The High Evolutionary is a cosmic entity driven to create the perfect world, inhabited by perfect creatures. Each time he fails to fulfil that dream, he merely burns it to the ground and starts again. However he belatedly realises that the only creature that survived his experiments – and who somehow managed to escape captivity – could be the key to his ultimate goal. The creature, bearing all the hallmarks of a Earth creature called a raccoon, but with a induced intellect to rival the best mechanics, labelled himself ‘Rocket’ and headed out to carve his own destiny.
However destiny has now come calling, wanting a rematch and an encounter with the powerful Adam Warlock leaves Rocket barely clinging to life and faced with recollections of his earliest days. Now his family – Peter, Drax, Mantis, Kraglin and even the alt-Gamora will have to race across the galaxy in an effort to save one of their own.
But with so many forces stacked against them, can all of the Guardians make it out alive?
Ingredients-wise, there’s much to love here with all the favourite characters getting their moments to shine. There’s always a manic glee – a wonderful mixture of subversive but non-malevolent snark that permeates the Guardians of the Galaxy movies and even when the story may become convoluted, Gunn is savvy enough to know that a dysfunctional family is what sells the subject-matter. Chris Pratt’s Quill / Starlord may be the defacto leader but he’s consistently the shlub who’d rather be drowning his sorrows than saving the universe, the guy who has to be dragged kickign and screaming into the chaos but who ultimately does the right thing because no-one else will – often saving the day despite himself. Dave Bautista has the dead-pan Drax down by now, able to deliver cutting remarks with a straight-face and yet somehow making him more endearing by the minute – the fact that he’s the guy who communicates best with kids shouldn’t be a big surprise here, but it is and it works well, quietly giving him back some of the joy he lost when his family were killed. Pom Klementieff ‘s Mantis has perhaps evolved the most, from a dizzy, almost submissive and naive addition to a character that’s grown a backbone while still holding on to her idealism – and a wonderful counterpoint to Drax. Then there’s soviet canine Cosmo voiced by Maria Bakalova, who provides one of the film’s best running jokes.
Zoe Saldana’s Alt-Gamora is fine, but less interesting in this journey – her abrasive Ravager attitude being slowly won over by the Guardians’ more caring, inclusive approach is pretty much a straight-line waiting for convenient completion. There’s a better story to be told here than the ‘B-plot’ treatment it gets. It’s like watching a new character… which in many ways is exactly what this is, but that offsets the investment and feels like a contractual footnote to her character rather than an expansion. Guest-wise, Will Poulter’s Adam/Warlock character – much touted in the run-up to release and anticipated by fans – is almost entirely surplus to requirements and after being used for a few figurative and actual punchlines he could easily have been written or edited out with no-one really wondering where he went or why he was there. Once again, the Sylvester Stallone and Ravager team get what amounts to cameos and nothing more (if Michelle Yeoh’s somewhere in the mix I completely missed it).
But Rocket, of course, is the emotional fulcrum around which everything turns, though almost all his most powerful scenes are told in flashback as he lies on a med-bay fighting for his life. In what must be the most mainstream campaign against animal cruelty and anti-vivisection we are very much made to care about the savage treatment of the young raccoon and his fellow prisoners of the High Evolutionary. In what feels like a Plague Dogs meets Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, we are made to invest in Lylla (Linda Cardellini), an otter with cybernetic appendages, Floor the Rabbit (Mikaela Hoover) and Teefs the Walrus (Asim Chaudhry).before they are cruelly cut down and provide the impetus for Rocket to finally turn against his captors and turn into that lovable furry fiend we know and love. It also has to be said that while that dark heart is the worthy, beating centre of the piece, there’s also an argument to be made that Gunn revels in it a bit too much. It’s telling that he makes us care about Rocket’s original clan almost at the expense of the regular team and it feels overtly cruel and manipulative, making you want to turn away rather than keep your eyes on the screen. Rocket’s journey is as emotive and powerful as any human’s movie journey and the VFX are of such a high quality by now that there’s never a feeling that this is performance-capture and a tribute to the post-production department.(It still marvels me how he’s given such a distinct personality via multi-hyphenate Oscar-winning talent Bradley Cooper… though one should also note that Sean Gunn is assigned double-duty as not just Kraglin but the younger Rocket’s higher-pitched tones).
Since Phase 4 began, Marvel have had a bit of a problem with identikit villains – none of which have yet achieved the gravitas of Thanos. To be fair, it took the MCU a decade of building to make the Thanos pay-off work on a deeper level and we’re still years away from getting anything similar with the plans for the multiversal menace of Kang (perhaps not helped by Jonathan Majors’ legal troubles). The latest is the High Evolutionary, a character that might have been far more effective he wasn’t a new addition to the history, introduced and disposed of in one swoop and – ironically – with little evolution. The inhumanity and cold cruelty of the High Evolutionary does give the film a darker heart and the scenes of sheer torture and barbarity will likely be too much for the younger fans. Chukwudi Iwuji gives the character a casual brutality and potential sense of personal depth, but it never feels like the scientist with delusions of godhood (rich with potential) is any more than the one-shot antagonist.
Beyond character there’s structure and here’s where Vol.3 flounders. There’s just so many characters fighting for space and relevancy that the pacing and story-strands often feel like they’ve been thrown together in a blender and dished out randomly in what could be interchangeable set-pieces. What goes around, comes around…but the story is consistently in flux and one could reset much of the running order and still play to the same beats and that’s rarely a great thing on a narrative level. All too often it’s as if Gunn has remembered that a storyline has been on the back-burner for a while and shoves it forward again to be given its due or that – as it’s the last hurrah – everyone whoever appeared in the trilogy should get an appearance regardless of whether its organic. (I mean, yay Nathan Fillion, but….). It’s a glorious, technicolor, subversive mess, but still a mess. We might have expected to find some finality… but with most of the main characters left intact, this feels less like the consequential end and more like a quick greatest-hits encore (which is a genuine surprise as it really felt in advance that Gunn might be merciless with his heroes and give them actual heroic deaths. It does suffer from the bucketful of trifle scenario of the anticipation being more tasty than having to obligatory wade through it all once you’ve grabbed the spoon. While it’s fun, it’s true that at a fraction of the running-time (just as manic but somehow more singularly focused) I have to quietly admit that I actually enjoyed the Christmas Special more.
- Production Design / VFX8