Watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, I slouched in my seat, looking upward at the screen, wondering whether reality hadn’t played a trick on me. Had I regressed into an alternate reality that resembled a slightly demented version of Saturday morning TV?
As the characters in Vol. 3 appeared, I felt as if I were being reintroduced to a tired crew that needed a plot — or something resembling a plot — to jolt it back to life.
Director James Gunn finds one — or more accurately several.
Gunn stitches a movie together from a variety of story threads, a principal one revolving around the need to battle a fiendish villain called The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji).
An intergalactic criminal, The High Evolutionary wants to give the various creatures he cruelly imprisons genetic upgrades. He tries to create an environment in which perfect beings can live perfectly.
Of course, he’s the one who gets to define perfection, a power that turns him into a genocidal maniac. He tends to wipe out populations he regards as "mistakes."
The screenplay, also by Gunn, ties the main battle into an origins story for Rocket (Bradley Cooper), the wise-cracking badger who keeps reminding everyone that he's not a raccoon.
Gravely wounded in an early-picture raid on Knowhere, the sadly depleted Guardian headquarters, Rocket spends most of the movie in a coma while Pratt’s Peter Quill races through episodes built around the search for a device that can save his friend.
Time to wave a Guardians thematic flag: The Guardians may be disorganized and even dissolute but friendship still means something.
Quill also pines for his girlfriend, Zoe Saldana's Gamora, who reappears but not as the green-skinned beauty of Quill's memory. She looks the same but her personality has been altered. I leave it to series aficionados to explain how this happened.*
Despite his leadership role, Quinn doesn’t dominate the movie; he’s one more cog in the many-spoked Guardian wheel.
Other familiar characters turn up, notably Vin Diesel's Groot, who wears out a joke in which he repeatedly announces, "I am Groot." Pom Klementieff reprises her role as Mantis, the sweet Guardian with antennae springing from her forehead.
New characters include Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a warrior who flies through action sequences like a guided missile.
A surfeit of characters fosters confusion, but, hey, simplicity never has been a Marvel virtue.
At times, Guardians functions as a parade of creatures -- Cosmo, the Talking Dog included -- that are spun from the narrative, sort of in the way Marvel spawns movie after movie from its own DNA.
Watch for bulbous creatures with teeth who, at one point, reconsider their destructive nature.
Gunn summons the movie’s better angels whenever he can. One such moment finds expression in a conflict between lovable strong man Drax (Dave Bautista) and Nebula (Karen Gillan).
Does Drax's capacity for empathy outrank Nebula's warrior intelligence? Take a guess.
Despite splashes of profanity, a PG-13 rating, and a fair measure of destruction, Vol. 3 seems intent on taking a sentimental journey that synchs with the idea that some of these characters are taking their leave.
At two hours and 29 minutes, Guardians can be accused of bloat. But Rocket’s origin story settles the movie down, building toward what many will regard as an emotionally satisfying conclusion.
So to get back to the Saturday morning TV experience of it all; I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I wasn't sometimes tempted to change the channel, but I felt a jolt of mood improvement as the movie worked its way toward a feel-good finale that helps conquer resistance.
I guess this could be described as the third-act redemption that makes Guardians 3 tolerable.
*Sure enough, one such aficionado provided an explanation:
"Gamora was killed by Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War and brought back to life in Avengers: Endgame in the form of an alternate universe version of herself who has no memory of their relationship."
As for me, I've always found it a bit of a burden to try to keep track of all the connections among characters in the MCU movies.
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