Say what you will about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but, in the early days, no one expected to be so taken by a collection of assassins, thieves, marauders, and murders brought to live action from the mind behind Tromeo and Juliet (1996) and Slither (2006). Yet, taken we all were as writer/director James Gunn brought audiences on a space odyssey of outlandish ludicrousness that kicked off one of the best trilogies of the MCU. With Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3, Gunn unleashes on audiences the final piece of his full vision, a simultaneously somber and bombastic affair that reveals his master plan: these films are not three singular pieces but parts of a whole. Gunn has placed before us a symphony of self-reclamation wrapped in pop songs, violent action, and idiocy where we slowly fell in love with a group of intergalactic a-holes who try to do good for the galaxy simply because they live in it.
Some time after the events of Avengers: Endgame (2019), the Guardians of the Galaxy — Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautisa), Kraglin (Sean Gunn), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) — have set up a home base on Knowhere, trying to make a new life for themselves while keeping an eye out for trouble. But trouble never seems too far away from them as a peaceful day is disrupted by the sudden appearance of Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a Sovereign in search of retribution for the theft of anulax batteries from years ago. The tussle results in the catalyst that launches the story into a past rather left buried via a path leading straight toward a geneticist known as The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) who’s been looking forward to a reunion for some time.
The marketing made it very clear that this story has the focus shift to Rocket. The shift may seem like just another narrative tool, a by-product of having resolved several issues for the other central characters via the prior two outings and Endgame, except with what Gunn presents for audiences, it becomes clear that this was the story the other two Guardian movies were building toward this the entire time. The first two films may have centered Quill’s trauma of alien abduction and the loss of both birth mother and adoptive father, but in the background have always been the other characters, specifically Rocket. It’s the silent exchange of looks as Quill and Rocket redress themselves at the Kiln in Vol. 1, the character arc of being “a professional asshole” that Rocket and Yondu (Michael Rooker) share, and far more smaller details (like the strange way Rocket globs onto Quill’s fondness for music), that make Vol. 3 abundantly the conclusion of Rocket’s story that serves to close loops on all the other characters, as well. Much like the opening of the second film conveyed the continued idiosyncratic view (focusing on dancing Baby Groot rather than the battle against the abilisk), Gunn opts to open this third film with an acoustic version of Radiohead’s “Creep” being played by Rocket through the speakers of Knowwhere. The stripped down melancholic tone highlights Rocket’s internal struggle of acceptance and love despite being surrounded by his friends and newfound family while the camera tracks Rocket’s movements so that we can see exactly what everyone is up to. In the space of minutes, the audience is informed of the group’s status, their narrative starting point, and is told that it will all (emotionally) begin and end with Rocket. In 2014, audiences less familiar with the Guardians couldn’t believe they’d have so much fun rooting for a talking raccoon and here we are, nearly 10 years later, bereft of peace as Gunn made us more than care. We’re terrified. Why? Because in the world of Guardians, sometimes the bastards win. The difference here, however, is that by using these first few minutes to establish everything we need, once Adam appears, the race is on and it never stops; the risks always growing in nature, the reward being worth it every time.
To quote Quill in Vol. 1, they are losers. Individually, they are people who have lost things, whether it be literal parts of themselves that were surgically augmented against their will, family members taken through murder, or an entire life via a simple abduction. This team understands loss better than most, making their belief in each other the thing that makes them seemingly invincible. Gunn utilizes this to give the audience action sequences that blend the audacious and absurd with the sweet and sublime so that audiences are dazzled one moment by some ridiculous thing only to find ourselves vulnerable to a profoundness that creeps throughout the film. Don’t worry, there’re plenty of laughs, but Vol. 3 is almost entirely about personal stakes and Gunn firmly presses his foot on our emotions the entire time.
Like the previous films, Vol. 3 is an ensemble piece and is at its best when the crew is together. But where this crew was in top form in their battle against Ego (Kurt Russell), with the death of their Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) during Infinity War (2018), things haven’t been quite the same. However, with the long game in mind, Gunn is able to offer several sequences that keep the focus on the constant ticking of the active clock and does so while moving the characters all forward toward a certain inevitability. Don’t try to guess what that might be because, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that Gunn weaponizes expectation, subverting it to give us something even better. In this case, this translates to sequences in which these misfits-turned-family bicker like the group of morons they appear to be to outsiders, whether it’s arguing relentlessly over something small like sharing zarg-nuts or over the proper use of a couch, while actually being the kind of team who believably protects the galaxy as only they can. There’s a level of trust amongst them so that the arguing, especially the sheer quantity of it this time around, fades away, revealing, as they engage in battle, that there is seemingly no skirmish they won’t walk out of unscathed as long as they remain in relative sync. There’s one particular moment when all things come together — the characters, the narrative, the emotion, the needle drop — into the greatest scene in perhaps the entire trilogy.
Be advised that the critic screening I attended was held in an IMAX theater as the film was shot entirely in that format. Gunn makes full use of the scope, scale, and sound as he takes the audience on, perhaps, the oddest journey yet. When one is dealing with a geneticist, the possibilities are entirely limited only to one’s imagination and the Troma Alum doesn’t appear to have hit his. In this large-scale format, the expanse of space is even more beautiful, the battles even larger, the sound more enveloping, and the close-ups far more intimate. There’s not a moment in the film that feels false, something which has plagued prior MCU releases, even as the valley of reality gets a little too close to the uncanny (but, again, be mindful that this is Gunn we’re talking about, so give it a grain of salt).
Keeping in mind that all films are subject to the audience’s preferences, I found the needle drops excessive, the runtime a tad bloated, and the frequency of arguments grating. The discord makes sense when alt-Gamora comes into the picture, but for the rest, there’s a certain amount that would have siblings cooling their heels a bit, especially given the stakes. But, again, these are quibbles that are more about the viewer than the presentation. To me, Vol. 2 is the perfect balance of the characters, their bickering, the action, the themes, and songs; it hits me in the heart every time I watch it. Perhaps I’ll feel differently on repeat watches, but, with only one watch under my belt, these Guardians delight best when they’re bashing someone else’s brains in and not each other’s.
As we wrap, for those wondering: The dog makes it (sup, Maria Bakalova’s Cosmo) and there are two credit sequences.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is an incredible achievement technically, narratively, and performatively. Much of this is amplified by the way Gunn has endeared this group of murderous assholes to the audience as we’ve watched their transformation across four prior cinematic appearances and one holiday special. They make each other better by reminding each other that they can be the change in the world, they can be the hand that guides others to greatness, even if they themselves are flawed. Since Vol 1., Gunn has been trying to teach us this lesson, but we weren’t ready to hear it. Now, with the conclusion to his space odyssey, we’re ready to receive his message and it’s one of warmth, love, and second chances.
In theaters May 5th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Marvel Studios Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 3. webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.