The Marvel Cinematic Universe heads back into deep space with its second entry of Phase Five, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. While we’ve seen the Guardians pop up in a few other MCU entries here and there since 2017’s Vol. 2, this proper sequel puts audiences back on board with this lovable crew of misfits, who fight, bicker, and blast their way through another very earnest space opera. For writer/director James Gunn, this is the end of the line for his take on this particular team of Guardians. With that in mind, he pushes many emotional buttons to deliver a bittersweet finale but still finds time to be action-packed and hilarious. Whether or not this film hits every idea out of the park, it’s still a visual dazzler and quite the awesome mix of sci-fi/superhero fun.
With the mystery of Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) parentage out of the way, this adventure places Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) at the center. While continuing to adjust to life at their new headquarters set up on Knowhere (the massive severed head of a deceased Celestial), the Guardians are attacked by a powerful being known as Adam Warlock (Will Poulter). Rocket is injured, and due to new knowledge regarding the genetic engineering he suffered in the past, it will take some effort to keep him alive. To accomplish this, the Guardians must go on a quest that will bring them to the attention of the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), the scientist responsible for Rocket, who specializes in creating hybrid creatures.
Having already mentioned several characters and unique locations, it must be stated – this film looks spectacular. Even when considering another extended third act reliant on so much CG chaos on display, so much detail can be found in the craft on display. A ton of practical effects, wild makeup and costume designs, and a great deal of effort put into creating unique sets (largely shot for glorious IMAX) means there will be plenty to observe in repeated viewings. Better yet, Gunn just seems to get how to handle all of this.
Particularly in recent years, plenty of not untalented filmmakers handling various MCU entries (along with other huge franchise blockbusters) can’t seem to allow their voice to stand out, let alone turn up with an effective display of what high budgets can afford them. Meanwhile, with seemingly the same resources, Gunn delivers so much in his choices. There’s real thought behind all the angles, set pieces, close-ups, and more that reflect the goal for the characters or the themes on display. It’s been a real benefit to these Guardians films, and one can only hope this effort rubs off in the right way on other MCU projects, let alone in the DC Universe, where Gunn will be helping to shepherd things going forward.
For a film that provides so much colorful delight visually, there is also the lively character work. It’s no secret that the MCU gets by on the charm of its casts. Various big names may not get much to do in this 30+ film series, but they inhabit characters in a way that makes audiences want to see more of them. The most satisfactory entries, however, allow the actors to find something more profound in who they are portraying. This is where Guardians of the Galaxy shines. Looking at this third and final entry, focusing on this set of characters, it really feels like each actor wants to truly complete their on-screen persona’s arc.
Pratt became a star thanks to these movies, and he continues to be at his best in the role of Quill, aka Star-Lord. Even with a motivation that relies a bit too much on not understanding that Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) is not the same person he loved, you really feel for a guy who has suffered a lot of loss and yet still wants to occupy the role of a cool smuggler who now does good. Meanwhile, Saldaña is given new angles to play thanks to being in a different mindset following the events of Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame.
Gamora’s sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), is one of the best characters in this film, thanks to the effort put into making her cold demeanor work as a source of humor for the story and one that challenges those around her. The added complexity of being a former villain now positioned to do a lot of good leaves her in an interesting limbo, which is called out by the others.
In the same realm of intense characters, there’s Dave Bautista’s Drax, who is similarly a lot of fun thanks to the personality he’s perfected over the course of these three films. Paying closer attention shows just how much Drax has actually evolved. It’s not easy to play dim, and having that as the result of being a character that takes everything literally, means Bautista has to find shades in what could be a limiting role. Instead, a significant amount of effort is taking place, which continues to reflect well on Pom Klementieff’s Mantis, who somehow became the ideal scene partner for Bautista. Her matter-of-fact demeanor that comes in the form of an empath, does well to complete this set of Guardians.
Each of these roles is important to the film, and there’s enough room for all of them to have their time to shine. It threatens to become a bit too overwrought when one character after another finds the time to monologue about what it is exactly that’s going on in their head or how they feel about another, but it also speaks to a core aspect of Vol. 3 – these are all characters who genuinely care for each other. Many MCU films attempt to play down the wonder by having the characters act flippant to some of the spectacular sights around them. This film is so incredibly earnest, which, in turn, allows it all to feel very honest, whether dealing with strange surroundings or personal connections.
With that in mind, steering the story lean more towards Rocket may mean dealing exclusively with CGI characters, as we are given multiple flashbacks to his past, where we see Rocket’s other friends, but it is no less affecting. Between the vocal work, what’s being shown to us as far as the impact of what the young raccoon had gone through, and how this connects to the present-day story, it’s pretty wild how fulfilling it is to have this series reveal its true protagonist, let alone base the stakes around these characters wanting to come together to save him.
Serving as the counter to our Guardians, it’s important to point out just how brilliantly conceived Iwuji’s High Evolutionary is. His dark emotional core makes him so detestable, yet he’s captivating to watch. This is a character who believes himself to be doing work equivalent to God. In doing so, he takes on all the worst aspects of a person with that sort of complex. The High Evolutionary is narcissistic, sociopathic, and unflinching in his aspirations, meaning Iwuji has no reason to dial anything back. Perhaps best of all, the audience is allowed to just watch this man be evil. No tragic backstory is necessary to explain where this all came from. That’s just how this character is, making for a straightforward yet very credible threat. Particularly with Black actors who are so rarely afforded the opportunity to be such a force of malevolence in a major tentpole, there’s a lot to enjoy from this aspect of the film.
His actions play into why this movie also strikes so many emotional chords. Gunn clearly wants to show how much of a passion project it’s been with this final Guardians entry, and he does so by pushing characters to breaking points and testing the audience with harsh developments. This is a pretty hard PG-13 by the MCU standards, and that comes from not only being super weird (which it is) but quite violent in unexpected ways. Yes, many of the gonzo sensibilities from the former Troma filmmaker who made Slither and Super are very present in the action and comedy scenes, but there’s a lot of darkness to accompany the light.
Still, a lot of joy is derived from seeing the Guardians together on missions. It’s so evident that Gunn and these actors get how to lean into the arguing that it makes the comradery really register, allowing the world these characters inhabit to feel more lived in while hilarity ensues. Even more impressive is watching the tensions explode into action sequences, and these characters all knowing how to work in sync. With the range of powers on display, there’s one very obvious scene (crafted to resemble a long take) that allows audiences to get a load of the entire team in action at once, and it’s glorious.
This speaks to the music as well. Gunn has gotten so much out of arranging the soundtracks for these films that it’s no surprise to see that pay off once again here. Basing choices around the scene’s mood, the plot’s ideas, and what would bring this team together, so much of what is heard nails the offbeat nature of what the Guardians films offer. Whether it’s Faith No More, The Flaming Lips, or Heart, it’s all enormously effective in hitting at something unique to this story. Even tracks more regularly used in media land with an impact stronger than I’ve seen in recent years.
That will no doubt perk up audiences, who may be reeling from sections of the film designed to get at the audience. Outside of hitting at base feelings one has regarding things such as the treatment of animals, in particular, the somber undercurrent hits at some deeper thoughts. One comes from the more relevant idea of those choosing not to accept others for who they are and going to extremes to craft their versions at the expense of so much. Another theme stems from Gunn’s ideas for finality. Getting past the simple (and less interesting) choice of who lives or dies to raise the stakes, it feels like this MCU entry is self-aware of its own life expectancy. I’d go as far as to say this factors into some of those song choices as well, as this is a film that spends time looking at its importance in the entirety of the cinema space and whether or not it’s time to move on. Again, Gunn just seems to get how to approach this stuff better than many.
If there’s any issue, it comes down to how many big swings one can take without missing a few times. Packing in so many ideas means the expansive cast can’t all register, and I’m mainly looking at Poulter’s Adam Warlock. Not a bad performance, but it does feel like it gets the short shrift in the grand scheme of things. I wouldn’t say bloat is as big an issue as I thought it was in Vol. 2 (which is still largely outstanding), but there does come a time when the action extravaganza feels like it needs to get on with it already.
These are merely minor points to make, however, as James Gunn has really done something remarkable with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 – he delivered a very satisfying trilogy capper. The stars shine, the visuals pop, and the motivations behind the story really hit in decidedly heartfelt ways. Making a sincere summer blockbuster that’s part of one of Disney’s major franchise machines is no simple task, and yet here we are with a group of a-holes that we truly care about. It’s been a wild ride, but they managed to pull it off once more with feeling.