Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

Marvel's ragtag space crew says its farewell with an entertaining and soulful last ride — and a welcome focus on Rocket.
Sarah Ward
May 03, 2023

Overview

Bickering and bantering. Battling all over space. Blasting retro tunes. That's Guardians of the Galaxy's holy trinity, no matter where its ragtag crew happens to be in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1, Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt, The Super Mario Bros Movie) and his pals have offered the MCU something shinier than the gold-hued Adam Warlock (Will Poulter, Dopesick): a reprieve from the ever-sprawling franchise's standard self-seriousness. Friends but really family, because Vin Diesel is involved, this superhero team got gleefully goofy in their initial big-screen outing, 2017 sequel Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and 2022's straight-to-streaming The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. They've popped up elsewhere across the comic-book film saga plying a sense of silliness, too. Welcomely, even when they're slipping into Avengers and Thor flicks, they've always felt like their own distinctive group surfing their own humorous but heartfelt wavelength, a power that isn't generally shared across Marvel's output.

Arriving to close out the Guardians' standalone trilogy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 zooms into the movie series' fifth phase with a difference: it's still a quippy comedy, but it's as much a drama and a tragedy as well. Like most on-screen GotG storylines, it's also heist caper — and as plenty of caped-crusader flicks are, within the MCU or not, it's an origin story. The more that a James Gunn-written and -directed Guardians film gets cosy within the usual Marvel template, however, the more that his branch of Marvel's pop-culture behemoth embraces its own personality. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 couldn't cling tighter to its needle drops, of course, which leap to the 90s and 00s this time and hit with all the subtlety of a Zune player being thrown at the audience. It also stuffs out its duration and over-packs its plot. But, the obligatory post-credits sting aside, this farewell to part of the MCU always feels like a zippy, self-contained Guardians of the Galaxy movie — including when it's also a touching dive into Rocket's (Bradley Cooper, Nightmare Alley) history — rather than a placeholder for more and more future franchise instalments.

That said, thanks to past MCU chapters, this third Guardians effort begins with Rocket feeling alone in the world, and Quill drunk and despondent. (The soundtrack: an acoustic version of Radiohead's 'Creep'.) The latter's beloved Gamora (Zoe Saldaña, Avatar: The Way of Water) is no longer the same woman he shared a galaxy-saving life with — instead, she's an alternate version who can't recall their romance — and he isn't coping. Demigod Warlock scorching his way through the Guardians' floating home of Knowhere snaps him into action, though, when their flying interloper tries to raccoon-nap Rocket. Only tracking down the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji, Peacemaker) will save the gang's gravely injured furry friend, which means a face-off with the megalomaniac inventor who made the genetically engineered critter and is militant in his quest to create a utopia.

As Quill and fellow Guardians OGs Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista, Knock at the Cabin) and Groot (Diesel, Fast and Furious 9) go a-rescuing — with the icier Gamora along for the ride for a payday, plus later crew additions Mantis (Pom Klementieff, Thunder Force), Nebula (Karen Gillan, Dual), Kraglin (Sean Gunn, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel) and Cosmo the Spacedog (Maria Bakalova, Bodies Bodies Bodies) doing their bits in various ways — it's impossible not to see art imitating life in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. A universe-creating overlord who is obsessed with dominance and perfection, and also intellectual property rights, being challenged by a thick-as-thieves troupe who'd rather be happy and scrappy? Yes, this is the movie that Gunn has whipped up for his brief trip back to Marvel following a controversy-sparked visit to the DC Extended Universe to direct The Suicide Squad and TV's Peacemaker, and before getting installed as that rival realm's new co-head honcho.

Just as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 doesn't ever scream "all that matters is setting up the next movies!", which is a relief after that's all Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania did, Gunn doesn't ever lay his real-life parallels on too thickly. He's busier ensuring that the Guardians' tussle with their all-controlling foe is as irreverent as it is emotional — bringing up those family bonds like Groot should be cracking a Corona, too — while pinballing between settings and setpieces. The gang's lively time on a base crafted out of organic matter is an eye-catchingly squidgy and fleshy standout; from the tactile production and costume design through to supporting parts by Gunn's The Suicide Squad star Daniela Melchior and his Slither lead Nathan Fillion, it's delightfully executed. And yet, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is at its best when it's jetting backwards to when a young Rocket was dreaming of being more than a mad scientist's test subject — of being more than the GotG version of Frankenstein's monster, that is.

Spending a fair chunk of the film's hefty 150-minute running time in origin mode could've proven mere padding. Instead, in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3's present, it's the fight scenes that just keep coming that play that way. So does the Drax-and-Mantis double act after the movie's midway point, even with Bautista and Klementieff still firing in their comfortable comic pairing. When he's just a kit in a cage, having Rocket form a band of misfit toys with otter Lylla (Linda Cardellini, Dead to Me), walrus Teefs (Asim Chaudhry, What's Love Got to Do with It?) and rabbit Floor (Mikaela Hoover, The Suicide Squad) could've been too saccharine as well, but these unflinchingly bleak, earnest and empathetic flashbacks brim with soul and heart. The GotG flicks have always been about finding somewhere to belong and someone to belong with, after all, with this swansong thoughtfully explores how and why that need to connect is so deeply wired in through pain and trauma.

A Guardians film that beams brightest when there's only one Guardian in focus — and not the 70s- and 80s-worshipping, Patrick Swayze name-dropping Quill? Perhaps that's why the trilogy is coming to an end. At their core, Rocket's Vol. 3 storyline and Quill's Vol. 2's daddy issues have more than a little in common, but shifting the GotG series' attention past the team's biggest Footloose fan is refreshing almost a decade in. (And while Pratt fits this big-name franchise better than Jurassic World, basically playing Burt Macklin: Space Protector, Cooper's excellent voice work makes him Vol. 3's MVP.) Knowing when something's time has come is a hard lesson to learn, of course. Among Gunn's many trademarks overseeing playful entries with a distinctive personality in an oft-formulaic broader saga, swinging big with difficult emotions, choices and realisations has always ranked up there with jokey patter and as anarchic a vibe as the MCU would let him get away with. Naturally, he signs off from Guardians in that exact fashion — and with a picture that relishes being its own thing, bloat, repetitive gags, well-worn dynamics, over-used music and all, over ticking franchise boxes.

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