102.1 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3: Violence, Feelings and Pop Music

So here we are, at the end of an actual era. The big current-events story that I’ve been tracking for a while now is the transition of James Gunn from the writer and director of some of the best Marvel movies, to a role that’s probably going to end up as the writer and producer of all the best DC movies.

James Gunn wasn’t the first writer to make a really good Marvel movie — in my opinion, that was Joss Whedon, in 2012’s The Avengers — but he was the first one who showed that you could do it as a stand-alone film.

If you look at the movies that came after The AvengersThor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier — you can see that Joss Whedon’s work on the first Avengers film didn’t have much of an impact on the rest of the line.

It took Gunn writing and directing Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 for everybody at Marvel Studios to say, “oh, that’s how you do it!” and start making better films. Basically, the formula is: turn the lights up, create funny characters with interesting backstories, give the lead characters an emotional story arc that drives the action, be visually inventive, and above all, make it fun. In other words: make a Pixar movie.

And they did! It took a few years for that influence to take hold, but starting in 2017, Marvel released a string of really good movies by following that formula — Guardians 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home.

You may quibble with a title or two on that list being characterized as “really good movies”, but I think it’s clear that the average quality of Marvel output increased dramatically, once they started making Gunn-style pictures. Those are all funny, bright movies with emotional character arcs, and for me, at least, that’s the run that made me a die-hard MCU fan.

So now — midway through a rocky Phase 5, when Marvel Studios is producing as many misses as they are hits — it’s a hard moment for them to lose one of their best influences.

There’s an obvious comparison between Guardians Vol 3 and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, the last Marvel movie that came out a few months ago, because they’re basically the same movie.

Both films are about an extended family of friends and relatives journeying through a visually dynamic sci-fi landscape, and the characters spend all of their time splitting up, getting into trouble and rescuing each other.

Both movies also put the focus on a supporting character in the ensemble, and feature a lot of flashbacks filling in the details of that character’s relationship with the villain. Meanwhile, the guy who was the lead character in the previous two movies ends up with the B-story, which is all about his relationship with another supporting player.

In Guardians, it’s Rocket who gets promoted to lead character. It may not be immediately obvious that he’s the lead, because technically he spends a lot of the movie unconscious while other people run around and talk about him, but it’s his story, and he gets all the character growth. The villain is entirely focused on Rocket, and the story ends with their climactic showdown.

Peter was the lead character in the first two movies, but in Vol 3, he’s got the B-story. He’s heavily involved as a supporting character in Rocket’s story, but his own plotline happens in the background. His story arc is about trying to re-connect with a new version of Gamora plucked from an alternate universe, who doesn’t love him or even know him that well. There’s definite progress in that storyline, but the fact that it doesn’t need to be explicitly resolved at the end means that Peter was actually in second place this time.

In comparison, Quantumania also put the focus on a supporting character, but they didn’t elevate a fan-favorite, because there aren’t really any fan-favorites in the Ant-Man movies. They’ve got Janet, but we don’t know her that well, because she was the MacGuffin in the second movie, and we didn’t even meet her until late in the film.

But she’s the lead in the third movie, and her flashbacks with the movie’s villain unspool in a similar way to Rocket’s, except way less cute and we weren’t that curious about her in the first place.

Scott’s got the B-story in Quantumania, and that’s not very interesting either, because it doesn’t feature a lot of dramatic choices. It’s about Scott and his daughter, and how he learns that he doesn’t need to be so protective with Cassie, because she can take care of herself. This is pretty basic parental character growth, and the audience isn’t on the edge of our seats waiting to see how it develops, the way that we are with Peter and Gamora.

This is what James Gunn brought to the MCU, back in 2014. He created characters with their own individual emotional lives, and interpersonal conflicts that gave them room to grow. He got us to care about these characters by giving them friendships and funny things to say, and gave every single one of them a painful backstory that we were eager to explore.

Through Gunn’s influence, the MCU made movies that were funny, and smart, and worthy of our attention and love. I’m not sure when his influence started to wane, but it was probably around the point when they fired him in 2018 and then rehired him just for this movie. And then three years later, they released Eternals.

So I hope that Gunn does the same thing for DC that he’s done for Marvel: show them how to make fun movies that people like. That’s a tough job, but I believe in him.

a new podcast episode about
the 2003 Ang Lee/Eric Bana punchdrunk epic


— Danny Horn

2 thoughts on “102.1 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3: Violence, Feelings and Pop Music

  1. Just got out of the movie. Took the kids there (and my mom), and despite a few gross-out moments (or petty violent and lethal ones), it was a pretty emotional movie. Lots of very fun interactions between all the characters: this is how you know you love them!


  2. If you’ve fallen in love with GotG all over again, this might be a good time to read the Dan Abnett reboot from 2014. He introduces the new cast, sorta (it included an insectivorid named Bug from the Micronauts), and gives them the insouciance they still have.

    That run wouldn’t have happened without the “Annihilation” event, which would make a good movie. Isn’t that right, Gunn?

    Also read the early Rocket stories by Bill Mantlo in “Hulk” and his own limited series.


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