James Gunn has always been there to break the monotony of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When things were getting too safe and too bland back in Phase Two, he came up with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which featured seemingly unlikable characters learning about each other amidst a raging space opera. With the exception of “Avengers: Infinity War,” Phase 3 was filled with washed-out visuals and nostalgia-bait moments. That’s when Gunn delivered “GoTG 2,” which had colorful visuals, kinetic camera movement, and daddy issues. As Marvel started its downhill slide, qualitatively speaking, throughout Phases 4 and 5, he gave us the immensely enjoyable and festive “The Holiday Special.” Now that the MCU has reached complete creative bankruptcy, Gunn has been gracious enough to take us on an emotionally riveting journey with “GOTG 3.” And this brings us to the question in the title: could Marvel’s content have been this good all this time?
In an ideal world, yes, Marvel movies and shows could’ve been as good as James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” series. But the reason why it isn’t is three-fold: Marvel studios, the audiences, and the critics. Kevin Feige is rightfully hailed for making the most profitable franchise in the history of cinema and for creating an interconnected universe because it was never done before this successfully. But when did interconnectivity and profitability become excuses for poor storytelling?
I’m sure that if writer-director James Gunn had lazily taken the titular group on yet another galaxy-saving or planet-saving mission, the allure of the Marvel brand and the promise of gigantic action set pieces would’ve attracted people to the theaters anyway. Yes, “GoTG 3” has big action set pieces. Yes, “GoTG 3” is about saving unknown places and people. However, he chooses to narrow down the stakes to just one individual, Rocket Raccoon, thereby infusing the narrative with a sense of urgency and fear. That’s the kind of fear that feels personal, even if you’ve never seen a single “Guardians” movie. The uniqueness of this one narrative is what movies are about! What’s the fun in doing lord-knows-how-many movies and shows worth of homework to feel an iota of emotion?
Then there’s the point-and-scream aspect of Marvel’s content (and I’m calling it “content” because that’s what the great Kevin Feige has turned movies and shows into). As a fan of entertainment, I do want to go to the theater and experience the magic of cinema. I want to be pandered to. But things have become so bad that “fan service” is close to being considered an abusive term. That is the case because Marvel thinks placing a famous character or an actor (in a cameo) in front of the camera is more than enough.
Do you remember Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker making an emphatic return as Spider-Man in “Spider-Man 2” after hanging up his boots in the same movie? Tobey Maguire’s return to the iconic role after 14 years (double digits!) in “Spider-Man: No Way Home” was just him walking through a portal, while the movie came to a halt so that the audience would applaud as if we were watching an S.N.L. skit on our televisions. Do you remember all the stunts he did in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy? In “No Way Home,” he’s a digital double jumping around like a rubber toy across the worst CGI environments imaginable, which is something you can say for every Marvel property post-Endgame.” Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy 3” has cameos and tons of action, but it’s mostly devoid of the Marvel-isms.
The movie never pauses for laughter or applause because it’s a movie and not a sitcom. Gunn probably knows that a movie shouldn’t be structured with audience expectations in mind. Every element should be in service of the story, the plot, and the vibes. If a filmmaker does a good enough job of doing that, the audience is going to celebrate it anyway. So, regardless of whether it’s Sylvester Stallone, Cosmo, Daniela Melchior, or Kraglin that’s on the screen, there’s a forward momentum to the whole thing. With the help of cinematographer Henry Braham, Gunn manages to make the most normal conversation scenes, along with the action-heavy set-pieces, seem larger-than-life. Therefore, when editors Fred Raskin and Greg D’Auria choose to go into slow-motion to accentuate a certain moment in a fight or linger on a character’s face for a second longer than it “technically” needs to, it feels like the movie has earned it. Gunn even turns something as cliche as revealing the origin of a character’s name into one of the film’s high points. That’s how sincere his storytelling is.
Everything from the VFX to the CGI, the production design, the set designs, the costume design, the practical effects, and the makeup look impeccable. And it’s kind of mind-blowing because Gunn and his team have done that while Marvel is on the hot seat for underpaying and exploiting every department in existence for no reason. The studio has the money. They have the resources. They have the talent. But only Gunn gets to flex his artistic expression, while everyone else who is hired to broaden and diversify the franchise is forced to be a yes-man? Since a W.G.A. strike has recently brought things to a standstill, I think this is the perfect opportunity for the industry to discuss the kind of privilege White male directors enjoy, thereby allowing them to be at the top of the game and furthering the agenda that White male directors are the best at making movies (or shows).
Talking about having a conversation, every time a Marvel film (or show) releases, audiences, and critics restart the loop where one blames the other for not understanding the film or looking into it too much. But the truth of the matter is that both parties are wrong. Audiences are wrong to think that critics famously hate Marvel because, with the exception of “Eternals” and “Quantumania,” all of these movies have been rated positively. Critics are wrong for writing massive think pieces about how everything coming out of Marvel Studios is a soul-stirring masterpiece about grief and trauma because if everything is a masterpiece, then nothing is a masterpiece.
I get it. Some of you want to secure your spot at the premiere of the next Marvel “event,” while the rest of you want to feel like the enormous amount of money that you’ve paid for a single ticket was worth it. However, if that process involves convincing yourself again and again that what you’ve just experienced is, in fact, “cinema,” then you’re basically partaking in unpaid labor. When you make sweeping statements like “Cassie Lang getting arrested for stopping an anti-homeless drive is so relevant,” even though the movie does nothing with it, what are you really doing? What are you really saying when you counter criticisms of poorly constructed Marvel properties like “Hawkeye,” “Moon Knight,” or “She-Hulk” by saying, “Everything doesn’t need to be high art to be enjoyable”? This is the biggest entertainment studio we are talking about! We shouldn’t be making excuses on their behalf!
When I say that there’s no difference between a frame or an emotional note from “No Way Home” (which earned a billion dollars) and “She-Hulk,” I’m not saying that Marvel TV is as good as Marvel movies. I’m saying that they’re interchangeable and, hence, unwatchable. “Guardians of the Galaxy 3” is meant for the big screen. From start to finish, you cannot look away. Yes, the pacing gets sluggish in the middle, the Knowhere invasion looks too cookie-cutter, and Adam Warlock spends a lot of the runtime fluffing about and then stealing a moment that should’ve belonged to Gamora. But apart from that, everything is bubbling with passion and heart.
It never seems like Gunn is taking anything for granted, and it’s most evident in the performances. Chris Pratt gives it his all, and you can clearly see him doing a lot of the action as well. Karen Gillan and Zoe Saldaña have always been the best parts of this series, and they re-establish that fact for the umpteenth time. Dave Bautista and Pom Klementieff are so adorable and innocent that I genuinely wanted to hug them. I wanted to punch Chukwudi Iwuji in the face while appreciating the hell out of his Shakespearean performance. And what can I say about the work done by Bradley Cooper and Rocket’s animators that hasn’t been said already?
The main point is that these ingredients allow me to organically look deeper into the film. Nobody has to take the mic and announce that it’s all about trauma to make me cry. The visuals, the music, and the performance come together to elicit that reaction out of me. Due to my amazing viewing experience, I can sit back and draw parallels between the Guardians fighting for Rocket with The High Evolutionary and the war waging on between artists over A.I. You know, because The High Evolutionary wants his creations to “invent” instead of repeating their pre-programmed thoughts, which is exactly what A.I. does when it comes to making “art.” I can analyze Nebula, Mantis, and Drax’s conversation about being too critical and being too stupid as a commentary on this whole audience vs. critics debate and appreciate how Gunn highlights the importance of constructive criticism via Mantis and demeans pessimism and dumb optimism. I want to listen to all the songs in the film on a loop. I want to watch “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “Event Horizon,” “Island of Lost Souls,” or anything with an irredeemable mad scientist because of this film. I want to reopen my biology book and read about human physiology because of OrgoCorp. At the end of the day, if you are hell-bent on making me turn off my brain and watch “GoTG 3,” I can do that as well and still have a good time. That’s the power mainstream blockbuster cinema has and should have. Don’t boil it down to a soulless, flavorless, and unhealthy bowl of soup.
In conclusion, GoTG 3 is one of the best movies of the year. Yes, the CBFC has gone to town on it by censoring every funny expletive coming out of the mouths of our favorite band of misfits. But that’s not enough to damage the entertainment factor of the film. Despite suffering from what’s famously called “Marvel fatigue” or “superhero fatigue,” if I laughed, cried, and clapped while watching this movie, I think there’s a good chance that you will too. It’s ultimately a crowd-pleaser. So, go and watch it in a packed theater because it’s one thing to cheer with an audience and a whole different thing to laugh-cry your way through a film with a total stranger sitting beside you who is hopefully doing the same thing. During the “Special Thanks” credits scene, I think Gunn thanked all the fans. Hence, I want to thank him, too, for this amazing intergalactic journey, and I wish him the best for whatever he has in store for us in the future.