There are but a few movies in my life that so deftly balance abject horror and empathetic peril and heart-tugging poignancy that they reduce me to repeated fits of ugly crying: Dancer in the Dark, E.T., Watership Down, and now … Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3?!? I did NOT see that coming.
This latest Marvel installment in the lives of Star-Lord Peter Quill’s merry band of space-faring misfits landed in theatres about a month ago. I’m behind. Hell, I’m only halfway through Ant-Man and Wasp: Quantumania on DVD. (It’s not nearly as compelling.) Nonetheless, I will try mightily to avoid spoiler territory while still warning my animal-loving, humanitarian friends that this damn movie is TRIGGERING. But toward good (I hope) ends. Director James Gunn has somehow fashioned a high-flying summer blockbuster from a timely, haunting cautionary tale against the evils of eugenics and animal experimentation. The man swings BIG and it lands (mostly) in a powerful way.
The film centers chiefly around the beloved miscreant Rocket Raccoon – voiced terrifically again by an unrecognizable Bradley Cooper, giving classic film mobster with heart of gold vibes. We finally learn Rocket’s backstory (although fans of the early 80s Rocket Raccoon mini-series by Bill Mantlo will see that Gunn doesn’t stray far from that source material). Told in flashback as the team races to save Rocket’s life after a random attack by literal golden boy Adam Warlock (a pouty Will Poulter, criminally underutilized given the vast potential of THAT trippy godlike character), we bear witness to Rocket’s deeply disturbing origins. He is a sweet, gentle raccoon cub plucked from his pack by the menacing High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji walking a fine line between outright scenery chewing and method acting tortured madness) and turned into a cyborg killing machine through relentless surgical and emotional abuse and manipulation.
Rocket has an adopted family in the Evolutionary’s HQ – similar cast offs: an otter, a walrus, a bunny … at least I think that last one is a bunny. They love each other, they are kind to each other, and they lift each other up in the most daunting of circumstances. Think the Plague Dogs by way of Frankenstein. Linda Cardellini, per usual, is particularly luminous and warm as the voice of otter Lylla. She offers the film’s central thesis with this line: “There are the hands that made us. And then the hands that guide the hands.” In an era of such ugliness toward all creatures great and small in America, this message of “found family” or “framily” couldn’t be more needed.
When Rocket, still hopeful for a better life, volunteers a scientific insight the Evolutionary has overlooked, Iwuji turns all “no wire hangers” Joan Crawford and things get EVEN uglier. Ain’t that always the way? Sadly, Rocket’s pals bear the brunt of Rocket’s “punishment.” It’s one of the hardest things I’ve witnessed on screen in years. It’s a really tough watch. Be prepared. Is it kid-friendly? Probably not. Is it essential and brave of Gunn and sends a piercing message about how all beings deserve grace and kindness? Darn tootin’. PETA should send screeners of the film to every household in America.
Further note, for those who worry about such things as I do, there is a wonderfully redemptive “button” toward the end of the film, where the menagerie of remaining animals imprisoned by the Evolutionary are all rescued Noah’s Ark style to live the rest of their days in peace and happiness in the Guardians’ Knowhere HQ. I know that’s a spoiler, but it’s the kind of spoiler I like to know going in. So you’re welcome. At the film’s climax, Rocket does get his revenge on the evolutionary but not as you might expect, ultimately delivering the kind of compassion Rocket was never shown. Rocket solemnly intones, “You didn’t want to make things perfect. You just hated the way things are.”
In parallel to the flashbacks to Rocket’s origin, the Guardians are scrambling in real time to find one MacGuffin after another that will save Rocket’s life. It’s all done in epic, manic, classic rock-soundtracked style – per prior films in the series. Gunn ensemble standby Nathan Fillion has great fun as a stoic, slightly dim, very uncollegial security guard, dressed like the Michelin Man … in creamy yellow. The best comic bits are offered by Guardians Drax (Dave Bautista, a lovely goof throughout), Mantis (Pom Klementieff, who does earnest rage better than anyone), and Nebula (Karen Gillan, who arguably has had the best arc of all in the series, never losing her ill-tempered ferocity but layering in beautiful moments of grudging compassion). At one point, Mantis cuts Nebula to the quick when Nebula has been disparaging Drax’s value as a teammate: “He makes us laugh. And he loves us. How is that a liability?” It’s a wonderful time capsule moment, capturing the dynamic authenticity of this great trio.
The film is far too long – I’m not sure what could have been cut, but a 30-minute shorter run time would have made the flick more of a jet-fueled roller coaster. Chris Pratt just seems worn out as Star-Lord at this point. He appears to have one note – one might call it “smugging” (read: smug mugging). It’s fine. It serves the role, but I think he (and we) need a break.
All in all, go for the incredibly deep message around animal autonomy, stick around for the day-glo shenanigans, enjoy your popcorn, and then have a thoughtful conversation at home about the crucial role we all must play in being better caretakers for all living beings. Bambi ain’t got nothing on Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3.