June 2023

Arts & Letters

The deep end: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3’ and ‘Infinity Pool’

By Shane Danielsen

Sean Gunn in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3’

Comics fan James Gunn delivers the best of Marvel’s overabundance, while Brandon Cronenberg offers a perverse vision of humanity unbound

For the past few years, new Marvel “product” has arrived with near-metronomic regularity, both at the movies and on TV. This was the plan, a kind of cultural saturation-bombing, and the barrage shows no sign of abating. At Comic-Con in San Diego last July, Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige announced a slate of releases stretching into late 2025 and beyond – a boast that, as I joked to a friend, reminded me of Orwell’s line that the future would consist of “a boot stamping on a human face – for ever”.

I shouldn’t feel this way. The first comic I ever bought was Avengers #137, “We Do Seek Out New Avengers”, back in July 1975. Scripted by Steve Englehart, the best Silver Age writer, and pencilled by the dependable George Tuska, it sparked a passion: before long, I’d discovered Doctor Strange (then in its classic Roy Thomas–Gene Colan run), The Uncanny X-Men and Jim Starlin’s Captain Marvel. I always preferred Marvel to DC, mostly because I liked the real-world feel of the storytelling. But the biff-bang-pow stuff bored me, even then.

I still read comics. In fact, I probably read more now than I did as a kid, thanks to the plethora of creator-owned titles from companies such as Image and Vault and TKO, and – as my French has improved – via my growing interest in bandes dessinées. Yet I could hardly give less of a shit about most superhero movies. In part that’s because I’ve outgrown the genre, put away childish things and so on. But mostly it’s because of boredom with their failings: lousy CGI, dialogue that’s either windily portentous or gratingly “meta”, and stories that inevitably climax with some kind of ray pointing straight up into the sky. (Also, I don’t care about the multiverse. I just don’t.)

The exceptions are the Guardians of the Galaxy films, which I not only enjoy but adore. And that’s largely because of their maker, James Gunn, who I maintain is the only Western filmmaker to really get comic books, and the awkward, frequently goofy admixture of silliness and sincerity that makes them work. (“B-b-but Zack Snyder!” bleats some indignant man-child, reading this. To which I reply: Save it for 4Chan, incel.) 

Volume 3 is not only the final part of the Guardians trilogy, but the last Marvel film Gunn will make, at least for the foreseeable future. He’s been poached by Warner Bros. in a bid to rescue the DC cinematic universe, an IP cash-cow stymied by poor casting choices, shoddy scripts and the aforementioned Mr Snyder. It’s the first smart decision that company has made this decade, and there’s a lesson in it for Marvel, one that, for all their success, the company has frequently struggled to understand: to make your comic-book movies, you need to hire people who know comics. Tapping someone like Cate Shortland to direct Black Widow, for example, is ridiculous: not only is her sensibility at odds with the material, but her talent is constrained by Marvel’s overlit, highly expository house style, which smothers the very things that make her special. No doubt Shortland (and her reps) very much enjoyed her director’s fee – and fair play to them. But I can’t imagine she took much pride in the finished film, in which the auteur of Somersault and Lore was effectively MIA. 

Whereas Gunn is a comics fan, and the difference shows. It was evident from his earliest work, notably the 2010 indie Super, a down-and-dirty tale of amateur superheroes starring Rainn Wilson and Elliot Page, which served as a kind of audition reel for the Guardians gig. He came out of exploitation cinema, having worked his way up at Troma Entertainment, and the gleeful extremity of those movies continues to inform his work to this day. (Super features one of the most abrupt and gruesome deaths I’ve ever seen onscreen.) Last year’s The Suicide Squad – which he made while on enforced hiatus from Marvel – struck a fine balance between graphic violence and Paddington 2–like comedy, while also revealing his growing sophistication for staging action.

Like most comic-book movies, this one turns on a quest motif. But unlike the usual MacGuffins – seven stones of power, three sacred scrolls – the stakes here are small and intensely personal: a mission halfway across the galaxy to save their teammate Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), who emerges, in this instalment, as the trilogy’s real protagonist. Mortally wounded in a clash with powerful-but-dim Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), he’s found to have a kill-switch located near his heart, preventing any medical intervention. As his fellow Guardians race to disable it, and save his life, Rocket’s backstory, long hinted at, is finally revealed. Experimented upon as a kit by The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a self-styled messiah with a Kantian faith in eugenics, Rocket was granted intelligence, enhanced mobility and opposable thumbs. But he was also extensively tortured, as were a number of other animals. This makes for a tough watch (his first line here consists of a single, whispered word: “Hurts”), and children, in particular, may find these scenes harrowing. But Gunn – who also wrote the script – wouldn’t have it any other way. He understands that, for this story to have any meaning, its comedy needs to be balanced with something much darker. Something we’d rather not see.

At heart, these are science-fiction films, and as such are hugely indebted to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, with which they share both a penchant for absurdity and a sneaky preoccupation with big concepts. (Sample line here: “Bring the ship closer to the head of that dead god.”) However, as I watched baby Rocket with his newfound friends in the lab, a trio of broken toys like himself, it suddenly dawned on me that this was in fact Gunn’s We3 adaptation.

For non-aficionados, We3 is a Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely limited series comic book from 2004, about a trio of animals – a dog, a cat and a rabbit – modified to become cybernetic weapons of war. Facing “decommission” (i.e., euthanasia), they manage to escape, only to be hunted down by the very military in which they used to serve. It’s tough and violent and very, very sad, one of the finest comics of its decade, and Gunn admitted in 2015 that he’d love to direct a screen version. This is it.

His attraction to the material makes sense. Gunn is by inclination a sentimental cynic – in love with carnage, yet beguiled by tenderness. His Guardians films have always been about friendship and sacrifice, and a yearning for the bonds of family. But he’s also a superb visual storyteller, with an instantly recognisable aesthetic. This film’s production design – by Beth Mickle – is astonishing, from squishy organic tech and puffy, pastel-hued spacesuits, to a space station that looks like a diseased colon, and the director’s love of colour informs every shot and sequence. His frames look like vintage Jack Kirby panels: packed with detail, shivering with chromatic intensity. And his cast rise to the occasion – though the standout, as ever, is Dave Bautista as Drax, delivering a masterclass in comic underplaying while communicating the soulful intensity of this unlikely but gifted actor.

There’s a lot here to digest, thematically as well as visually. (I especially like the casual way it mentions that there is no God – a refreshing display of candour for an American studio movie.) In the weeks to come, I’ll gladly watch it again – unlike, say, The Marvels or Captain America: New World Order, which I don’t even want to see once. I’ll probably even follow Gunn to DC. His take on Superman, I’d pay to see.

The third feature from Brandon Cronenberg, Infinity Pool is also his best to date: a horror film that plays like an especially fucked-up version of The White Lotus. The set-up is simple: novelist James (Alexander Skarsgård) and his wealthy wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) are on holiday at a luxury resort on the fictional island La Tolqa. The hotel and its grounds are enclosed by a security perimeter, like the Green Zone in post–Desert Storm Baghdad; what lies beyond, we’re assured, is violent, primitive and lawless. 

For a while the couple seem happy enough, though anxieties pulse just beneath their tanned, flawless skin. For James, it’s his inability to finish his long-delayed second novel; for Em, the growing suspicion that she might have married a failure. But then distraction arrives, in the form of Gabi (Mia Goth), an actor who specialises in portraying failure – one of the film’s better jokes. There with her older partner Alban (Jalil Lespert), she quickly latches onto James, claiming to be a fan of his book, and wastes no time in finding a quiet moment to jerk off her favourite writer. From which point, naturally, James is hers.

The following day, despite rules prohibiting them from leaving the compound, the foursome commandeer a car and drive out to a nearby village, wanting a taste of the “authentic” local culture. Drunk and exhausted following a visit to a winery, they drive back by night – only to strike a local youth along the way, and kill him. 

The same scenario propelled John Michael McDonagh’s The Forgiven (2021), a very bad adaptation of a very good Lawrence Osborne novel. But for Cronenberg fils, it’s just the start. The next morning the group are arrested and interrogated, separately, by a quietly menacing detective named Thresh (the excellent German actor Thomas Kretschmann). James, who was driving the car, is told that he will be executed for his crime – not by the police or courts, but by one of the dead youth’s family, a blood-compensation ripped straight from the pages of an Ismail Kadare novel. 

Understandably, James takes the news less than well. He breaks down, sobbing, and begs for his life… and, after a few seconds, Thresh smiles thinly. Of course that won’t happen, he says. Not to a wealthy foreigner – they don’t want an international incident. Instead, for a few thousand dollars, they can create a clone of James, identical in every way, and it, not he, will be killed. The only catch is, James has to watch the murder take place.

That this procedure is explained by Thresh as being “part of our tourist initiative” should give an idea of the tone here. Extremely violent and disturbingly surreal, Infinity Pool is also very funny, albeit in a pitch-black register. Its themes, however, are serious. Once James and Gabi realise that they can literally get away with murder, their crimes not only continue but escalate, their actions becoming steadily more ruthless and transgressive. Divorced from consequences, Cronenberg appears to be saying, humanity will inevitably indulge its most savage appetites. 

In addition, the film offers a meditation on the nature of identity itself. Who’s to say that the “real” James, watching his cloned self be murdered, isn’t actually the copy? That the actual, original James didn’t die in front of him, as he sat laughing quietly to himself – at himself – and that he, a kind of zombie, has taken his place?

I was less than impressed with Cronenberg’s first two features. Antiviral (2015) felt like one of his famous father’s off-cuts, derivative rather than original, and 2020’s Possessor seemed hollow and unsatisfying, despite an intriguing conceit and a trio of actors I admire (Andrea Riseborough, Tuppence Middleton and Christopher Abbott). This one is altogether bolder and more accomplished. A drug-induced hallucination sequence, in particular, displays the abundance of his visual imagination, his talent for depicting altered states of perception, and his ongoing fascination with orgiastic and ritualistic behaviours. Whatever it was they took, you want to try it.

Skarsgård is typically strong, as a fundamentally weak man emboldened by opportunity, but the real standout is Goth, one of the most distinctive and fascinating actors to emerge in the past few years. Reminiscent of ’70s New Hollywood icons such as Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek, she delivers a performance of feral intensity. Whenever she’s onscreen, you can’t look anywhere else.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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