Things sure do seem awfully final these days, don’t they? There’s a part of my brain lighting up right now that hasn’t been active since my last days of high school, alongside parts of my brain that hadn’t felt this flush with fear hormones since the last time I was worried about the Rapture. Past lovers have reappeared at a rate of about one per month since last summer like my own personal Broken Flowers, a succession of insights into the me that could have been. Things are so dark and bleak sometimes that I’m not really sure what to do with myself. So much of what I’ve been seeing and writing about lately are about completion, ending, and finalizing triptychs that it feels pervasive. Then again, I’ve always had an unfortunate tendency toward apophenia, and my brain chemicals have been all over the place since, within the past two weeks, I spent days upon days expecting that I was going to have to put down my elderly cat (he rebounded, the little comeback king—he’s dying, but not today, and not this week). It’s also theorized that the human brain is wired to find patterns even where none exist, and since the smallest number of “things” in which we can find patterns is three, it’s possible there’s something innate and instinctual in humans that causes us to see triptychs and trilogies and triads and three-part godheads as complete. We’ve known this for hundreds of years, given that Aristotle wrote in Rhetoric “Omne trium perfectum”—essentially, “Everything that comes in threes is perfect,”—in the 4th century B.C.E. Brandon and I texted about this recently, as he wanted to give me the chance to write about Beau is Afraid before he took a crack at it since I had covered both Hereditary and Midsommar. Also relatively recently, and more in line with what we’re talking about today, I wrote about how I went to see the most recent Ant-Man out of a sense of obligation to close out the third and final part of something that had relevant sentimental value to me as a person and as a member of this site.
I wasn’t planning to see this movie in theaters, if at all, ever. No one’s public persona is 100% accurate to them as a person, but Chris Pratt’s bungling of the goodwill that Parks & Rec and the first film in this series bought him via (at best) poorly conceived social media posts has made me not really all that interested in seeing him in a big budget film. I don’t expect celebrities to adhere to an old-fashioned studio contract morals code, and I appreciate that people in the public eye are expected not only to tolerate the fact that they have virtually no privacy but to even use what little privacy they have to essentially buy more stock in the interest economy by posting their private moments to their verified social media accounts. I really do. But man, there was something about that post about having a healthy child with his new wife that left a really bad taste in my mouth, even if it wasn’t an intentional dig at ex-wife Anna Faris or a reference to their special needs son; it churned my stomach. On top of that, I just haven’t been able to make myself care much about the MCU, as I’ve mentioned the last few times I’ve covered it, and with that last Ant-Man being such a miss for me, I can’t work up the interest to check these things out most of the time, let alone the compulsion. But, on a night when all my friends had plans and I was facing some pretty strong writer’s block, I took my MoviePass down to the [redacted] and I got myself a hot dog and a blue ICEE and sat in a sparsely populated theater on what seems like it’s the last of these. And it was good.
Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3 opens on a downbeat note. Peter Quill (Pratt) is still in mourning for the loss of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) in Infinity War, a situation exacerbated by the fact that a different, time-displaced version of Gamora from before the two met now exists somewhere out there, not caring at all about his existence. The Guardians have settled in on Knowhere, which you may (and are expected to) remember as the severed head of a long-dead god-adjacent being. A depressed Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is forcing an entire settlement of people to listen to Radiohead’s “Creep” over the loudspeakers and as a former radio DJ who struggled with mental health issues, I have to say: relatable. His reverie is interrupted by the arrival of Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), who puts our little raccoon friend into a coma, and the Guardians are unable to use their handy automated medical equipment because there’s a kill switch on his heart. You see, the man who cyborgified Rocket in the first place, the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) left behind a failsafe to protect his proprietary interest in Rocket, whom he is attempting to recapture. Nebula (Karen Gillan) proposes that they reach out to one of her contacts who might be able to get the group inside the headquarters of the H.E.’s megacorp and get the shutdown code for the kill switch so that they can get Rocket medical help before he dies. This involves the rest of the team, including Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Groot (Vin Diesel), and Drax (Dave Bautista), reuniting with the version of Gamora who does not know them. It’s not as simple as all of that, of course, as the attempted heist goes awry and requires them to track down the Evolutionary himself, with all the unusual fleshy detail that we’ve come to expect from James Gunn, a jailbreak of nice Village of the Damned kids, a telepathic dog feuding with Kirk from Gilmore Girls, an octopus man selling drugs in a back alley, bat people, and unexpected needle drops from the likes of Florence + the Machine and Flaming Lips. As this plays out, extended comatose flashbacks reveal the extent of the torturous experimentation that left Rocket the difficult, bristly, prosthetic-obsessed sapient Procyon lotor about whom we’ve all been suspending our disbelief for the past eight years.
There’s a lot more going on thematically in these movies than in the other recent products/content than this organization is creating, and as a result there’s a narrative cohesion here where all three movies are in greater communication with one another than, say, the Thor movies, which went from decent origin story to dour table-setting to wacky throwback comedy to whatever happened in Love and Thunder (I don’t know; I didn’t see it). On a very surface level, these movies, like a lot of Gunn’s work, can be described as a feature length Creepy Crawlers commercial, but there’s something that’s genuine here underneath all of that, and more moving than it really has any right to be. Personally, I think that the scenes in which we see Rocket bond with other more abominable abominations that have been experimented upon by the High Evolutionary set foot a few inches over the line into saccharine territory, but schmaltz, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It’s a foregone conclusion that the sweet otter character voiced by Linda Cardellini at her most warm isn’t making it out of those flashbacks alive, so you’re never able to relax and appreciate the scenes that they’re in because the other shoe is always hovering just out of frame, ready to drop. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that seeing the frail and dying body of Rocket hit me personally because of the resemblance to the recent extreme health situation of my cat; it ended up pushing too far into the treacly territory for me as a result, but that won’t be the case for everyone, and hasn’t been based on the reviews I’ve seen.
These movies are about fathers, and about god, and about the fact that we (in the west at least) form our images of what constitutes “god” around the concept of “father.” In the first film, Gamora and Nebula are constantly at each other’s throats to prove themselves to their shared father, Peter viewed Yondu (Michael Rooker) as his surrogate father even though the man had actually kidnapped him as a child, and Drax’s motivation to join the team was as vengeance for his lost wife and daughter. The second film saw Peter meeting his biological father, who was also, in many ways, a living god; Yondu sacrifices himself for his surrogate sons and finds meaning in bettering himself through fatherhood, and Gamora encourages Nebula to break free from the influence of their father as she has. Peter’s father being a nigh-omnipotent living planet was a kind of apotheosizing of that father-as-god concept. Now, in this third and presumed final film, the narrative is once again focused on the relationship between one of these characters and their father/creator, but this time it’s Rocket, and it plays out as a story about a god who, in seeking an ephemeral “perfection,” created something that he didn’t understand and which threatened his ego by demonstrating the ability to exceed the creator’s own intelligence. That’s not normally the kind of story that’s told through creator and creation; that’s the story of a father and the son upon whom he heaps all of his own insecurities and coping mechanisms. Beyond that, the jailbreak mentioned above ends with Drax finding himself with the opportunity to be a father again, in a new way.
I’ve mentioned in the past that I often divide finales/endings, at least of mass media, into two broad categories: the “Everybody goes their separate ways” ending and the “The adventure continues” ending. They’re both equally valid, conceptually, and the former is frequently the right narrative choice for a broad spectrum of stories; sometimes a piece of fiction ends in a place where characters have no choice other than to separate, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not sometimes bummed out by them. They can’t all be “God bless the brick house that was! God bless the brick house that is to be!” This is a definitive finale, and I don’t think it’s a surprise that the ending, despite concluding on an optimistic note, left me a little blue. That’s not to say that there weren’t jokes aplenty here (it took me until about the halfway mark for me to reach a point where it felt right to laugh, despite many gags throughout), but there’s a surge of love for the movie that feels more like people are just happy that there’s a good Marvel movie that everyone went to see rather than interacting with the text directly, because the text is weird in a way that mainstream audiences are normally more squeamish about. There were moments that made me think of Basket Case 2, of all things, which is a strange thing to say about a movie in this larger franchise, owned and operated by a monopolistic media empire. The consensus on this one is positive, and you can count me amongst that number, but at this point, these films have to advocate for themselves or not. This one does.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond