Nearly a decade ago, Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill traipsed along to Redbone across an alien world, and relative to all the previous MCU entries, there was something initially fresh about the encounter until the shine wore off, and other blockbuster fare picked up all the wrong lessons. Subsequent outings have retread the blend of screwball antics, pew pew lasers, and a retro soundtrack to bring us Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. It’s a Marvel entry surprisingly free of any ties to broader property outside of the first two volumes, but mired in the same bag of tricks with a bit more slime on it.

After a brief but alarming cold open depicting Rocket Raccoon’s surgical transformation from cute trash panda to wisecracking tech wiz, Vol. 3 brings us up to date with our ne’er do well heroes, finding Quill lovelorn over a version of Gamora who doesn’t remember him. Shortly interrupted thereafter by Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a son of The Sovereign who’s set to deliver Rocket to his maker, The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). Iwuji needs the raccoon for some Island of Dr. Moreau-esque machinations, so Warlock sets out under the threat of genocide, and Rocket becomes gravely injured in the fray. Thus, the Guardians are pitted against a series of fetch quests, a BioTech corporation, and a mad scientist to try and save him.

The matter of their success never really feels like a question, only the degree of it. The cosmic goings-on carry a pervasive general haze of digital flatness, and so all the action is inert. When Will Poulter plows into Dave Bautista as they carve a trench in the ground, it causes the eyes to glaze over rather than pop with wonder. That Adam Warlock’s goals so obviously overlap with our heroes’ renders any confrontation even more silly. Aside from Poulter’s ability to successfully deliver a joke, and a need to make good on Volume 2’s post-credits stinger, his presence in the narrative is useless. There are jokes that land among a cast with undeniable chemistry, but even Zoe Saldaña, who’s an incredible asset to any blockbuster when she’s keyed in (e.g. The Way of Water), feels like she’s checking her watch the whole time. Something this aesthetically weird shouldn’t be this boring. Gunn’s surface-level strangeness as a play for eccentricity might be mildly commendable, but hope of life underneath hinges on whether you’ve grown tired of the Guardians’ schtick by now. Outside of that, liking space goo and Alice Cooper is not a personality.

The skin-deep absurdity is largely the best thing the film has going for it. The production design, costumes, and makeup (particularly during an infiltration of baddie HQ, OrgoCorp) are on point with an unsettling fleshiness. There’s a craft on display that has always been these films’ strong suit compared to the larger MCU, but it’s all too often diffused through poor lighting and flat photography. Take a third act scene in The High Evolutionary’s office: It’s a meticulous space wrought from perfect crimson cubes arranged just so, but is lit and framed blandly, robbing it of any extraterrestrial splendor. The same could be said of almost every large-scale scene throughout, but Vol. 3’s smallest space is where it truly works. The flashbacks to Rocket’s body horror origins account for the film’s only real emotional stakes, and Sean Gunn (voicing the younger Rocket in addition to providing his movements) does wonders to wring a helpless childlike fragility out of these scenes. Both Rocket and his furry cellmates anchor these off-beat, deeply dark, but equally tender chapters of the film. If you’ve ever loved a pet or been traumatized by Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH, this stuff’s for you. Bradley Cooper, who must have an astronomical pay-to-screentime ratio here, is indebted to Sean Gunn for the heavy lifting. One only wishes James Gunn had the dexterity to better thread it through the ‘80s bangers and cheeky quips.

As a standalone third entry, after a dour slump from a plucky beginning, gut instinct might compare Vol. 3 to 2016’s Star Trek Beyond. The comparison is purely superficial, not to mention an insult to a much better Chris. The difference is that Beyond director Justin Lin has a knack for using style (in this case a Beastie Boys needle drop) to help dispense and pay off dramatic tension. When he calls back “Sabotage” to underscore Captain Kirk’s third act hurrah, it hits because it’s actually connected to the character. Lin keeps it in his back pocket until the exact right moment, and lands with a fist-pumping efficiency. When Gunn’s Guardians find themselves in a similar moment, they’re also accompanied by the Beastie Boys, but there’s no actual logic behind the choice. Gunn just likes the way it plays while they maraud in slow motion through a tired CG long take. Not to begrudge the man his impulses as a stylist, but when your film has several slow-motion hero shots to your favorite rock bop du jour, the ships may as well be on fishing wire, because self-parody is just an Asia song away. There’s nothing wrong with acting out of whimsy, but the impotence of the trick is laid bare. It’s a symptom of a broader problem with the film, which relies on gimmickry to give heft to its big moments, undercutting some of the actual earnest ones that almost clear the bar.

As a finale to a corporate-sanctioned oddball space opera, Vol. 3 only partially closes the loop on its gang of intergalactic misfits. After such an uneven and cynical grab at broad approval, a certain end card promising a return feels like a bona fide threat. There are occasional glimmers of actual inspiration on display, but Gunn’s better tendencies get usurped by a desire to play the hits. All of this is funneled through a space oddity pastiche that feels pre-approved and safely on brand; not the genuine, fascinating weirdness of an industry outsider. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 may not be as creatively bankrupt as fare from shills like the Russo Brothers, but James Gunn is still a yes man. He just shows up to the office in a Fangoria T-shirt.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 opens in theaters on May 5.

Grade: C-

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