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There is no God! That’s why I stepped in!


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3


When it comes to the James Gunn avatar, this isn’t simply a case of maintaining the “business as usual” illusion we’re seeing with other recently-dead directors. Affleck, Spielberg and Tarantino can be dusted off for the odd individual project, but Gunn has been installed as the head of a studio. He is, to whatever eventual end, being used as signage. And signage with specific regard to the superhero genre. Whether that’s to ensure the final nail in its coffin (and so crumble Hollywood to rubble in the process) or to use him as a means to introduce positive messaging remains to be seen. If Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is anything to go by, the effect will be a rather makeshift mix-and-match: not especially satisfying but certainly not disastrous (so in contrast to MCU’s Phase IV and the Phase V opener).

Inevitably, one has to question the shelf life of such endeavours. By which, I mean Clone Gunn being installed as co-CEO of DC Studios. By implication, there’s a framework being implemented, and if Hollywood’s machinations and primary offenders (whether they were Vril’d or otherwise) are not planned as part of the initial round of corruption revelations, one wonders how exactly White Hats intend to keep a lid on that cauldron until they are. Rather difficult, surely, to admit to Dark Forces (or Elite) control and the existence of adrenochrome use without the trickle-down of all the discussion of tribunals and executions in the celebrity sphere – rather than simply the political – moving from “niche” to mainstream. Perhaps that is what is envisaged – if this is how things go – but it doesn’t seem very tidy at first blush.

Regardless, we have Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 Gunn here, still in the tail-end of prior commitments. His last picture, filmed pre-plandemic – so, I presume, pre-Gunn getting the chop – was The Suicide Squad and included a rather twisted allusion to all those “jokes” that got him axed from the third Guardians in the first place. This, obviously, was ironic coming from the Disney Empire of Evil, but they were, after all, required to keep up a bare minimum of appearances. Once the dust had settled and everyone was satisfied – mostly the already partial MCU fanbase – that these were just jokes, and there was nothing at all to be alarmed about, he could come back on board. 

In the meantime, Warner Bros, nursing no such principles, even for public purposes, welcomed him with open arms to direct one of the DCEU’s biggest bombs (which is saying something). And then, later, appointed him to that co-CEO position, where he promptly junked all things Synderverse. This is the DCEU, where a Batgirl movie was permanently shelved (for being superwoke?) and costly B-projects (Black Adam, Shazam 2) have bombed or seriously underperformed. What they expect the less-than-sure-fire Gunn – Guardians aside, and really only the first one at that – to achieve for them is less than apparent. Maybe there’s an AI running everything DC going forward?

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 certainly seems like it’s been programme-approved, so not entirely at variance to either The Fabelmans or Air in that regard (and Tarantino’s going to spend much of his final movie – his actual final movie was Once Upon a Time Hollywood, evidently – recreating scenes from classic and not-so-classic ’70s movies? That sounds about right). It has one really strong idea to it (relating to a main character), one not-bad-but-a-little-undernourished idea (relating to a villain), and lots of frequently entertaining, hit-and-miss, greatest-hits-soundtrack-accompanied – again, hit-and-miss in selections – incidentals that feel pre-prepared, ready to be slotted in at any given juncture to garner the requisite response. The plus side is that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is largely Phase IV/V independent. The minus is that it simply doesn’t feel very necessary.

That feeling’s been present before though. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 failed to build on the first one’s breath of fresh air. This, probably on balance, is superior – in that, where it has strong elements, they’re notably stronger – but it has a similar problem with making anything really resonate (aside from that strong idea relating to a main character). That’s what happens when you go to your record collection in search of a quick emotional fix, rather than try to make it play through story, character and stakes. No, I didn’t need anyone to be killed off to ensure the proceedings packed a punch, but the concluding places the characters end up feel arbitrary at best and stridently under par at worst (the new Guardians line-up is… not great).

So the good, and while it means he isn’t his inimitable wiseacre self for much of the movie, the focus on Rocket Racoon’s backstory lends the picture substance it would otherwise lack. Sure, this is very much in the Wolverine vein of cruel experimentation – and, as noted in the movie, Nebula for that matter; there are no shortage of cruelly experimented-upon superbeings in comic books, because, per MKUltra script, such suffering eventually makes you godlike, superior over all others – but it carries with it the added sting of being inflicted upon poor cute ickle animals. In which regard, there’s also otter Lyla, rabbit with a clamp over its mouth Floor, and walrus Teefs. It’s very much in the vein of Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh and The Plague Dogs, but with added “Awwwww!” factor and contrasting grisliness. Which is, obviously, as effective a way of pushing buttons as an old favourite pop tune set to sparky new, triumphant action.

On the one hand, the background to these experiments smacks somewhat of Thanos-lite. On the other, a villain with actual, bona-fide philosophical motivation, however plain wrong-headed, is more interesting than one who simply wants to blow things up or rule from on high. Plus, the High Evolutionary’s bent actually seems quite pertinent to much of what the superhero genre is all about, beneath the aspirational do-gooding and tight spandex. There’s also that Chukwudi Iwuji’s performance is compelling in the extreme (he’s a better embodied villain by far than he is on paper, such that I struggle to recall an MCU foe who can match him). Mostly, he’s seething and deranged, but the moments where he appears benign and considerate towards little Rocket are also effectively wrong-footing.

After Rocket slices off the High Evolutionary’s face (leaving him looking like a cross between Red Skull and Blake Edmonds of Death Wish), his features are held on in such an overt homage to Robocop that Peter is required to mention it (the line between inspiration and laziness in such instances is a precipitously thin one). Not only is he a transhumanist creation, his creations are transhumanist, while those of Counter Earth summon the unholy imagery of human-animal hybrids from DUMBs: “evolved” pig people and panda people and the like (this is the kind of revelling-in-grotesquery you expect from Gunn).

High Evolutionary: I’m not trying to conquer the universe. I’m perfecting it.

Counter Earth is “where the experiments go will once they are ready”, although Rocket and his ilk aren’t included on this ticket. The High Evolutionary’s remit is, per his name, to transform imperfect biological matter such as Rocket into perfect examples, to “create the perfect species and the perfect society”, “a utopian society”. Obviously, it turns out far from this, an inevitability when demiurgic forces are at work. As Peter notes of “evolved” creatures selling meth: “This is the perfect society? 

The High Evolutionary’s position is that of the classic Luciferian, one of transformation of physical form, onwards to godhood, in the absence of a benign creator (“There is no God! That’s why I stepped in!”) Without an actual divine architect, tampering with an arbitrary universe is fair game, of course. But Rocket assigns less-noble motives to the High Evolutionary, who is focussing on an unresolvable cycle of disappointment and erasure and reset, never destined to get it right: “You didn’t want to make things perfect. You just hated things the way they are”. This might also be ascribed the Luciferian position, particularly when speculating upon a Lucifer from an antimatter universe taking issue with the way matter is and so seeking to corrupt it.

Ultimately, Rocket’s pronouncement seems rather pat, however. But the pat – some might say glib – emotional payoff is something of a Gunn signature. The other thematic point to note here, which seems both cheap in terms of emotional cues but significant with regard to Gunn’s tweet legacy, is the “Save the Children” element of the third act. Typically of the MCU, the last forty minutes – ironically, from the point where revitalised Rocket is back being Rocket again – rather lost me in the melee of special effects piling upon each other, but much of the action revolves around saving genetically-engineered children caged in darkness, in the depths of the lab-cum-spaceship Arête. Factor in that this has been made by Clone Gunn, and that the rallying cry among the Truther movement has been that, above all else, operations have been about the children, and this is surely not coincidental. A whole bunch of animals are saved too, naturally, but then, it’s much easier to elicit audience empathy when endangering animals.

In this iteration of the character, the High Evolutionary is also, indirectly, the creator of Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), since Adam’s the creation of the Sovereigns who are the creation of the High Evolutionary. Warlock is a bit of a bust here, however, given insufficient screen time to develop and coming across as a blethering idiot when he is in the spotlight (Poulter does open-mouth puzzled by way of sucking a lemon quite naturally). If you didn’t know he was one of Marvel Comics’ most enduring characters, you’d be none the wiser; he ends up joining the new version of the Guardians at the end, but that’s about the only cue (mind you, so does Gunn’s brother). Elizabeth Debicki is back as Sovereign High Priestess Ayesha; her gold look makes her resemble nothing so much as the lovechild of Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston. 

Most of the rest of the Guardians are dealt with in perfunctory fashion. Peter is moping over alt-Gamora having no interest in him and, for no other reason than Mantis telling him to (via Drax), decides to take some time out “to learn how to swim”. So he leaves the Guardians to visit his grandpops. His subplot is grafted on in the least integral manner conceivable (look: a photo of grandad; look: a conversation with Drax). Naturally, grandad (Gregg Henry) is up-to-speed with Disney representational quotients, surprising Peter with his mixed-race relationship (with Karen Abercrombie). 

Drax isn’t Drax the Destroyer but Drax the Dad, as he and Nebula decided to look after the genetically-engineered kids. I mean, okay. Sure. That makes sense. Could see that one coming. Gamora, whose alt-version seemed to be positioned as antagonist towards Peter solely as a means to distinguish her from dead Gamora, consolidates her position with Sly and the Ravagers, while Rocket and Groot lead a sorry collection of new Guardians. Ho hum. Worth noting that a selection of the cast are on deceased lists or suggested to have gone that way (Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Sly Stallone). 

The picture’s a long one, but I didn’t find it especially dragging, certainly less so than other comparably long recent movies (which is, most big-studio releases). There’s a very goofy sequence at Orgocorp, a grown institute that looks like something out of a Luc Besson bad acid trip; Nathan Fillion shows up as one of the guards, bemoaning stupid underlings; most of the gags here are recognisable ones, riffing on established dumb, hubristic, sarcastic, literal or unfeeling characteristics etc, so the sort of thing familiar from any comedy franchise that is inevitably becoming a bit overfamiliar by the third go-around (while that’s bread-and-butter for the sitcom, the demands of the comedy movie are somewhat more refined, which is why there are so few that have mustered any mileage beyond a sequel most realised they didn’t need, even if it made more money than the first one).

Rocket: So that’s it? The group’s over.

I can’t say I thought much of the soundtrack this time out, too much of it comprising uninspired, obvious and overused tracks that failed to make the most of the accompanying sequences (these including Radiohead’s Creep, The Flaming Lips’ Do You Realize? Faith No More’s We Care a Lot and The Beastie Boys’ No Sleep Till Brooklyn). I guess, having left things the way they have, there’s always room to get the old team back together. But let’s face it, the MCU is on its last legs. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 has likely done the relatively brisk business it has – if failing to improve incrementally upon its previous instalments – because it is mostly unsullied by the blight of current Disney progressive imprimaturs. Which is why the series as a whole may never make it Phase VI.

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