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'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3' sends off its heroes with a mawkish mixtape

L to R: Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Drax (Dave Bautista), Quill (Chris Pratt) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) go for a walk in <em>Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.</em>
Marvel Studios
L to R: Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Drax (Dave Bautista), Quill (Chris Pratt) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) go for a walk in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.

What, in your mind, is the Marvel Cinematic Universe still missing?

We're neck-deep into Phase 5 now, after all; we've had dozens of movies and streaming series and one-off specials. And while critics can and do bemoan the surface similarities these disparate properties tend to share, the strength of the MCU remains how much variation it manages to offer up in tone, scope, stakes and subject matter. Looking for street-level angst? Cosmic sweep? Paranoid thrillers? Mystic mumbo-jumbo? Sitcom satires? Gods and monsters? Coming-of-age dramas? Subatomic shenanigans? Afro-futurist utopias? Whatever the hell Eternals was supposed to be? The MCU has something for you.

But maybe, after all these years, you find that your own very particular Marvel itch remains somehow unscratched. So I say this to a vanishingly small subset of you: If you've ever found yourself walking out of an Marvel movie and said to yourself, "I liked it. It was fine. But I don't know. I can't help thinking it could have used...just you know a lot more vivisection," then rest assured your tastes have finally been catered to, you sicko freak.

The gang's all here, sort of

But first: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is pitched as a sendoff to the rag-tag gang of misfits first introduced in James Gunn's 2014 Guardians of the Galaxy, who've since cropped up in several corners of the MCU. As a team, they've always leaned more into mercenary violence and bro-ish banter than anything so hopelessly quaint as heroism, though they do tend to wind up saving the day, despite themselves. They've added some new faces to their roster, one of which is technically an old face. (Zoe Saldana here plays an alternate-timeline version of her character Gamora, whom we met back in the first film; long story.)

There's dim but headstrong Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), dim but strong-strong Drax (Dave Bautista), gruff Nebula (Karen Gillan), empathic Mantis (Pom Klementieff), laconic space-Ent Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and tough but fuzzy raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper).

Also along for the ride: Kraglin (Sean Gunn) a space-pirate struggling with performance issues, Cosmo (Maria Bakalova) a telekinetic space-dog, and a brand new antagonist, Will Poulter's Adam Warlock, a genetically-engineered super-being with the mind of a petulant child in the body of an Instagram fitness influencer.

They're all up against a powerful being known as The High Evolutionary, played with gratifyingly over-the-top, scenery-devouring brio by Chukwudi Iwuji.

The High Evolutionary's nefarious plan? To engineer a perfect species to live in a perfect society of his creation. Which, alas, is where All! That! Vivisection!TM comes in.

Doing Moreau with less

Look, if you're trying to come up with a villain for audiences to dutifully, even reflexively hiss, eugenicists are a pretty good place to start; I get that. And if said eugenicist should also happen to go about their evil business by conducting unholy cybernetic experimentations on cute fuzzy animals like Rocket (in flashbacks) and innocent, adorable, wet-eyed toddlers (in the present day)? Sure. Fair enough. Bad guys do bad things, after all. It's in the job description.

The problem at the core of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 isn't the mere depiction of said animal experimentation, which created not only Rocket but a cadre of twee furry cyborg pals we get to (briefly) meet. It's the fact that writer/director James Gunn approaches those scenes without trusting his audience to naturally recoil at the idea of animal cruelty.

There is violent imagery, yes. But what makes those scenes profoundly unpleasant to sit through is not their violence itself, but Gunn's mawkish, maudlin, manipulative approach to it. Using every cinematic tool at his disposal, he so feverishly attempts to crank up the horror of those scenes that he only succeeds in exposing their cynical, plot-driven artifice. And by juxtaposing them with moments in which the experiments' animal subjects spout platitudes about the joy of friendship and their dreams of escape, Gunn's unbearable, ham-handed execution aims for pathos but achieves only bathos, its laughably inept evil twin.

Baby Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), one of the film's subtle, understated appeals to emotion.
/ Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios
Baby Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), one of the film's subtle, understated appeals to emotion.

You can only tug on the audience's heartstrings for so long before they start to snap off in your hands. To watch Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is to watch a filmmaker under the wildly mistaken belief that the best way to get you to absorb what he's saying is by screaming it directly into your ear.

There's more to the film than Rocket's trauma narrative (in those flashbacks, Sean Gunn attempts to personify a younger Rocket by pitching Bradley Cooper's dese-and-dose Brooklyn accent up an octave or two, so we the audience get to experience some trauma ourselves).

Game, cassette and match

The central metaphor of Gunn's Guardians films has been the mixtape. Peter Quill's beloved, long-lost mother made him one filled with classic rock jams that supplied the soundtrack to his life (and to the first Guardians film).

Nowadays, Peter's updated his old cassette with a playlist that provides this third film with a more eclectic collection of needle drops (Beastie Boys, The The, The Replacements, Florence + the Machine).

And like any mixtape/playlist, Guardians Vol. 3 includes some real gems. At one point the team visits a space station that's entirely organic, and the production designers go to town creating doorways like heart valves and airlocks like open wounds. There's an extended slow-motion fight in a corridor featuring digital camerawork that swoops around the characters as they trade punches and kicks and laser blasts in a physics-defying manner. It's visually stunning if viscerally inert, like an extended videogame cutscene.

But some of the other songs in this cinematic mix don't hit as hard as they could. Poulter's Adam Warlock feels shoehorned into the overstuffed proceedings, and while Klementieff's Mantis gets more to do than she ever has, both the character and actor still feel underused.

The Guardians, as a team, have never adopted the usual superhero admonitions against the taking of lives. Even so, a scene in which one of our heroes casually instructs another one of our heroes to "Kill them all," still can't help but rankle.

Barbs and insults get well and truly traded — a Gunn hallmark — and most of them land. Mostly, though, a weirdly somber mood pervades the film. Maybe it's that the scenes of animal abuse linger longer, and cast a deeper pall, than the filmmaker has accounted for. If Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a mixtape, it's the one that your ex sends you after you break up with him, full of syrupy, sentimental tunes meant to reignite any last lingering sparks of feeling you may have once shared. It's "Seasons in the Sun" followed by "Alone Again (Naturally)" followed by "Everybody Hurts" followed by "The Christmas Shoes," and it serves only to remind you how right you were to dump the sappy chump when you did.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.