Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 Is a Marvel Superhero Movie Made in Poor Taste. And It's Better for It.
In 2018, director James Gunn was fired from the film for gross tweets. But this comic book sequel shows the value of his gross-out sensibility.
It's easy to forget, but James Gunn, the schlock visionary behind Marvel's first two Guardians of the Galaxy films, almost didn't get to make a third entry. In the summer of 2018, Gunn was fired from his job directing the movie, which was then in development, after right-wing trolls dug up a slew of old tweets that were in decidedly poor taste, and which included jokes about violence toward children.
But poor taste was, of course, precisely the point. Before Gunn landed at the helm of a top-tier comic book franchise, he was a low-budget gross-out horror provocateur. His filmmaking career started with Troma Entertainment, the company most famous for the Toxic Avenger franchise, and his credits included work on films like Tromeo and Juliet, a hyperviolent, sexually explicit, gleefully vulgar reboot of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Shock, outrage, ultraviolence, and scatological humor were the tools of Gunn's trade and he crafted a public persona to match.
When evidence of that persona resurfaced, executives at Disney decided to give Gunn the boot. The famously family-focused company didn't want to be associated with his brand of black comic grotesquerie.
Gunn, in turn, went to Marvel's chief rival in the superhero movie business, the DC Comics universe of characters, to make another superhero movie with a brand more forgiving of his past image. That film, 2021's sequel-reboot Suicide Squad, was an exuberantly violent but ultimately sentimental romp that not-so-subtly dealt with themes of cancellation by murderous (starfish monster–controlled) mobs.
The movie served as a kind of personal therapy—and a job interview. Late last year, Gunn was put in charge of rebooting the DC Comics movie universe, giving him creative supervision over the entire universe, including characters like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern.
In the interim, however, Gunn was rehired on the third Guardians of the Galaxy film, which hits theaters this weekend. The sequel—Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3—has all the trademarks Gunn has become known for: clever musical cues and spectacular setpieces, snark and sentimentality, an outsider sensibility melded to warmth and heartfelt emotion.
Also, a lot of pretty weird, pretty gross stuff: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 isn't nearly as violent as any Troma film, or as Gunn's Suicide Squad. But its cast includes a quartet of monstrous-looking experimental half-robot animals that would be terrifying if they weren't imbued with such sweet personalities. There's a scene set on a massive biological spaceship/station that the protagonists have to cut through to enter like they're performing surgery on some gloopy spaceborne Cthulhu. The central story revolves around animal mutilation and experimental biological modifications that viewers are meant to see as inherently cruel and dehumanizing. There are jokes about murder and feces. There's even an amusingly gratuitous F-bomb.
Gunn, who both directed and co-wrote the film, has shaved off enough of the rough edges of this material to keep it within the PG-13 confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). But what's notable about the movie's pulp grotesquerie isn't just its presence. It's that these bits are often the movie's best—the most entertaining, the most amusing, the most shocking, the most poignant.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 isn't quite a great movie. But it's a better-than-average superhero film. And it's a superior Marvel movie precisely because of all the ways it incorporates Gunn's oddball, often outrageous, obsessions. It's Gunn's penchant for schlocky, freaky biological vulgarity and quippy crudeness that makes the movie stand out from the crowd. Along with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, it's easily one of the best post-pandemic entries in the struggling MCU mega-franchise. Yes, there's nothing in the film quite as graphic or explicit as in the tweets that got Gunn axed from the project back in 2018. But Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is in deliriously and delightfully poor taste—and better for it.