday Special on Disney + – apparently.)
Despite my grumpiness, I like a lot of this – but not quite enough of it to merit a four-star review. And a final caption announcing that ‘The Star-Lord Will Return’ does not exactly fill me with anticipation. Maybe that’s enough Guardians for one lifetime.
3. 8 stars