If you’re here, I’m guessing you either love—or once loved, at some faraway place and time—superhero movies. Take away the Marty Scorsese, is this art? of it all; strip away the multiverse, the madness, the CGI goop. All of it.
Why? Genuinely, why?
As someone who, you know, decides when (and why) Esquire covers the ever-swelling genre—currently, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, out next week—I’ve been asking myself that question a lot lately. I’ll often go back to an interview I had with Ryan Coogler five years ago, not too long after Black Panther debuted. I told him about seeing Captain America: Civil War in theaters, and how I’d never heard an audience cheer quite like they did when Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa landed into view. Coogler said, warmly, “Well, Black people love superhero movies, too!” He went on about how these movies make us feel. The power they have to show our own reflections, our humanity projected backward—but bigger, flashier, more powerful. It means something to see our heroes fight and lose, recover, then fight and win. We learn and become better.
Aside from Coogler, there’s no director working in the superhero genre who understands why these movies make us feel than James Gunn—who proves exactly why in Vol. 3. This time around, Gunn had his work cut out for him. 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a fun, oddball romp that had the benefit of playing with house money, following 2012’s The Avengers. 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 landed squarely in the boom times for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the chemistry between Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, and Dave Bautista buoying a middling story. Vol. 3? Gunn’s final MCU outing (before going full-time at DC) has the misfortune of debuting during the latest and greatest existential crisis for superhero movies—with Marvel on a losing streak (Thor: Love and Thunder, Ant-Man and the Wasp Quantumania, She-Hulk), not to mention a looming decision to make, amid Jonathan Majors’s legal woes.
It’s almost as if Gunn saw this moment coming. Vol. 3, for the most part, narrows its lens on the original lineup: Peter Quill (Pratt), who is still reeling from the quasi-loss of Gamora (Saldaña). Nebula (Karen Gillan), who is finally allowed to play more tunes than her I-am-angry! schtick. Drax (Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff), still reliably goofy, are looking for something more. Vol. 3‘s true standout is Rocket Raccoon, voiced with a frankly unbelievable amount of ache by Bradley Cooper. (Most recently seen in short form.) Rocket suffers a near-fatal blow early on, and the story unfurls from there.
In Rocket’s devastating, Toy Story-esque origin story—distributed via flashbacks in bits and pieces throughout the film—Gunn reminds fans what these stories can do. Even if we aren’t orphaned humanoid raccoons, we know what it’s like to be lonely. We certainly remember the feeling of being young and scared, but hopeful about the things we can do and the places we’ve yet to see. Between the booms and pows, Gunn dutifully goes back to this well—refilling the cup, again and again, so that it all means something in the end. It’s not enough to have Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man wail, “You’re my daughter, so I’m upset!” and have that count as character motivation. Gunn teases Rocket’s story along—rather painfully—to uncomfortable places. In Vol. 3, it very much feels like the parental controls have finally been turned off.
Now, as you peruse many a bring your tissues! review of Vol. 3, let me offer some counter-programming: this movie is hilariously gross, in a horror-comedy sort of way. Don’t forget James Gunn’s humble beginnings as a body-horror master in 2006’s Slither, AKA the movie where Elizabeth Banks open-mouth kisses Michael Rooker’s massive, slimy alien flesh monster. In fact, I’m convinced that a planet the Guardians visit, early on, is simply one giant ode to Slither. Add Groot’s severed head, a world that feels like an homage to the classic Twilight Zone episode, “Eye of the Beholder,” and some delightful creepy-crawly creatures to the mix? You have a Marvel movie, at long last, that doesn’t rely on laughs via hammer, shield, growing, shrinking, and/or Unexpected Famous Cameo.
That said, this is a trilogy-ending superhero bash, after all, which means a few too many cooks received invites to this cosmic kitchen. Will Poulter’s Adam Warlock, while full of quippy, MCU charm, pops in and out of the action—needlessly distracting from the core group’s story. Same goes for Elizabeth Debicki’s Ayesha. (Marvel: don’t waste Elizabeth Debicki’s talents on height gags!) Moreover, Vol. 3 still suffers from MCU-style tonal issues, jump-cutting from happy, to sad, to melancholy, to jam sesh, to ugly-cry, to happy again, in 10-minute bursts. But a two-hour-long version of this movie that cut Poulter and Debicki’s golden duo from the action—and, in turn, made Vol. 3 squarely about Quill and co.—would’ve vaulted this entry into the top-five-of-the-MCU discussion.
Alas, Phase Five must spin madly on. And spin madly on it shall. Despite admirably bringing the story of this particular Guardians of the Galaxy team to a close, Vol. 3—by way of a couple nifty post-credits scenes—hurriedly places a few choice characters in easily reachable places, should (well, when) armageddon strike again. That’s all I’ll say. In the meantime, just enjoy Vol. 3‘s ride, and feel any and all emotions it’ll stir up for you. We have a long way to go before we watch James Gunn try to reignite this magic over at DC.