Third Guardians of the Galaxy movie is both sweet and vicious

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
(M) 149 minutes

In its welcome anarchy and high spirits, James Gunn’s original 2014 Guardians of the Galaxy is still my favourite Marvel movie to date. But in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 the tone has shifted – as we can glean from the opening credits sequence, which finds Gunn’s furry self-insert Rocket Raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper, angsting out to Radiohead’s Creep .

Even with his buddies by his side, Rocket feels alone in the cosmos. But he’s not the only one in a low mood. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the half-human leader of this band of space miscreants, is still mourning the death of his green-skinned true love Gamora (Zoe Saldana) – who, adding insult to injury, has since re-emerged as an alternate version of herself with no memory of their relationship.

Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord is heartbroken in the third Guardians movie, after Gamora died in Infinity War.Credit: Disney

Nor is the malaise exactly dispelled when the group have to fend off a surprise attack from doofus demigod Adam Warlock (Will Poulter, looking like a Christmas tree ornament and sounding like Benedict Cumberbatch’s dim little brother). Wounded in the melee, Rocket hovers between life and death; in a faintly meta touch, it transpires that as a mutant he’s a copyright product, and can only be saved by breaking into the company that owns the IP.

You could take this as just another helter-skelter adventure for the Guardians, a shifting ensemble that now includes Gamora’s irritable sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) along with lovably dumb mass killer Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), cutesy psychic Mantis (Pom Klementieff) – think Amelie with antennae – and verbally challenged tree monster Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel).

Will Poulter as Adam Warlock sounds like Benedict Cumberbatch’s little brother.Credit: Disney

As before, there are the violent yet bloodless action sequences, the hits and memories on the soundtrack, the childish jokes – a few too many, honestly – and the signature Gunn weirdnesses: a spiral of flesh floating in space like an intestine ripped from an Elder God, or a stretch of Earth-like tract housing peopled by residents with snouts or tusks, basically the exurbs of Dr Moreau.

Here the mad scientist behind the scenes is the High Evolutionary, a ranting purple-robed aesthete bent on imposing his notion of perfection on the universe, played by Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Chukwudi Iwuji in the camp manner of a villain on Doctor Who.

This character is also the creator of the super-intelligent but tortured Rocket – and as such, among the worst of the Bad Dads who have proliferated throughout the saga (Drax at least has it in him to be a good one if he can set aside his dedication to bloodshed).

The flashbacks to Rocket’s horrific childhood are the movie’s heart, and while they’re as cartoonish as everything else, it’s clear for once that the darkness isn’t just for laughs. Literally, the first word out of baby Rocket’s mouth is “hurts” and the trauma only mounts from there.

The Guardians films are all rated M for “mature” in Australia and as with the Marvel films generally, there has always been some ambiguity about what age range they’re aimed at, though young children seem bound to be drawn in by the colourful packaging.

Bradley Cooper voices Rocket – a stand-in for director James Gunn.Credit: Disney

At any rate, parents should know that this is a movie where very bad things happen to cute talking critters (that is, they happen on screen – it’s not like with Bambi’s mother). Even for kids hardened by the varied atrocities of the previous Guardians volumes, that may be a bit much.

Gunn wouldn’t be Gunn if he wasn’t compelled to mix sweetness with viciousness – but the unique deftness of the first Guardians lay in never letting us dwell on either side of the equation for long. By contrast, at this point the sadistic side of his imagination is out in the open, even if the family entertainment format bars him from going for broke in the manner of his DC production The Suicide Squad.

No less frank is the sentimentality poured on to compensate: a choir ooh-ing and ahh-ing, a horde of Spielbergian children awaiting rescue, even a glimpse of a dubiously canonical afterlife.

It might seem hard to square the mushy climax, which proclaims that “everyone deserves a second chance”, with the gleeful cruelty that permeates the trilogy from one end to the other. But in another way, the upshot is the same: overkill in every sense.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is in cinemas from May 4.

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