Usually a movie that gets two stars from me gets it because despite my disappointment with it, I’m unable to care enough to downgrade its score further. But there is another kind of 2-star picture – the kind that wildly swings between very strong high points and other moments that are so pathetic that by the time it’s over, all that remains is a feeling of emptiness.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 might very well have been a new career best for James Gunn and a Marvel franchise highlight, just as the second one (and to a slightly lesser extent, the first) was, had it understood that the purpose of music in cinema is to augment and enhance meaning rather than to simply exist over the sound of other people munching on popcorn. The first two films had a very clear purpose and often struck a near perfect tone even when stupid things were happening. The films were molded to reflect the personality of the characters, as was the soundtrack. I can remember half the songs in them after all these years because they were not just songs but emotional movements that were chosen for a reason. “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone served as a disarming introduction to Star Lord after he arrived at a spooky alien tomb while looking like a red-eyed Combine soldier. “Hooked on a Feeling” made it clear just how much his childhood music means to him, with the added implication that for him, being in a space prison pales in comparison to knowing that someone else is wearing out your walkman’s battery. “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” about the loneliness of sailors, unites him with his father, and then “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens mourns his real one.
But in the third film, Star Lord is through. He’s still in the film and leading the team, but the focus is on Rocket – the family he made and role he had before becoming a Guardian, and the lengths to which Quill, Drax, Groot, Nebula, and Mantis will go to save him from the wrath of his creator. I will not remember more than one song from this film, if even that, because this is Rocket’s playlist, not Star Lord’s – and Rocket has no tangible relationship with music. Star Lord at this point, has nothing to say except to drunkenly tell Rocket not to touch his Zune before passing out again in his Gamora mourning phase, until suddenly Rocket is targeted and nearly killed by a warlock. Standard medicine won’t help him because his body is imbued with a kill switch, which must be disabled, and that’s about the only part of the movie plot which makes any sense. Meanwhile, the music is just a gap filler. It’s there to fill dead space; to transition without effect.
Rocket’s creator, a mad scientist member of a humanoid race of collectors, can’t stop screaming his orders, demands, taunts, and frustrations. It’s one of the most one-note villainous performances of any recent Marvel film, and it’s even less effective than Lee Pace’s misfire as Ronan in the first film. Guardians always has a plot problem and a villain problem, but of the three, only the second got the villain right – understanding that Ego isn’t merely an evil god but a personality flaw best checked by the presence and guidance of family. Of these films, Guardians, Vol. 2 cared by far the least as to the immediate stakes of the mission, even though it still couldn’t help itself in creating a giant blob that blew up a DQ. You could roll your eyes past it because it had the character dramatic stakes locked down as well as any comic book movie has ever managed, especially with an ensemble. The third film passes up multiple chances to hit the same high notes because every time it has something resembling a moving character moment, it retreats and cuts away like an animal trying to evade the spotlight.
This is the most frustrating Marvel picture that might ever have entered the franchise. There is action aplenty; maybe too much. The elements are all there, but the film will not embrace them. The music has faded into the back of the elevator, and the entire final showdown scrambles for an animated highlight rather than emotional payoff. There is no “We Are Groot” or “Take my hand!” moment, and there certainly isn’t a scene that rivals the emotions of Yondu’s space funeral.
It’s as if James Gunn and Kevin Feige sat down to watch Rise of the Planet of the Apes and thought: “this would be so much better if David Oyelowo just yelled a lot and if we kept cutting away from Caesar.”
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