All signs point to summer 2023 kicking off big time with "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3," now in theaters and flying high on the inspired lunacy that radiates from these merry Marvel misfits who won our hearts back in 2014 by being such total losers, also-rans to the core.
You could feel the film's anarchic spirit just watching Chris Pratt in his breakthrough performance as Peter Quill, busting silly dance moves in space to an awesome mixtape of 1970's pop tunes. Quill called himself Star-Lord because, well, no one else would.
Success does funny things when an underdog becomes top dog. After grossing $770 million worldwide to become the third-biggest box-office hit of the year, the bastard child of the Marvel Cinematic Universe took on the arrogance of a rock star, spawning a merchandise bonanza and a 2017 sequel that couldn't match the sneak-attack surprise of its predecessor.
You can only do that once. That puts extra pressure on fired-then-rehired director-screenwriter James Gunn. This time, Gunn is protecting an investment that doesn't make it so easy to throw out the profit-centered Hollywood rulebook and just let the hot-damn crazy rip.
The good news is that the third chapter, while taking on computerized bloat and sequel slickness, hasn't completely lost its screwball energy. Hanging with Quill and his mercenary space cadets is still everything you'd want in a wacky, wild summer ride.
But watch out for the darkness that keeps creeping in. Even quipster Quill is now a boozer lost in the bottle since his love Gamora (Zoe Saldana) died and came back as an alternate version of herself in a perpetual bad mood and with no memory of her allegedly undying hots for him.
The main plot pivots around Rocket, the wisecracking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper, who's in mortal danger after being attacked by evil Adam Warlock (Will Poulter). Can the Guardians find the hissable High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) who engineered Rocket and destroy his creepy experiments at OrgCorp? Cue scenes of animal torture that don't belong in a PG-13 film.
The mission is clear for the Guardians, including Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), plus Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff), whose love pairing is pure comic bliss. They must get the fiendish Ravagers (led by Sylvester Stallone) to help save Rocket, seen in adorable flashbacks that make him cuter than Baby Yoda.
Gunn barrages us with explosions and battles to disguise the holes in a script loaded down with muddled logic, uneven special effects and scattered backstories for minor characters. Even when Star-Lord drops the f-bomb (a first in the MCU), the shock feels muffled.
In an attempt to bring "feels" to the story, Gunn instead brings his overlong, overstuffed epic to a standstill by covering everything in funereal gloom. Is it a sign of things to come when Gunn jumps from his Marvel perch to head up the dark knights at the DC Universe?
So be it. For all its backsliding into bleak, "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" still achieves an emotional landing by showing what the Guardians mean to each other as a found family. Says Rocket, "We'll all fly away together one last time into the forever and beautiful sky."
That line is sentimental and easy to mock, but those among the Guardians faithful will surely choke up over the sweet sorrow of saying goodbye to these space dorks. It's been a trip.