My Family and Other Animals
Timing is everything in life. Wait too long to propose to your girlfriend and you might discover that she’s no longer interested. Forget to lie to your eldest uncle and tell them they’re loved and you might discover you’re not included in their inheritance. Wait eight years to make a Guardians of the Galaxy sequel, in which your leading characters only appear intermittently in other people’s movies, as a sort of irrelevant sideshow, there to facilitate broad humour, and it could be that when you finally do get round to making that second sequel no one cares – indeed, they may not be able to remember the story you’re sequelising.
One could argue that interest in Guardians of the Galaxy has waned since the 2017 sequel and not only that, interest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself. Returning director James Gunn, who in the distant past was fired for historic online bigotry, but subsequently reinstated having shown due contrition, ensures that volume 3 of his oddball team up franchise is laden with catch up dialogue, which is tellingly flippant. It’s as if Gunn himself is acknowledging the irrelevance of it all, the redundancy, the fact that Marvel movies were never really designed to have a long shelf life, to be rewatched, and pored over, like the best movies of old. Committed fans, whoever the fuck they are, will remember why Star Lord and Gamora are estranged, and what the relationship is between Drax and Mantis, but the rest of us are grateful for the broad-brush recap.
Volume 3 isn’t really a movie in the conventional sense, like most Marvel movies it’s a set of eccentric sci-fi concepts that lack human grounding and a propulsive story to anchor them. James Gunn may be a more idiosyncratic and horror orientated director than the AI stand-ins that usually helm MCU movies, but he has not found a way to tell his story, without the franchise’s trademark bagginess. It has to be baggy, one realises, because if it wasn’t, where would you drop the lengthy set pieces? If you had to cut to the quick and tell a tale that was laser like focused on human interest, you could potentially put tens of thousands of crafts-folk and visual effects artists out of work. Indeed, sitting through the several hours of credits follow Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3, it’s tempting to say that this movie only exists to keep the economy that supports it functioning. They had to make this movie, or unemployment would jump by 5%.
The movie’s a kind of tragedy, a story about men estranged from their first loves. Peter Quill has to contend with an indifferent Gamora, the woman who used to love him but now sees him as an irritant. This is a situation known to many men — one might say it’s eminently relatable and endlessly heartbreaking. Then there’s the story of Rocket Raccoon, the dark heart of the movie, subjected to unimaginable cruelty in his formative years, relived here in flashback, introducing us to his love — an Otter subjected to cruel medical experimentation.
If the movie had focused on these parallel plots, or rather had it maintained focus on these parallel plots, it might have been a very weighty film indeed. But Gunn falls prey to franchise imperatives and Marvel cultural mores. More is more, leaving less and less screen time for the human story. We don’t need visual effects saturated set pieces that go on and on and on, we just require psychological and emotional truth. If somebody could feed this into the AI that will now replace Gunn and his Marvel compatriots going forward, that would be mightily appreciated.
The excess gives Volume 3 an entirely superfluous fourth act. There’s very little that’s relevant in said act, that couldn’t have been introduced earlier for a quicker payoff. But Gunn and producer Kevin Feige, made the mistake of thinking that that would short change the audience. In fact, they’ve cheated them, by diluting the good story elements that they had. We’ll miss the Guardians, and Peter Quill’s music collection, but not the meandering stories that James Gunn put them in.