“What’s the deal with the telekinetic dog with the Soviet accent?”
I could not believe I was texting that question to someone after “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” writer-director James Gunn’s third installment in the franchise he’s shepherded at Marvel since “Vol. 1″ in 2014. But I often find myself asking my comic book fan friends absurd questions after exiting these movies.
Thankfully, they always have the answers. “It’s Cosmo the Spacedog,” my pal Paul texted back. Then he provided a dissertation on the character, who is voiced in a computerized tone by “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” phenomenon Maria Bakalova. I didn’t remember this character from either of the previous volumes.
I blamed my forgetfulness on my slowly deteriorating memory. Then I discovered Cosmo appeared in 2022′s “The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special,” which I had not seen. I didn’t know it was a prerequisite for this movie. Hell, I didn’t know it existed.
Reviewing Marvel and DC movies are a daunting task because they are not friendly to the uninitiated. If you know nothing going in, you will be lost. Plus, they require prior knowledge of the films that came before, as if you were trapped in a university class that had an infinite number of prerequisites. This can be frustrating, especially if you are not a superfan.
I really liked the first two “Guardians” movies. Gunn was doing something outside of the norm of the Marvel movie franchise. His first two films were the bad boys of the Marvel Comics Universe (MCU), features that had their own style and plenty of attitude. They took themselves less seriously and were fun to watch.
There was also a naughtiness factor that harkened back to Gunn’s former days at Troma, the low-budget, raunchy studio that brought you “The Toxic Avenger,” “Surf Nazis Must Die,” and, yes, “My Dinner with Andre.”
Gunn’s cast of characters, including Groot (Vin Diesel), Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) were intriguing, funny and unusual. Their leader, Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), had a cockiness that wasn’t as grating as it could have been, and the gimmick of using a Walkman as an excuse for catchy needle drops never wore out its welcome.
Gunn also added an emotional heft to his interpretation of the characters created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler is the only other MCU filmmaker whose work has moved me and made me care, doing so without requiring any prior knowledge nor connection to the comics. The demise of Michael Rooker’s character, Yondu, in “Guardians Vol. 2″ choked me up pretty good.
“Guardians Vol. 3″ retains some of the humor and characteristics that made the first two installments work, but it is saddled with several new problems that ultimately impede its success. I’ll tread lightly around the plot details, but skip the next three paragraphs if you want to go in fresh.
The main plot finds Quill, Gamora, her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), Drax, a teenage Groot, Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Yondu’s second-in-command, Kraglin (Sean Gunn), on a quest to save the Bradley Cooper Raccoon — I mean Rocket — from an injury that may prove fatal. They discover that Rocket’s manufacturer has installed some kind of kill switch in him, so that any modifications will result in his destruction. A key will override that feature, so off they go to find it.
Fans of the series know that a sore spot for Rocket is any discussion of his past. “Vol. 3″ is mostly his origin story, told in flashbacks that interrupt the present-day action. Turns out he’s a creation of The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), or T.H.E., a guy who acts like Dr. Moreau and, to quote one Guardian, “looks like RoboCop.”
Rocket is part of a series of animal experiments where cute creatures are tortured in an attempt to make them highly intelligent citizens of a new planet, but they all turn extremely violent instead. Rocket remained peaceful, so technically, he was a success. Now T.H.E. wants him back. A hitman named Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) aims to deliver him. Much mayhem ensues.
The villain here is one note and poorly written. All he does is scream, blow things up, and torture critters (those with sensitivities to animal abuse should proceed with caution). A movie is only as good as its bad guy, and I dreaded having to spend time with him.
The shifts in tone, from cutesy to horrific, are also crudely executed. And though Gunn evokes some major empathy and concern for Rocket, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3″ squanders that goodwill on an endless, climactic battle sequence that cheaply puts children and animals in peril.
Despite these issues, Drax and Groot remain the highlights of the series. Bautista is a master at playing dumb without sacrificing any of the vulnerability he brings to every role. Diesel continues to get maximum effect from the three words of dialogue he has uttered throughout the entire series: “I am Groot!”
Saldana is also good here as a different Gamora than the one Star-Lord remembers. For those who don’t know why that is, the film provides a spoken explanation that is hilariously convoluted and, as one of the Guardians points out, “missing a few details but is mostly correct.”
Unlike the first two installments, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3″ ultimately feels tethered to the MCU in ways that mute the uniqueness of the series. Unlike its predecessors, its familiar beats feel like a bridge back to the MCU rather than a divergence off the beaten path. And the villain is really, really dull.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 3
Written and directed by James Gunn. Starring Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Will Poulter, Chukwudi Iwuji, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Maria Bakalova, Sean Gunn. 150 minutes. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, suburbs. PG-13 (animal cruelty, gore, lotsa violence)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.