Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 arrives in theaters just in time to remind fans why we love the MCU. Namely, an affection for the characters who’ve lept, zapped, or otherwise backflipped from comic books to the silver screen. Sure, the rousing spectacle of a two-hour, $200 million blockbuster is all there too, but the heart of any great MCU film, particularly the ones with a ginormous cast, is, well, its heart. Vol. 3 takes more than a few cues from Pixar to tug at our vascular strings, not letting go until the credits (and the two bonus scenes) have rolled. As an emotionally resonant and hilarious entry, the beloved sci-fi comedy trilogy about this ragtag group of misfits is now complete.
Just as he did with his previous non-MCU film, The Suicide Squad, writer/director James Gunn taps into ample amounts of care and concern for this wacky, non-traditional family led by Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord. And what better way to really hit home such sentiment than to have a plot centered around saving the life of Guardians’ MVP — the wisecracking Rocket (Bradley Cooper).
The bulk of the run time jumps back and forth between the present with Peter Quill, Nebula (Karen Gillan), Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Groot (voiced with gravelly authority by Vin Diesel) moving across the galaxy, hoping to find a cure for the ailing “not a raccoon,” and the past where Rocket and a bunch of other cute animals were horribly experimented on by the film’s main baddie, The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). Another way to view Vol. 3 is the past stuff is an even sadder version of the mangled toys by Sid in the original Toy Story, while the present stuff delivers the expected hilarious banter between the crew, Gamora 2.0 (Zoe Saldaña), and a bunch of newcomers like Will Poulter’s powerful but a dum dum golden boy, Adam Warlock.
Given what I witnessed, this is the first MCU film where I thought, “This is PG-13, right?” (It is.) We’ve all known Rocket had excruciating pain growing up (the scars on his back, the resentment in his eyes), but living through the experience of seeing baby Rocket when he was just known as “Subject 89P13” treated terribly along with an adorable otter named Lylla (Linda Cardellini) and other creatures is hard to watch. Gunn and his cast earn all the feels on display.
Thankfully, the present-day portion of the film has some of the best comedic moments of all the Guardians films (and their appearances in other MCU flicks, as well.) Drax and Mantis have both blossomed from being kind of one-note funny in earlier entries to much more nuanced, more humane, yet still smile-inducing versions of themselves. Peter Quill versus his sort-of ex, Gamora (who now hangs with Sylvester Stallone’s Stakar Ogord), could easily fall into sitcom “will they, won’t they” schtick but Gunn wisely takes their chemistry to unforeseen hilarity. Gillan’s blue-skinned cyborg, Nebula, also has a ton of strong physicality to play with, as well as heart too.
As the de facto leader, Pratt’s Star-Lord is doing good work. Making choices, some moments emphasize the actor’s comedy chops while others have a more vulnerable side. Better than Vol. 2, Peter, aka Star-Lord, is stronger when his external struggles are less about his own past. Focusing on his best friend’s (or “second best,” to hear Drax clarify) past is a much better fit. Pratt goes from heartbreak to goofball effortlessly.
As for the new villain, Iwuji’s The High Evolutionary is more effective in the first half as a brilliant scientist whose ambition gets the better of him. Sadly, as the big finale approaches, he tends to scream a lot in that grating way Gary Oldman did in The Fifth Element. Still, it hardly matters when the experience of Rocket and his fellow imprisoned pals hits so hard emotionally.
From a visual level, the cinematography by Henry Braham is as lush as his work on Vol. 2. The way the color palette seems to favor signature accents like the blue hues of the Guardians’ outfits to the bold all-gold tint of Adam Warlock’s skin is superb. The production design by Beth Mickle and the costumes by Judianna Makovsky have nods to the previously mentioned The Fifth Element and other lesser-known sci-fi films as well. A scene involving primary colors spacesuits is visually stunning and playful in a way only a Guardians film can be.
Like the cassettes my mom used to make for her Datsun B10 hatchback, Vol. 3‘s music tracks are top-notch. Moving into the 90s and 00s via Quill’s Zune player, Radiohead’s classic, “Creep,” is the perfect opener. Other hits like Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over” supply plenty of music-themed highlights throughout.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 should be seen on the biggest possible. The IMAX format does wonders for the candy-colored space opera. Will this be the end of Star-Lord and the rest of the gang? I doubt it, but that doesn’t make the emotions felt in this installment any less palpable.