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Rocket’s origin and Radiohead: inside ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’

Writer-director James Gunn and stars Chris Pratt and Karen Gillan preview the final chapter of the 'Guardians' saga, its soundtrack, and Gunn's DC future

By Brian Hiatt

"It's been a rocky road to get here," Karen Gillan says of 'Guardians of the Galaxy 3,' due May 5. (From left: Zoe Saldaña as Gamora, Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord, Pom Klementieff as Mantis, Gillan as Nebula, and Dave Bautista as Drax.) JESSICA MIGLIO/©MARVEL 2023

The first sign that May 5’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 will have a darker feel than its oft-comedic predecessors arrives immediately, with a musical choice. “It doesn’t start with ‘Mr. Blue Sky,’” says writer-director James Gunn, who’s already conjured two blockbusters out of an intergalactic-outcast saga starring characters even many hardcore Marvel fans barely knew. “It doesn’t start with ‘Come and Get Your Love.’ It starts with Radiohead’s acoustic version of ‘Creep.’ And that’s just a much different tone from the beginning than the other two films.” 

Pop songs have always been at the core of Guardians’ appeal, of course, with the first two movies scored by Seventies hits supposedly pulled from two cassette mixtapes made by the departed mother of Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt). For the new movie, the idea is that songs are sourced from the Microsoft Zune Peter got his hands on at the end of Guardians 2, which freed Gunn from being restricted to any particular decade — thus making the song picks much harder.  

‘It was very, very difficult,” Gunn says. “I felt very uncomfortable picking out songs and making sure that this was the right soundtrack.  Do I move on to just all Eighties songs? Do I use all Nineties songs? Or do I do what a Zune would actually have — songs from different eras, which is what I ended up doing.” The choices range from Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands” (which doesn’t score the kind of big climactic moment you’d expect, Gunn says) to the Replacements’ “I Will Dare,” to Faith No More’s “We Care A Lot” to the Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize??” (Scroll to the bottom for a full track listing.)

Overall, says Pratt, the film “has matured in its emotionality the same way that probably the audience has matured. The kids who loved Guardians were teenagers, and now they’re in their mid-twenties, and it’s really exciting to think that they’re ready for this movie the way that they might not have been nine years ago.” 

For a while, it looked like a third Guardians might not happen at all, or at least not with Gunn in charge. Even by the roller-coaster standards of Hollywood career arcs, the last few chapters of his working life have been truly weird — like, talking-space-raccoon-, walking-tree-level weird. In July 2018, right-wing trolls unearthed some of his old, deliberately edgy joke tweets, leading Disney to fire him from the already-in-the-works  third chapter. Gunn was convinced his career was over, that he’d have to sell his house. Five years later, not only is Guardians 3 on its way, he’s risen from brief unemployment and purported disgrace to showbiz moguldom as the newly appointed co-CEO, co-chairman, and creative guardian of Marvel’s rival, Warner Bros.’ DC Studios. (Longtime film producer Peter Safran is the other co-CEO and co-chairman.)  Gunn is writing and directing a Superman movie, due in 2025, to boot.

“When I reflect on it, it’s unusual,” says Gunn, who began his career at the infamous B-movie horror studio Troma. “But, you know, life is strange. Is it stranger than going from directing Tromeo and Juliet for Troma studios for $350,000, in which my primary job was to choreograph the sex scenes and pump blood through the guy’s neck, to making a movie for hundreds of millions of dollars, for a giant studio, that’s for all ages? I don’t know. That’s pretty strange, too.” 

Within days of Disney firing Gunn in 2018, Warner Bros. pulled him into the oft-floundering DC camp, where he wrote and directed 2021’s The Suicide Squad, which led to an excellent TV spin-off, HBO Max’s John Cena-starring Peacemaker. At the same time, consensus grew that Disney had overreacted, and the Guardians cast made it clear that they were, at best, highly reluctant to make a third movie without Gunn, whose comedic skills and off-kilter sensibility had vastly extended the range and viability of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

“It’s been a rocky road to get here,” says Karen Gillan, playing against her bubbly real-life personality as the comically grim, blue-skinned, part-cyborg Nebula. “When it looked like we weren’t going to make the movie without James, it just didn’t feel right at all. You can’t make a Guardians movie without James. It wouldn’t be a real Guardians movie.”

In March of 2019, Disney and Marvel Studios quietly rehired Gunn for Guardians 3, and he got to work revising the screenplay draft he’d turned in just before his dismissal. The cast was overjoyed, though the movie would have to wait until after he’d made Suicide Squad. “The only thing I ever wanted was that James would direct it,” says Pratt. “That’s all I hoped for. It’s a difficult landing to stick, and seeing that we had the blueprint and the right leader to get us there was a real relief.”

This is the final Guardians movie, at least with the current set of characters, and for Pratt, it’s the end of the most important film series of his career. “My entire life is different now because of Marvel, because of the Guardians of the Galaxy,” says Pratt. “It did change my life in such a way that I’ve been going nonstop ever since.” Before Guardians, he was, of course, best known as the hilarious, not particularly fit, not particularly smart Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation. Pratt got shredded to play Peter Quill — he associates the first film’s soundtrack with the “pain” of his weight-loss regime — and began an entirely new career as an action star.

On Parks and Rec, Pratt’s character was married to April Ludgate, played by Aubrey Plaza, who’s about to enter the MCU in her own right on the upcoming WandaVision spin-off Agatha: Coven of Chaos. “That is full circle,” says Pratt, who had been unaware of her role until this interview. “I love that! She’s having such an amazing moment right now, which makes me really thrilled… She’s so unique and talented and special. It’s just great that the the rest of the world is waking up to that. She was awesome in White Lotus, and Emily the Criminal was great. And I think she’ll show that it’s perfect for her to be playing a witch in a coven for Marvel.” (It’s not yet confirmed that she’s playing a witch, but it seems like a safe bet.)

But is Pratt done playing Star-Lord? The answer is… convoluted, reflecting his concern about revealing anything about his character’s fate in the new movie. In the MCU, he notes, “there’s ways for people to come back from the dead. That being said, by saying that I don’t feel like I’m done, it shouldn’t go into spoiler territory. I don’t want that to be like, ‘Oh, well, Chris Pratt says that Peter Quill doesn’t die.’ That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is, even if I do die in this, there’s a way to bring me back. So If you’re talking about, like, practically, can Peter Quill come back? The answer will always be yes. Now if you’re saying to me, Chris Pratt the actor, do I want to reprise my role as Peter Quill and is there mileage left in the character and do I have the bandwidth or headspace for that? I do. I’d be interested in playing the character again.”

Reflecting the precise dead-but-not-dead complexities he’s referring to, his love interest in the previous movies, Zoe Saldaña’s Gamora, is now a version from another timeline who never fell in love with him in the first place. Hilariously, one of the trailers hints at a possible flirtation between Peter and Gillan’s seemingly emotionless killer Nebula. (“I never noticed how black your eyes are,” Peter tells her.) “That was a little bit of a curveball,” says Gillan, who long ago built Nebula’s voice on Gunn’s request for a simultaneous impression of Marilyn Monroe and Clint Eastwood. “Though maybe she really harbored a secret crush this whole time. We don’t know.”

In Guardians 3, we meet Nebula in a new phase in her life, finally free from her monstrously abusive adopted dad, Thanos, the now thoroughly dead character who snapped half of the universe away in Avengers: Infinity War. “We’re starting to see her heal a little bit and develop the personality that was maybe put on hold,” says Gillan. “There’s so many layers to someone who’s suffered that kind of trauma.” She’s also eager to keep playing Nebula — but has no idea if the MCU has any place for her going forward. 

Gunn likes to say that the Guardians movies have a “secret protagonist,” one who’s about three feet tall, sounds a lot like Bradley Cooper, and will laser-blast you if you mention his strong resemblance to a terrestrial raccoon. Among many other developments, Guardians 3 will reveal the dark origin of Rocket (as always, voiced by Cooper), which seems to be tied into experiments conducted by one of the movie’s key new characters, the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). For Gunn, the wounded, sarcastic, lonely Rocket is the character he relates to most, on “a very core level.” “I was always a kid that didn’t quite belong in the group,” he says. “I was a punk rock kid, but I totally didn’t see everything the way [punks] saw it. Rocket had his own traumas early on. And the way he learned to deal with them was kind of being tougher than leather, and mean and angry. And that came in response to the things that you learn happened to him in volume three.”

As the voice of Rocket, Cooper leans into the darkness this time, Gunn says. “This is the best he’s ever been. There’s some stuff in there that’s just chilling.”

Gunn was taken aback by the ending of 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, which had Chris Hemsworth’s Thor going off with the Guardians, a plot point that clashed with his already-written Guardians 3 draft. “They chose to have that ending in editing,” he says. “And I didn’t think it was gonna be in there. Endgame came out right after I decided to do Guardians again. So I didn’t have much say in what was in Endgame, and then it came out and then I was like, ‘What the fuck am I gonna do?’” He was saved by 2021’s Taika Waititi-directed Thor: Love and Thunder, which quickly concluded that plotline. “That’s when [Marvel Studios president] Kevin [Feige] told me Taika’s gonna do Thor, and we’ll have the Guardians in it. I said, ‘Thank God!’… To be completely honest, Thor was never going to be in this movie. Taika took a bullet for me. Because I was not going to have him in. I was just gonna start up and there’s no Thor.” 

When the first Guardians came out in 2014, the MCU was in an expansionary mode, and possibilities seemed limitless. Now, whispers of “superhero fatigue” have grown louder than ever in the wake of the dual disappointments of Marvel’s Quantumania and DC’s Shazam! Fury of the Gods. “I think there is such a thing as superhero fatigue,” Gunn says. “I think it doesn’t have anything to do with superheroes. It has to do with the kind of stories that get to be told, and if you lose your eye on the ball, which is character. We love Superman. We love Batman. We love Iron Man. Because they’re these incredible characters that we have in our hearts. And if it becomes just a bunch of nonsense onscreen, it gets really boring. But I get fatigued by most spectacle films, by the grind of not having an emotionally grounded story. It doesn’t have anything to do with whether they’re superhero movies or not. If you don’t have a story at the base of it, just watching things bash each other, no matter how clever those bashing moments are, no matter how clever the designs and the VFX are, it just gets fatiguing, and I think that’s very, very real.”

That said, Gunn never saw Guardians as a superhero story in the first place. “It’s a space opera,” he says. “A family drama.” When he made the first movie, in fact, he was thinking of another Disney-owned property altogether. “I felt like movies were getting a little repetitive,” he says, “and you needed a science-fiction epic that was colorful and bright, what Star Wars was to me when I was 11. Instead of a Chewbacca and a C-3PO, it was a talking tree and a gun-wielding raccoon. I felt like I was putting something out there that was going to work. Which doesn’t mean that in the middle of shooting, I didn’t wake up at 3 a.m. in a cold, sweaty panic.”

For the Guardians 3 cast, the experience of completing their story after nine years was so emotional that it spilled into the finished film. “There’s a scene towards the end of the film that’s somewhat of an ending-of-an-era scene,” says Gillan. And everyone was crying in the scene. When you see it,  just know that none of us are actually acting. Like, everyone was very emotional. It did feel like a goodbye. And it felt real.”

But Gunn isn’t done with the cast. He’s made it clear he hopes to work with as many of them as possible in new roles at DC, and both Gillan and Pratt say they’re open to that. Fans are specifically pushing for Pratt to play Booster Gold, a charming rogue-type hero who time-traveled from the future, and while the actor hasn’t discussed it with Gunn, Pratt says, “If James thought I was right for it, then you know that would I would have to consider it.”

Gunn, meanwhile, will take the lessons of Guardians into his new universe, though perhaps not specifically to his Superman movie. “I learned so much from making these movies,” he says. “But it’s not like Superman is going to have exactly the same vibe as a Guardians movie. It’s actually quite different.” That said, does his success with Rocket make him more interested in possibly taking a chance on the first live-action cinematic version of Superman’s pet, Krypto the Superdog? He laughs. “I think I would have an interest in a live-action Krypto whether or not I had anything to do with Rocket,” he says.

Gunn is close with Marvel’s Feige, even as he heads off to DC, and the two men often offer each other advice, though Gunn says his own new role is more directly centered on putting together an overarching story for that universe than Feige’s more traditionally corporate position. “I really want Marvel to keep making good movies,” Gunn says. “I think it’s really hard in the wake of the Blip.” (He’s referring to Thanos’ aforementioned finger-snapping elimination of half of all life in the universe, all of which returned after a five-year absence.) “There’s this worldwide, universe-wide event that happened. And in truth, everybody would be stark raving mad at this point. So it’s hard to write stories in the wake of that. Which is why the Guardians movies have been easier, because they’re set outside of that a little bit.”

Ultimately, Gunn sees it as a mistake to see Marvel and DC Studios as competition. “I think it’s the opposite, he says. “To be frank, I think the better Marvel movies do, it’s better for DC, and the better DC movies do, it’s better for Marvel. When people see bad movies, they don’t want to spend more money on seeing more movies. So you want good movies to happen, especially since we’re making two or three movies a year at DC. So every movie that Marvel has is sort of an advertising for comic-book films, and vice versa. And you don’t want to scare off people from going to the theater. And if we’re both making good movies, that’s the best of all situations, which keeps the ball bouncing back and forth. At that point, we can talk about rivalries, and it’d be fun.”

This article first appeared on Rolling

Full Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 track list:

‘Creep (Acoustic Version),’ Radiohead

‘Crazy on You,’ Heart

‘Since You Been Gone,’ Rainbow

‘In the Meantime,’ Spacehog

‘Reasons,’ Earth, Wind & Fire

‘Do You Realise??,’ The Flaming Lips

‘We Care a Lot,’ Faith No More

‘Koinu no Carnival (from ‘Minute Waltz’),’ Ehamic

‘I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,’ Alice Cooper

‘San Francisco,’ The Mowgli’s

‘Poor Girl,’ X

‘This is the Day,’ The The

‘No Sleep Till Brooklyn,’ Beastie Boys

‘Dog Days Are Over,’ Florence + The Machine

‘Badlands,’ Bruce Springsteen

‘I Will Dare’ – The Replacements

‘Come and Get Your Love’ – Redbone (Rerecorded Version)