You can see why people instantly warmed up to Guardians of the Galaxy, ever since that first Chris Pratt bop-shuffle to Redbone’s Come and Get Your Love on an alien planet in the first outing in 2008. GOTG is an oddball sideshow within the MCU, an opportunity to fire up the pop machine, let loose with the imagination and unsheathe the wisecracks, letting them fly left in right in a candy-colored spacescape.
But also, fans came to embrace these characters—Peter Quill (Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Groot (Vin Diesel). There’s something in the mix that appeals to fans of the Marvel comics as well as an onscreen chemistry that has survived some bumpy roads, up through this third outing. (Not to get into the weeds, but longtime director James Gunn was fired from Vol. 3 over some past sketchy tweets, and then rehired, which, for whatever ricocheting reasons, lends this finale continuity of style.)
So now we’ve seemingly hit the final song on the double-sided chromium mixtape, and Marvel is wrapping up the Guardians’ journey together. Manila audiences, naturally, were stoked to strap in again (at a worldwide preview screening at SM Megamall IMAX held by Globe), a journey that started with a downstairs party inside a mini “Milano” vessel with a DJ and special themed cocktails (the “Grootjito” was refreshing).
Gunn serves up a pop opera (if not a rock opera) that’s hard to dismiss, because, like Willy Wonka’s candy-colored world, it’s a place of “pure imagination.”
Is it the ragtag status of the Guardians gang that makes them stand apart from, say, the Avengers? Is it that we prefer a bunch of space cowboys who will simply bash the side of the ship console if it doesn’t start up right away—the way Han Solo or Chewbacca would in The Empire Strikes Back? Is it because they embody the messiness of life, including friendships with all their ups and downs?
Maybe that’s part of the appeal. But as always, Gunn serves up this emotional mix within a universe that’s constructed of pop-minded space taffy. Anything goes. The Guardians head into the vast ship of the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) to recover a certain MacGuffin key, and the ship interior is constructed of human-like tissue and organs, like we’ve wandered into the 1966 sci-fi movie Fantastic Voyage. It’s all a big Gaudí goo: a visually popping space for our heroes to romp around inside, like a human bouncy tent.
Constantly, the screen is filled with rat-a-tat gag lines, and we are already used to this dynamic, though certain things have changed. Gamora —killed off in Avengers: Infinity Wars—now exists as a time-traveled alt-Gamora who doesn’t know she’s had so many previous adventures with Quill and the gang; Quill amusingly tries to invite her to come and get her love, but she’s not having it. Elsewhere, Mantis has fun making every bulky obstacle to their mission fall in love instantly with Drax (later we learn Drax actually has feelings, which is a whole thing). And Groot is no longer a twig or sapling but a gun-toting Rambo-like warrior. (Speaking of Rambo, Sylvester Stallone shows up briefly as head of the Ravagers, Stakar Ogord.)
But the most important difference is Rocket, now being held prisoner by the High Evolutionary and his boss, High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki). He apparently has a backstory (we always suspected as much), and Bradley Cooper’s cracking-wise mouth is kept in check throughout as we learn some tear-wrenching things about how he came to become “Rocket.” It’s a rescue mission from the opening moment on Nowhere, the Guardians’ home planet, and things can only hurtle in one direction for two and a half hours, though with frequent side trips and pit stops.
Some fans have complained that, in the MCU, if no one truly ever dies, there’s no real emotional investment. So where’s the tragedy? What are the stakes? Is it all a big ball of cotton candy?
Well, no, not if fans have grown deeply attached to these characters, as motley as they are. We can perhaps fault the Guardians franchise for setting Marvel movies in vast, imaginary, magenta-colored spaces that can seem as empty and conceptual as a Horsehead Nebula, like the one Paul Rudd and company hung around in during Ant-Man: Quantumania. Lots of CGI working overtime, but not much beyond the surrounding visual detritus. And sometimes the emotional bonds of GOTG can feel forced, especially when characters keep repeating the words “friends” and “friendship” over and over again, as though it’s today’s word on Sesame Street.
But with this final installment, Gunn serves up a pop opera (if not a rock opera) that’s hard to dismiss, because, like Willy Wonka’s candy-colored world, it’s a place of “pure imagination.” (The hyper-pop universe of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element seems like an inspiration.) GOTG has always walked a tightrope between anarchy and formula, and the Guardians, ever the misfits, were able to pull off some sense of surprise, at least (and in this installment, a bit more emotional heft). That anarchic spirit is something that, at this stage of the game, might still be needed to save Marvel movies from lapsing into pure formula.