Good news from outer space: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 is a riot. If you have any affinity at all for this haphazard crew of self-absorbed, constantly squabbling cosmic reprobates, their third and final outing under boisterous writer/director James Gunn will make you laugh, cry and then cry some more.
While it never feels ponderous, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 is two-and-a-half-hours long – time enough for me to have a discreet eureka moment while trying to process a nagging feeling of familiarity. Initially I’d been watching it through a Marvel prism, trying to place this shiny new content block in the wobbly Jenga tower of that ongoing mega-story. But Vol 3 actually feels more like a Doctor Who adventure (and not just because they both feature Karen Gillan, former Tardis passenger turned vengeful blue cyborg Nebula). Once I began to see it from that perspective, it became even more fun.
Partly it is down to plot. The main antagonist is the High Evolutionary, a regal super-scientist obsessed with creating a society populated by perfectly evolved animals (he is played by Brit actor Chukwudi Iwuji, clearly relishing the chance to embody a booming, self-dramatising villain). His powerful empire has an outward-facing facade of gleaming corporate benevolence: even his face is a flawless mask, the skin visibly stretched taut (a bit like Lady Cassandra, the Who baddie voiced by Zoe Wanamaker). But there are some horrifying secrets in his basement, a place that traumatised founding Guardians member Rocket (the irascible talking racoon played by Bradley Cooper).
Uncovering the depraved foundations of a supposed utopia is a well-worn sci-fi trope but one that Doctor Who has explored many times: it is easy to imagine David Tennant verbally thrashing the High Evolutionary in an ideological debate before theatrically pulling the plug on his nefarious experiments. But the Who vibe feels even stronger in the look and feel of the film. Despite the vast amount of visual effects being deployed in every frame, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 makes heroic efforts to present its weird sci-fi world as something you could reach out and touch (and probably end up with funky goop on your hand).
There is a space station made out of fleshy bio-matter that resembles a cross between Mr Blobby and a bouncy castle. An extended cameo from Gunn favourite Nathan Fillion puts him in unflattering armour that looks like it has been hastily carved out of polystyrene. The High Evolutionary’s more aggressive fusions of test subjects and technology have a Scrapheap Challenge heft. That sense of tactility gives this $250m blockbuster an oddly homemade feel.
The cheerfully bric-a-brac approach of Vol 3 means you could easily imagine an original 1960s Cyberman, a Zygon or even that Bertie Bassett monster (above) that terrorised Sylvester McCoy hanging out among the alien throngs of Star-Lord’s home base of Knowhere and they would fit right in. If most modern sci-fi make everything look sleek and bleak, the Guardians films – like Doctor Who – have always been more characterful and charming. If this is genuinely their swansong, hopefully that spirit will regenerate somewhere else in the Marvel universe.