Filmmaker James Gunn finishes his tenure at Marvel Studios and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3, the finale of his classic trilogy about misfit cosmic heroes.
Gunn has been able to maintain the same level of heart, humor and action throughout all three Guardians of the Galaxy film with the third film, and in some ways he elevated it with his MCU swan song.
Taking place years after the first two films and the events of the last Avengers films, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 brings back all the loony and loveable heroes. Now the owners of Knowhere, a cosmic mining station made up of a dead Celestial’s skull, the Guardians are more administrators than intergalactic heroes. The film begins with a flashback origin of Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a cybernetically and genetically enhanced raccoon with genius-level intellect. This tragic origin story peppers the film throughout and underscores the emotional and physical pain that Rocket endures in his life. The origin features some of the most gut-wrenching moments in the film and elevates Rocket into a true hero.
After the flashback we are taken to Knowhere where we meet again the other Guardians. Their leader Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) has become a drunk because he is unable to get over the loss of his girlfriend Gamora (Zoë Saldaña), who was killed during Avengers: Infinity War. Adding to his misery is that another version of Gamora from an alternate timeline exists, but she does not have any feelings for him. As his fellow Guardians try to console him, they are attacked by Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a golden, artificially created super-powered person. Though he is defeated by the Guardians, he gravely injures Rocket before he leaves them. The rest of the film focuses on the efforts of Quill and the other Guardians to find a way to save their friend. The other Guardians include the powerful but dim-witted Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket’s BFF, the tree-like Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), the empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and the cyborg Nebula (Karen Gillan). During their intergalactic journey, they soon cross paths with the insane geneticist and Rocket’s creator, the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), who has been hunting Rocket for his own diabolical purposes.
While the film continues the same irreverent tone as the previous entries in the trilogy, it does stand on its own due to its more mature atmosphere. The characters have grown since we first saw them in 2014 and are looking for something more with their lives. This was a rather unexpected and logical thing to do with the characters, because while they have become a family unit, they have to evolve and continue in their own journeys. The core characters, especially Rocket and Peter Quill, each have their own unique arcs and level of development, whether they have to deal with their painful pasts or prove they are much more than what others think of them. Rocket and Quill’s arcs have powerful and engaging arcs that form the heart and soul of the film and elevate it above standard superhero films. These character moments were richly satisfying and came to appropriate conclusions.
Unlike the other films, there is an intense feeling of dread and melancholy that pervades the film as the Guardians face their potential doom at every corner. Without giving anything away, there were many moments where I thought that was it for certain characters. This shows how intensely we’ve become attached to these plucky and quirky heroes. James Gunn skillfully exploits our feelings with each peril he throws at them. What helps underscore this mood is that Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 is not as goofy as the other films, although it has its fair share of laugh-out scenes. That is alright. This film avoided the missteps of Thor: Love and Thunder where that film got lost in its over-indulgence of silly humor to the detriment of some of its subject matter. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 succeeded where the last Thor film did not in that it treated much of its subject matter seriously and avoided inappropriate silliness.
While the High Evolutionary is the best villain the Guardians have faced in their films, he could have used more nuance, although Iwuji does a fantastic job in his performance as a callous and dismissive scientist with a twisted heart. His cruel actions towards his test subjects, including Rocket during the flashbacks, are a vivid and emotional presentation of one of the film’s themes about animal cruelty and the morality of using animals for scientific research. What the High Evolutionary does to Rocket and others makes us openly hate him. To be honest some of the scenes featuring the High Evolutionary’s test subjects may be too intense for some viewers. So be warned.
The other actors in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 put in some of their best performances. You could tell they are very invested in their characters and knowing this film will be their final time playing the characters, they elevate their craft beautifully. What helps, of course, is that unlike many sequels, the characters are allowed to grow and evolve. Thanks to their performances and how the characters were written, by the time the film comes to its end many viewers will be openly crying, while the rest will pretend they have something in their eyes.
There are a few minor nitpicks with the film that are not really worth mentioning. Maybe Adam Warlock could have used more screentime, but so could have other characters like Kraglin (Sean Gunn), but they do get their moments to contribute and shine, and even give a hint of what is to come.
How does Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 compare to the others in the trilogy? Well, it is much better than the second film and is about on level with the first one, though they are both distinctly different from one another. Given its level of greatness, it is easily one of the finest MCU films, and the best one in recent years, aside from Spider-Man: No Way Home and Avengers: Endgame. Given the recent missteps in the MCU, it is a joyful relief that the cinematic universe can still deliver a film that emotionally involves us.