Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 feels like a miracle of a blockbuster. The long and winding road to finally get here has been one for the books, with so much changing in the world of the Guardians due to the shifting nature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the 5 years since Vol. 2 released, certain characters in the team were “blipped” and then brought back into existence. Thanos actually killed Zoe Saldaña’s Gamora and then she returned as a younger version of herself from the past with no memories of ever knowing the team. The God of Thunder himself briefly joined the Guardians as seen in Thor: Love & Thunder. And, of course, there was a period when writer-director James Gunn was fired from Marvel Studios, delaying Vol. 3 and leading him to make The Suicide Squad and becoming the Co-CEO of DC Films for Warner Bros.
It goes without saying that the last few years have been rough for the MCU as well, with Phase 4 being met with both mixed critical and fan reception and Phase 5 kicking off with the box office disappointment of Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania. The franchise couldn’t be in more need of a hit right now – not just something that brings in the money but also proves that Marvel can still offer awe-inspiring cinematic stories that leave a worthy impact on pop culture and moviegoing itself. It comes with great pleasure to say that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is this and more. Having the most narrative baggage of any MCU film post-Endgame, Gunn’s finale almost shouldn’t work as smoothly as it does. However, that’s one of the reasons why it does succeed, it’s a true ending that closes off this trilogy with everlasting love.
We catch up with the team on their new headquarters on Knowhere. They share the severed head/planet with other of Yondu’s former Ravagers and a wide variety of colorful space misfits, like new member Cosmo the Dog (Maria Bakalova). Despite this progress, things haven’t been going well for the team at all. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) has fallen into a deep depression since losing “his” Gamora. Nebula (Karen Gillan) has taken somewhat of a leadership role but is losing more patience by the day dealing with the chaotic nonsense of Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Kraglin (Sean Gunn) and Groot (Vin Diesel) aren’t of much help either. Much of this builds from The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, which then allows the new conflict to get going fairly quickly as Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) comes tearing through Knowhere on the hunt for Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper).
After years of swashbuckling around the galaxy with his newfound family, Rocket Racoon’s past has finally caught up to him. His original creator, The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), has allowed him to run free all this time but needs him now as Rocket holds the key to solving a failed string of his latest experiments in his blood. Think of the High Evolutionary as a Doctor Moreau-type mad scientist with the sociopathic god complex of your typical self-proclaimed modern geniuses like Elon Musk… mixed in with the business savvy of a Hollywood executive looking to win back his intellectual property, or “IP.” When Rocket’s entire life is on the line after a brutal attack, the team must efficiently work together once more in order to save one of their own. And as the High Evolutionary challenges their unrelenting family bond, the Guardians learn that loving also sometimes means letting go.
Everyone gets time to shine in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, including its many new faces. It’s an incredible balancing act that feels like something James Gunn has been building up to for years, wherein everyone is presented with a final path based on their arcs in previous films. The only storyline that sticks out in this way is the relationship between Gamora and Star-Lord. There’s been speculation on whether or not Gunn totally agreed with her treatment in the last two Avengers films. The pair walking into Vol. 3 as strangers after finally confessing their love for each other in Vol. 2 does feel a bit odd when looking back at this trilogy. However, Gunn ultimately makes the right decision with their shared journey. This isn’t about winning back a lover but winning back a friend, which falls in line with the greater themes at hand.
Admittedly, the only character that does receive the short end of the stick is Will Poulter’s Adam Warlock. He’s surely going to be one of the most divisive aspects of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Poulter carries all the bravado and ferocity needed to make Adam an imposing screen presence and also adapts perfectly to Gunn’s sense of humor, owning some of the funniest beats in the film. Although, this is where some audiences will begin to draw the line, as Warlock is used a bit more as a comedic punching bag here. This is obviously because there’s so much already going on story-wise, so Warlock takes somewhat of a back seat but is still rewarded with some highly memorable moments. Similar to Mantis’ role in Vol. 2 as the main villain’s servant, this is merely his introduction to the franchise.
Diving deeper into the film’s humor, this is the most unfiltered James Gunn has been with the Guardians. This doesn’t necessarily mean raunchier jokes, though you can still expect Gunn’s crude humor in spades. What it really means is allowing his interpretation of the characters to hold nothing back for this last ride. Yes, there are comedic bits that will clearly not be for everyone’s tastes. Yet, all the humor, for as divisive as it may be at times, is never just there to kill time – everything comes back later to inform something new about the characters and their complex relationships. In this regard, Karen Gillan, Dave Bautista, and Pom Klementieff often steal the show. Klementieff and Gillan give their most hilarious and bad-ass performances as Mantis and Nebula, solidifying them as the film’s stealth MVPs. Meanwhile, Bautista brings Drax’s story home with loads of heart and gusto.
Unlike the previous two films, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 boasts more of James Gunn’s Troma roots. This is especially seen with the High Evolutionary and his army of mutated experiments. Peacemaker‘s Chukwudi Iwuji commands the screen and makes no waste of his time, chewing up every line in Gunn’s unhinged script. Given his extensive theatre career, Iwuji injects the villain with a Shakespearean flavor and makes sure he’s utterly detestable til the end; the latest top-tier MCU villain. Some will argue that his origin scenes with Rocket, featuring fan-favorite Otter character Lylla (Linda Cardellini), are manipulative on the audience. Cute animals being tested on does bring inherent horror and Gunn arguably doesn’t hold back on showing grim visuals here. But, again, this is all to inform Rocket’s journey rather than for cheap emotion. Now more than ever, Bradley Cooper deserves praise for giving a resilient vocal performance.
It’s this kind of Troma-inspired madness that gives this finale a unique feel from the trilogy. As aforementioned, Gunn goes as far out as he can for a Marvel movie. Not everyone will be up for his levels of absurdity, and that’s fair because Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 can be mean and unforgiving at times – not in the same ways even the “darkest” of MCU films get. But this kind of story suits that attitude, raising the stakes and leaving no question in your mind that this really is the last ride with this specific Guardians team. The film still balances a beaming spirit that can be felt from start to finish though, with huge credit to cinematographer Henry Braham who frames the most energetic and alive action scenes from the entire trilogy – one being destined for all-time status. You’ll know it when you see it.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 truly marks the end of an era. With Marvel Studios heading in another direction and James Gunn moving over to the worlds of DC, specifically with Superman: Legacy next, this trilogy closer brings fans home by assuring them that endings are not always a bad thing. In fact, they can be the most liberating experience when sent off with unabridged love. The soundtrack of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is filled with deep cuts and bangers, from Radiohead to The The to Spacehog to The Flaming Lips. Yet, when Florence + the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over” hits, you’re wiping away tears and ready to say goodbye in what can only be described as a totally fulfilling final bow. This is the best and most complete MCU trilogy no question, and it’s one that people are going to cherish for a very long time.