From 2008 until 2019, Marvel Studios went on an unparalleled run, producing 23 superhero films that were (for the most part) critically well-received and (for the lion’s share) incredibly popular with audiences around the world. The Marvel Cinematic Universe rewrote the rules of show business and changed the direction of popular culture—and then it all went wrong.
You can’t blame COVID for movies as bad as Black Widow and The Eternals, as insubstantial as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder, or as dispiriting as Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and Wakanda Forever. Only Spider-Man: No Way Home offered the kind of exhilarating highs and affecting moments that typified the MCU during its startling decade of success. Diminishing box-office returns (with the exception of No Way Home) indicated the public was progressively experiencing the Marvel movies not as their most beloved refuge from the problems of the real world but basically just another bummer.
Well, you can call a pause in the decline of the MCU because this weekend, a genuinely terrific Marvel movie is making its debut. It’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and it is a wildly imaginative, inventive, and surprisingly involving space opera. I say "space opera" because like its two predecessors, the movie is set far from Earth—and like the first Guardians, it has a visual wit and richness and brightness that evokes superhero comic-book imagery at its most eye-popping. Even if the action flags, there’s almost always something in writer-director James Gunn’s creative arsenal to hold or distract your attention.
Gunn is a real director with a real vision, which sets him and his work apart from most of the Marvel product over the past several years. This movie is the goods. The delightful crew of misfits that make up the "guardians of the galaxy" undertake a risky journey to save the life of Rocket, the raccoon we vaguely knew from the first movie who had been turned into a superintelligent sociopath after being experimented on in a lab.
As we follow the guardians, we learn what happened to Rocket in a series of startlingly affecting flashbacks that feature a crazed utopian social engineer called The High Evolutionary who has spent centuries attempting to perfect life-forms and civilizations and then destroying the new worlds he creates when he is not satisfied by them. The Nigerian actor Chukwudi Iwuji, who made his name at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, gives a positively titanic performance as the High Evolutionary—probably the best and most formidable villain in all 32 MCU movies.
Gunn is a rarity in this world as both writer and director. Marvel often plays weird games when it comes to the directors it chooses. Its honcho, Kevin Feige, has made it a habit to hand directing jobs to indie auteurs used to making small-scale slice-of-life pictures—notably Chloé Zhao, whose movie Nomadland won her an undeserved Oscar during the worst year in movie history and who then helmed The Eternals, the worst movie in Marvel history.
You can’t entirely blame Zhao for that. Feige put her in nominal charge because entire sequences of these movies have already been conceived and designed before the directors even begin working, in a process called "pre-visualization." What this suggests is that Feige has taken to hiring these directors not to empower them but to control them. As they have no experience in running a production with hundreds if not thousands of people working behind the scenes, they must turn over much of the work to the overseeing corporation—especially when it comes to the most elaborate parts of their movies. But the lack of an overall creative vision has meant that Marvel action and special-effects sequences are usually rote and uninteresting. (Marvel effectively admitted as much when it fired the executive who coordinated the "pre-viz" stuff earlier this year.)
Gunn has independent standing and credentials, despite his bizarre history with Marvel and its parent company Disney. They fired him off this very project six years ago after he led the first two Guardian movies to unexpected box-office and creative heights for what was supposed to be almost a side project. That was during the witch-hunt phase of the #MeToo movement. Gunn’s crime? Tweeting obnoxious and gross stuff years earlier. He then went off and made a movie and a TV show for Marvel rival DC—The Suicide Squad and The Peacemaker—before Marvel decided the heat was no longer on and could bring him back. But they’ve now lost him permanently, because once he finished this movie he was hired to run what might be called the DC Cinematic Universe.
The revival in Marvel’s creative (and, I expect, box-office) fortunes represented by this undeniable achievement in high-end popcorn filmmaking show what a colossal blunder it was for Disney and Marvel to sacrifice Gunn in the first place to the 2017 mob. They still need him—the stuff that is in the pipeline after Guardians 3 does not look especially promising—but they don’t have him. Too bad.