The general consensus of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 is that it is a movie that exists. Holding a respectable 82 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, with a higher audience score of 94, it’s hard to remember that almost ten years ago nobody had heard of this particular Marvel property. As I write this, Guardians 3 is slaying at the box office, proving that the big popcorn blockbuster is very much alive. Thanks to its back-to-back-back retro soundtracks, the Guardians are their own self-perpetuating hype machine, who, in ending a trilogy, are seemingly going out not quite on a high note, but not on a low note, either, depending on who you ask.
But, you know one person you probably won’t be asking? A young child. I mean there’s no way I would take my young child to see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, even though I kinda want to. While this movie has many merits, and it’s arguably better than Vol. 2 (and with less toxic dad baggage), this sequel has one thing in it that I know would turn my six-year-old against the Guardians forever. Here’s the deal, if you haven’t seen it, or haven’t read about it, this is a spoiler-filled warning: A huge part of the movie’s plot is about cute animals getting tortured and mutilated. It’s almost like David Cronenberg took over a camp Marvel movie, and not really in a good way.
In addition to elucidating Rocket Raccoon’s brutal backstory, we also meet other very cute animals who, are tortured and experimented on by the movie’s big villain; the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). One of these creatures is named Floor, and she’s an adorable bunny that gets cyborg legs and has her mouth covered by a horrifying metal thing. None of this is glazed over and is about ten billion times more distributing than seeing that dude’s face melt in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and easily the most haunting imagery in a Marvel movie, ever. Just imagining how my sweet six-year-old daughter would react to even seeing a still image from these scenes makes me shudder.
Now, at this point in the essay, somebody is rubbing their hands together and getting ready to say something like this: Wow this boring dad is pearl-clutching. What a male Karen we’ve got here. Who cares if the movie is scary, it’s supposed to be. Or, perhaps the person mad at me might wonder if I’ve ever even seen a James Gunn movie before, like say, The Suicide Squad or perhaps James Gunn’s 2006 opus, the body-horror zombie flick Slither. Shouldn’t I just lighten up and crank the Beastie Boys?
Well. Sure. I’m not saying James Gunn shouldn’t have made Guardians 3 exactly the way he wanted to make it, mutilated bunny rabbits and all. I’m also not saying every mainstream superhero movie needs to be declawed to the point where there are no stakes, and nothing is scary. I’m not saying that. I actually like James Gunn. However, I really hope Guardians 3 doesn’t indicate the direction he takes in the next Superman movie. Hey kids, wanna see Superman’s dog get lobotomized?
Here’s the thing: This is fiction and torturing little animals is narratively manipulative. It just is. You could call it subversive, and obviously, the larger point Guardians 3 is making is that torturing animals is bad. And yet, did this have to be depicted so brutally? Guardians 3 isn’t an edgy PETA ad campaign. In fact, if you go to MacDonald’s right now, guess who is on the side of the Happy Meal? That’s right, the Guardians of the Galaxy are superheroes aimed at kids in a way that The Suicide Squad is not.
I suppose could argue that Guardians 3 is a great animal rights film. And, in fact, it just got awarded “best animal rights film of the year,” from PETA. But, you know, again, if you order a cheeseburger at Mickey D's right now, the characters from this movie are literally looking at you while you eat it.
So, while I’m generally on the side of the message, do I think Guardians 3 could have toned this all down a little; and still made the good points? Yes, I do. Does that make me a boring parent? Well, yes a little bit, but also, no. One could argue that Logan crossed this line back in 2017; kids love Wolverine, and yet, that Rated-R film was not for kids. But, the difference is easy: Logan wasn’t marketed at kids, Guardians 3 is aimed at kids, and in that way, it feels a tiny bit irresponsible with the cute animal torture. Perhaps when my 6-year-old grows out of her veterinarian phase, this won’t bother me as much. I mean, I think it’s hilarious that Alien was marketed to kids in 1979, but I also wasn’t born until 1981, so it’s different. And, the other thing is: Alien is a piece of timeless art, and the horror there, I think, is more sparing and smarter than Guardians 3. So, even if we’re pretending like we can judge Guardians 3 on the same level as other sci-fi horror movies (which we shouldn’t) I still think it’s excessive.
At the end of the day, though, I'm not really angry about this. I’m bummed that I can’t take my kid to see this. She can handle quite a bit, but I know this is too much for her. For my money, Thanos is less scary than the animal torture that happens here. I mean, he’s purple. Right there, that’s silly. But with Guardians 3, the animals look real, and High Evolutionary is a fairly down-to-Earth-looking person, at least by Marvel standards. Am I saying the plot shouldn’t have had animal torture in it? I am not saying that at all. I’m saying the depiction of this stuff is excessive and in that excess, the movie is tone-deaf to the larger audience — kids.
In defense of Guardians 3, all of this realism (yes realism!) is what makes the body horror effective in the film, and therefore, perhaps, praiseworthy within its own genre. Some smart critics have even made this exact point, very well. And, I suppose, I could find myself in a world where I argued against all the points I just made. This bizarro-me would say: Well kids need to know about animal cruelty, and maybe this movie does that. Maybe?
And yet, I still can’t get this poor tortured bunny out of my mind. No amount of galaxy guarding and retribution can undo the visual trauma of this stuff. I know it’s irrational, but when I see this imagery I can only think like my kid, and not like myself. I get that James Gunn’s heart was probably in the right place here, but it seems a bit sad that the final outing for the Guardians is one that is the least wholesome of the bunch.
Thank goodness the soundtrack slaps, as usual. But (::Larry David voice intensifies::) Having said that — isn’t it funny that Disney used the censored version of Radiohead’s “Creep” here? What’s gonna freak out kids more: torturing animals or Thom Yorke’s f-bomb? I think we all know the answer.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is out now in theaters.