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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is an exhausting journey through some mighty dark skies.

Social Anxiety Disorder

The legendary Peter Quill (Chris Pratt)
The legendary Peter Quill (Chris Pratt)

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Vol. 3 isn’t regarding its past (everybody’s apparently already forgotten about writer-director James Gunn’s Twittergate-driven firing from the production and eventual rehiring), its present (the movie’s “just” okay at its best moments), but its future. In fairness, this one might age well. It’s the heavy baggage this journey accumulates as an experience that’s incongruent with the expectations that makes it challenging to gauge its future standing in the MCU.

Forget the past and the offensive tweets. Fine. (And set aside Gunn’s already jumped ship and taken the reins of the DC Extended Universe.)

But the present? Well, that’s where there’s trouble.

First, though, might as well talk about the good stuff.

Vol. 3 is a really good-looking production. As with the other two volumes, this one is visually stunning. There are loads of colorful sets and costumes and galactic scenery, all brought to life through some well-executed special effects. All of that is a dramatic improvement over the murky visual crud of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.

And the rock soundtrack adds some much-needed energy to the movie’s surprisingly dour storyline.

That’s where we fall right back into the troubles.

The story is dark. Needlessly so. And, in what might very well be a first for the MCU, there’s even an incredibly unnecessary F-bomb, dropped by Star-lord himself. (Funny thing is, the resistance to use the F-bomb was part of a joke — from Rocket Raccoon — in Vol. 2. That joke was at the expense of Groot, a character whose entirety of communications revolves around the intonations of a three-word vocabulary: “I am Groot.”)

Imperfect Universe

The narrative challenge for audiences to overcome is Vol. 3 isn’t really a direct sequel to Vol. 2. A whole lot has happened in the MCU during the six years between Vol. 2 (May 5, 2017) and Vol. 3 (May 5, 2023). Most significantly, there were Thanos and the Blip in Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019). Gamora’s challenging relationship with Thanos in turn introduced a major relationship challenge for Peter and Gamora.

For better or worse, the past four years in the MCU have been spent adapting to the real-world pandemic while branching out across theatrical releases and streaming series, focusing on the introduction of a bevy of new characters and attempting to fill the void in the absence of an overarching Avengers storyline. That latter effort is only now starting to take shape with the introduction of Kang in the Loki Disney+ series and in the recent Quantumania.

The menacing High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji)
The menacing High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji)

In light of all that, the MCU might be starting to crack under its own complexity. It’s hard to get back into the Guardians groove; back in the real world, people’s lives have also searched for ways to work through and move on from the pandemic. A recap primer — a few minutes to revisit all that’s gone before — would’ve been beneficial. In its place, consider this tip: it’s not particularly helpful to revisit the first Guardians or Vol. 2; it’s much more helpful to revisit Infinity War and Endgame (that’s 5 ½ hours of viewing material right there).

Vol. 3 starts rough, essentially picking up where Endgame left off. Use the growth of Groot as a rough measure of the time that’s passed.

It’s a disturbing, jarring start without that primer. Peter Quill — the legendary Star-lord — has taken to the bottle and has turned into an aggressive drunk in response to Gamora’s life-altering experiences during the Avengers’ climactic conflict with Thanos.

That alone sets a dark tone but, unfortunately, that “alone” is not alone. Rocket Raccoon’s back story takes center stage and it crawls into some really dark places as the Guardians attempt to save his life.

Humane Society

As Vol. 3 unfolds, the harsh conditions of Rocket’s involuntary participation in cybernetic engineering are revealed, all under the menacing leadership of the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). It makes for an unpleasant viewing experience — a deeper, darker riff on the Island of Misfit Toys from the Rankin-Bass days of stop-motion holiday entertainments — as the High Evolutionary, clearly wearing a mask of skin, calls for the destruction of Rocket’s cellmates and the dissection of Rocket’s brain.

Gunn attempts to balance that darkness with the relative lightness of the Guardians’ proprietary blend of classic rock and pop culture-based humor (including an ongoing running joke surrounding Kevin Bacon). The music’s good, but the humor wears thin and the character tics become grating. And that wariness of the humor and the handling of the characters might be collateral damage from Taika Waititi’s tiresome infliction of Waititi’s own special brand of humor in Thor: Ragnarok and Thor: Love and Thunder. Gunn’s Guardians series and Waititi’s Thor movies share similar strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, both suffer from what will be tidily bundled under the category of “classic shiny object syndrome.”

The endangered Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper)
The endangered Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper)

A major factor in the early successes of the MCU was the movies reached new heights in demographic crossover appeal in part by bringing modern storytelling sensibilities to the comic book genre. Banish the thought, but maybe part of the problem is Gunn and Waititi have undermined that appeal by rolling back into a niche that’s more appealing to the hardcore base audience. Couple that notion with the recent attempts to bring lesser known characters into the mainstream and these elements might all be contributing to the declining pull of the MCU. Or, in short, franchise fatigue at the broader level.

Nonetheless, in the darkness of Rocket’s and Gamora’s struggles is where there’s a window of opportunity for Vol. 3 to grow its appreciation. As it stands, it is a visual success and it is thematically ambitious.

Plenty of dark chapters in other series have aged well over time. Think about the chilly reception to The Empire Strikes Back and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It is admirable when a sequel dares to stick its neck out and do something different, to go to different places. Initially, Empire was derided as a movie without a beginning or an ending as it paved the wave for the grand overarching, multi-chapter narrative structure the MCU has taken to extraordinary levels.

That said, revisiting Vol. 2 six years later hasn’t raised its stature. How long that timeline stretches might best be measured in terms of Groot’s roots.