By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy had on blockbuster filmmaking and the superhero genre when it came to theaters nearly a decade ago. Seen as a risk by the studio initially and a departure from their established and successful formula of superheroes, Guardians of the Galaxy was a risk. A tree and raccoon are two of the main characters, the entire film is set in space and on unusual planets, and James Gunn’s only directorial efforts to this point were the sci-fi horror Slither and the dark superhero pic Super. Flash forward nine years and the first Guardians of the galaxy remains one of the most heartfelt and hilarious superhero films of all time and is easily one of the MCU’s greatest entries. After Vol. 2 released in 2017, fans have had the opportunity to catch up with the Guardians in a more limited capacity in Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, Thor: Love and Thunder, and The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday special, but now Marvel’s most likable found family finally get the chance to close out their trilogy. And, for the most part, James Gunn and company succeed as they deliver the darkest and most personal Guardians tale yet filled to the brim with visual splendor, great tunes, and good laughs along the way.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 picks up with Peter Quill and the other Guardians adjusting to life on their new headquarters / home planet Knowhere. When Rocket’s life is suddenly on the line, however, the crew embark on a dangerous mission that puts them on a collision course with the villainous scientist The High Evolutionary and the cosmic being Adam Warlock.
It’s mere moments into this third Guardians film that it becomes clear: Rocket is firmly this story’s main character. The daring, smart-mouth space raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper has featured prominently in the MCU so far, but has never been so central and integral as he is in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. A testament to Gunn’s boldness as a director, positioning a CGI raccoon at the forefront of a trilogy capper could go awry in more ways than one and yet it ultimately proves to be a masterfully thought decision. Rocket is undoubtedly the emotional core of this film. The Guardians are not just on another mission – they are exclusively hell-bent on saving Rocket’s life. The entire narrative of this third volume revolves around Rocket to such an extent that, even when he is not on-screen, his presence is felt.
Much of the poignant emotionality in Guardians Vol. 3 comes from a series of flashbacks interspersed throughout the film that reveal more about Rocket’s backstory than ever before. A young Rocket is seen as the creation of the High Evolutionary (played by Peacemaker’s Chukwudi Iwuji), a Doctor Moreau-type figure who specializes in the creation of hybrid creatures who undergo accelerated evolution. These flashbacks to Rocket’s origins almost single-handedly make Guardians Vol. 3 worth watching and render Rocket to be one of the more emotionally complex Marvel characters to hit the big screen. Rocket’s relationships with the otter Lylla (voiced by Linda Cardellini, who also played Laura Barton in other MCU projects), Teefs the Walrus (voiced by Asim Chaudhry), and Floor the Rabbit (voiced by Mikaela Hoover) are so heartfelt and touching, highlighting Gunn’s primary strength as a filmmaker. Sure, Gunn knows how to craft an action sequence and adapt some pretty strange characters for the big screen, but he excels most with his handling of more intimate and personal themes. In a manner similar to Quill’s relationship with his mother through music in the first Guardians and the father-son bond between Quill and Yondu in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the Rocket backstory is James Gunn at his best as a writer and director. Heart-wrenching, tear-inducing, and endearingly strange, Gunn once again makes a genuinely touching Guardians film.
And it’s with the film’s handling of these more personal themes that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 proves to be the trilogy’s darkest installment. This darkness feels earned and yet never becomes overwhelming. Unfortunately, however, Vol. 3 simply isn’t as funny, clever, or witty as its predecessors. Despite the film’s relative darkness, it is still filled to the brim with quips, visual gaps, and more, but few hit the heights of some of the brilliant laughs in Guardians and Guardians Vol. 2. That being said, a sequence involving Chris Pratt’s Quill, Karen Gillan’s Nebula, and the MCU’s first f-bomb is absolutely hilarious.
Although Guardians Vol. 3 is certainly Rocket’s story, the other members of the crew are given plenty of time to shine in different roles. Quill is distraught and struggling with spells of drunkenness following the loss of Gamora to Thanos (and now the presence of a new Gamora who has no memory of him). Chris Pratt deftly occupies a space between perpetual joker and tragic romantic, and nails all of the humorous and emotional beats for his character. Despite a stellar performance, the arc of Pratt’s character somewhat falls short. Quill’s journey primarily centers around his desire to rekindle his relationship with Gamora and Gamora’s insistence that she is not the woman he fell in love with. This plot simply isn’t as interesting as some of the film’s other narrative threads, and Zoe Saldana’s character is unfortunately side-lined as a result.
The film sees greater success with its handling of Drax, Mantis, and Groot. Dave Bautista, who has easily become one of the most captivating and surprising actors working today, is fantastic as Drax. Although primarily (and effectively) used for funny one-liners, Bautista brings an emotional depth to the character in the film’s final act and once again proves that these Guardians films are at their best when they lean on their more heartfelt elements.
Pom Klementieff, meanwhile, is a scene-stealer. The actress brings incredible heart and childlike innocence to the role of Mantis and continues to prove to be a perfect addition to the Guardians crew. Finally, Groot plays a surprisingly limited role in the film, especially when considered relative to his prominence in the first two Guardians films. Nonetheless, Groot has a number of stellar moments and delivers the film’s most touching moment in the final act.
On the villainous side, things are a little more disappointing. Adam Warlock makes his long-awaited live-action debut here, played by Midsommar’s Will Poulter. Unfortunately, the character feels tagged on in the film and derails its focus whenever he sporadically appears. In addition, although Warlock certainly has a humorous side in the source material, he is played almost exclusively for humor in the film and is, in many ways, reduced as a character for the purpose of several unfulfilling jokes.
Chukwudi Iwuji’s High Evolutionary makes for an interesting villain with deep ties to Rocket’s origins. Although Iwuji is serviceable in the role, the High Evolutionary feels less like a character and more like a plot device to serve Rocket’s backstory and motivate the Guardians on their mission.
Finally, it’s evident in promotional material that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is meant to be a closing chapter (of sorts). Will this be the last Guardians film? Probably not. Nonetheless, Gunn said regarding Vol. 3, “Some stories have an end.” Without getting into spoilers for what this ‘end’ entails, Vol. 3 doesn’t quite land its ending.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is the darkest and most personal installment of the sci-fi comedy trilogy. Although it is not as clever or funny as its predecessors and the ending doesn’t quite come together, Vol. 3 is unbelievably endearing and warm. The decision to position Rocket as the lead character is an excellent one, with flashback scenes to his origins being the highlight of the film. Mediocre villains aside, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is another win for the MCU and shows that DC are certainly in good hands with James Gunn.