Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
An uneven but emotionally charged conclusion to James Gunn's Marvel trilogy.
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It’s hardly contentious anymore to say that the past few years have not been Marvel Studios’ finest, as they’ve struggled to establish a clear and appealing way forward in the wake of Avengers: Endgame. Particularly the last few releases, like Thor: Love and Thunder and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, have disappointed both critically and financially, leaving audiences with the lingering feeling that Marvel has lost their touch.
What a perfect time to release the epic finale to a beloved series within the franchise—one that promises to squeeze the heart and wring tears from the eyes. Similarly to how Spider-Man: No Way Home promised (and delivered on) an emotional and high-stakes climax at the end of a lackluster year for the studio in 2021, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 arrives at just the right moment in hopes of reminding audiences why they’ve stuck around through another bout of rough waters.
However, I’m not sure Vol. 3 will have enough of the same broad appeal to make it the lifeboat for public opinion that No Way Home was.
That’s not a criticism, but it was clear at my screening that the room was somewhat divided. Several people I spoke to loved it. A few really hated it. I found myself somewhere north of center, enjoying the opportunity for one more ride with these lovable misfits but simultaneously frustrated by how the film functions (or malfunctions) as a conclusion to many of their stories.
Picking up a couple years after Endgame, we find the Guardians in a bit of a lull. They’ve recently converted Knowhere (the excavated head of a Celestial and the former home to intergalactic exoticist The Collector) into their new base of operations, as well as a refuge for those lost and adrift, both in space and in life.
Things seem relatively peaceful, at least externally, but a deep melancholy hangs over the group. Rocket (Bradley Cooper) begrudgingly organizes things with the help of Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Drax (Dave Bautista), Groot (Vin Diesel), and Kraglin (Sean Gunn) help out where they can.
But there is an emptiness at the core of their day-to-day efforts, exemplified most clearly by their former-leader-turned-sad-drunk, Peter Quill, a.k.a. “Star Lord” (Chris Pratt). He does nothing but drink all day to cope with the loss of his love, Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), at the hands of her father, Thanos—she’s the latest in a long line of losses he’s never fully been able to recover from. Peter’s friends have gotten all too-used to dragging his incapacitated body home from the bar and tucking him into bed.
It’s a notably more somber opening than the previous two entries, both of which rolled credits to the tune of a rip-roaring 70s hit, but it feels entirely appropriate here. Although they still have each other, they don’t quite get along all the time, and they seem to be lacking a sense of unity in the absence of their friends—Gamora physically, and Peter emotionally.
Their somber solace is interrupted when Adam (Will Poulter), a super-enhanced entity created by the Sovereign, bursts into their home to collect Rocket by force. Apparently, Rocket’s unique mental and physical enhancements make him a highly sought-after target for an elusive and powerful being known as the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji).
Jolted back to reality by the threat to his best friend’s life, Peter becomes desperate to keep Rocket safe. He can’t lose anybody else. The only way to protect him is to get more information on the High Evolutionary and the cybernetic alterations to Rocket’s body. So the Guardians set off into the stars once again.
It’s a compelling launchpad for a final story about this found-family finding each other once again. And despite the main narrative thrust coming from Peter, Vol. 3 arguably does a better job than the previous films at balancing the focus between every member of the team, rather than keeping him front and center at the others’ expense. Everyone is in something of an emotional limbo, unsure of their relationship with one another or their purpose in life. All they know right now is that they need to do everything they can to keep Rocket safe.
Rocket, however, is not actively involved in the proceedings for the bulk of the movie. (More on that later.) Our time with the rambunctious raccoon is primarily spent in flashbacks. We see how he came to be the Frankensteined machine-mammal that he is today, and it’s not pretty. Viewers who are easily upset by sad animals being tortured and mistreated might have a bad time. The darkness is earned, and provides some catharsis later on, but things do get alarmingly bleak for awhile.
In fact, with Vol. 3, I think Gunn has pushed the envelope of a Marvel PG-13 rating just about to its limit. Even beyond the animal cruelty (in the story, not the production), the language and graphic violence are harsher than many MCU fans might be used to. Personally, I found this to be refreshing; I’m not one to whine about Marvel movies being “too kiddy” or needing any amount of hyperviolence, but I appreciate when filmmakers push up against the boundaries of what has come to define the franchise. It does mean Vol. 3 is slightly less kid-friendly than its predecessors, but at the same time, those who saw the first film in theaters as children are most likely adults now (or at least of an age at which they’ve likely seen far worse than this).
Despite the increased intensity of the violence, the use of elaborate action sequences might actually be more sparing than before—not to say that there isn’t any action, but it’s more spaced-out, coming and going more quickly. Sharper hits, shorter fights. We do get some complex choreo and cinematography during the finale, which is more than welcome. One particular corridor fight is among my favorite Marvel action scenes of the past few years.
Gunn once again shows his love for composition and movement in the film’s visual aesthetic, and the vibrant, diverse production design that the Guardians films are known for continues. Vol. 3 bears a markedly darker and duller color palette than the previous films, but it feels like a deliberate stylization and is clearly distinguishable from the “Oops, we forgot to color-grade our raw footage!” look that hampers many of the MCU’s other entries.
Another highlight is Iwudi’s energetic, sometimes terrifying performance as High Evolutionary. While H.E. isn’t the most complex or interesting villain in his own right, he’s a great foil to our heroes and an effective antithesis to the film’s themes of family and compassion, and Iwudi leverages the character’s extreme misanthropy and sadism to give us one of the most unhinged and psychotic villain turns in the franchise.
In general, if you loved the previous two movies for the fun, chaotic romps that they were, you’re still getting that in droves with Vol. 3. The film works plenty well as yet another adventure through space with these loose-canon rebels.
I was somewhat less satisfied by it, however, as a conclusive note for many of its central characters’ stories. It’s difficult to dissect my frustrations without delving into spoilers (which I will continue to avoid), but the best encapsulation I’ve come up with is this: many of the “endings” that characters are given here feel thrust upon them, primarily because Gunn decided this was his last outing, and not entirely because they made complete sense for or were totally earned by the characters.
Toward the end, we get a roundtable discussion in which each remaining member states where they’re at and what they feel they need to do from here. Such a roll-call might be fine if each declaration was built toward throughout the film, but not all of them are, resulting in what feels like some eyebrow-raise uncertainty about why a given character’s story should be ending at this time or in this particular way. Even before this scene, there are moments of dramatic tension squeezed into certain characters’ stories late in the film that just don’t feel necessary to the current journey that they’re on.
My other main frustration, which has gnawed at the back of my head for the past week, is Rocket. For a story that revolves almost entirely around Rocket and his personal history, he gets shockingly little to do. His journey is mostly one of recount, rather one that unfolds for him in real-time with the audience. As a result, his story lacks much of the agency and growth we saw in him in the previous films.
To some degree, I can appreciate this as a deliberate choice on Gunn's part. What we see and learn of Rocket this time around is more for the purpose of further informing qualities of his character that we already knew, rather than taking him to a new or unexpected place or teaching us new things about him. But in the end, he winds up feeling short-changed, especially as the others around him experience so much in the “present” throughout the movie, without his involvement or awareness. It disconnects him from the others, and when he is finally back in the mix again, it’s almost too little, too late to land with emotional power.
There are also a few key emotional beats that don’t work as well as they deserve because of how ridden they are with screenwriting clichés. As irreverent and unexpected as Gunn is as a writer—throughout his career and even in this movie—there are times where it feels like he falls too comfortably back on convention to deliver a scene. I can forgive a lot in the name of a beautifully poignant moment for a character I love, but my suspension of disbelief is not without its limits, and Gunn flirts pretty gratuitously with breaking it at times.
Still, Vol. 3 works more often than it doesn’t. Gunn and his cast know these characters intimately and are able to evoke a level of vulnerability and earnestness from them that isn’t often achieved in blockbusters. While I may not have been totally convinced by where each character eventually ended up, I was thoroughly invested in their journey there.
This isn’t a finale that takes the easy or obvious route at most of its intersections. In some places, Gunn exhibits a maturity that I’m not sure he could have in his previous films, and I admire the film for that. I’m always a fan of having my expectations subverted at the movies—yes, even since the phrase has been exhausted of meaning by chuds coping with their disappointment in The Last Jedi.
But in other spots, it feels as though Gunn unnecessarily complicated things for himself while he was writing, making interesting choices early on in the script but not knowing what to do with them later. In then end, we get a mishmash of emotions as certain characters get their due, others don’t, but all of them provide us with one last blast of an adventure.
It’s interesting to look at the critical response online. Vol. 3 currently sits lower than its predecessors on Rotten Tomatoes—equal to Vol. 2 on Metacritic. I’d call that fair, as I had similar issues with the uneven emotional arcs of 2, but found its finale to be better-earned and more emotionally resonant. Regardless, I think Vol. 3 might prove to be fairly divisive among audiences. It will click with a lot of people, as it did at my screening, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a large portion of viewers will take even greater issue with its shortcomings than I did.