Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 opens in theaters on May 5, 2023
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 offers a rare thing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: a satisfying ending to a trilogy. While the Guardians series will probably continue on in some fashion, writer-director James Gunn ties up this iteration of the team with the same humor and heart as the first two, but this time adds in unexpected darkness in the form of Rocket’s genuinely disturbing origin story. It’s what makes this somewhat busy but mostly lovable threequel such an emotionally rich comic book movie.
A lot has happened with the Guardians since Vol. 2 was released in 2017; the original Gamora died, a past version of Gamora survived, and Peter Quill and Mantis learned that they’re brother and sister. Yet Gunn deftly turns that tangled ball of MCU lore threads into a devilishly fun yarn. This film has all the silly dialogue and gags you’d expect but there’s a far more dramatic tone to it, which is a welcome change after the second movie had the characters breathlessly laughing at their own jokes.
It turns out there was a good reason Rocket never shared much about his past. He was created by a power-mad super-scientist known as the High Evolutionary and was subjected to horrific abuse, and it’s in a series of harrowing flashbacks that we come to a whole new understanding of Rocket, and the ever-excellent Bradley Cooper peels back the layers of this gruff raccoon with a tender performance. The method used to show us the flashbacks isn’t the most original, especially if you watched The Book of Boba Fett last year, plus it takes Rocket out of the action for far too long. Still, it cannot be overstated how a cybernetically enhanced raccoon is the emotional lynchpin of this movie–and it works!
The High Evolutionary is played with a maniacal intensity by Chukwudi Iwuji, who delivers his perverted philosophy on perfection with an ice-cold brutality. He’s easy to hate because he’s essentially animal cruelty personified. While his motivation and worldview are certainly something new to the MCU, his high-tech purple armor and blue-energy powers have him looking a tad too much like Kang the Conqueror, another power-mad bad guy we just saw in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. The High Evolutionary is an especially effective villain during the flashbacks because we learn about his misguided search for perfection and watch him inflict his twisted science on Rocket, but he feels far less threatening in the present, largely because the stakes never reach a truly dangerous level.
One major aspect where Guardians 3 sets itself apart from Quantumania is the visual effects, which are vivid and spectacular, from the fleshy and slimy organic space station to the horrific cyborg-animal henchmen. Everything feels crunchy and gross and real, especially during the jaw-dropping all-in-one-take hallway fight for the ages. On the flip side, the rendering of young Rocket and his animal friends are top notch–a perfect blend of cartoonishness and realism, with more big sad eyes than one can handle.
The High Evolutionary’s unique brand of evil offers juicy themes of control and expectation that complement the Guardians’ stories well, particularly that of Peter Quill and Gamora. Quill pines for the old Gamora who fell in love with him, but the Gamora in front of him wants nothing to do with him. There’s a hard lesson to be learned about trying to make someone the person you want them to be as opposed to who they really are, regardless of what came before. This version of Gamora is far closer to the ruthless assassin raised by Thanos than the heroic warrior who originally joined the Guardians, and it was an unexpected joy watching Zoe Saldana act with such rage and brutality, not to mention a scathing impatience towards Quill. For his part, Chris Pratt takes that abuse with his typical schmucky earnestness.
The rest of the Guardians put up a strong showing, and scenes where the entire group gets to play off one another are the best Volume 3 has to offer. We’ve watched them grow into a family over the years and it’s a treat to bask in their chemistry one more time. Karen Gillan’s Nebula is the standout among the group, as she takes a more prominent role and has a new robot arm capable of doing all sorts of cool stuff. Though naturally, there are a few quibbles to be had. Drax and Mantis each get their moment to shine, but by this point their oblivious idiocy has long since been overmined for laughs. Groot is, as always, there to say his three favorite words and kick ass, and with his formidable new physique he does just that, yet considering that this is a movie about Rocket’s past, it’s disappointing we didn’t learn anything about the beginnings of their friendship.
Then there’s Adam Warlock, who is by far the biggest surprise in that he plays a shockingly small role. With the way he was teased at the end of the last Guardians movie, one might think he would be the main big bad, but the High Evolutionary is very much the central antagonist and Warlock is pretty much just his lackey. That’s kind of a letdown because in the comics Warlock is a wise and powerful cosmic being who played a key role in the saga of the Infinity Stones, but with that story already concluded in the MCU, it seems there just wasn’t much left for Warlock to do. Unfortunately, he feels like he’s only in this film out of obligation, and it’s sad to say Volume 3 wouldn’t have been much different if he were cut out. Also, it’s a big departure from the comics that this Warlock is effectively a child in the body of Superman, kind of like Marvel’s version of Shazam. And while Will Poulter does absolutely nail that idea and earn some laughs, it’s hard not to feel disappointed that we lost out on a unique cosmic character and in exchange we got yet another space idiot.
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With a large central cast and many supporting players, along with an always-escalating sense of peril, the plot tends to have one too many things going on at any given moment, but the core focused around Rocket’s trauma is rock solid and acts as an emotional anchor to keep it on track. Ultimately, Guardians 3 finishes the story that began in 2014 and delivers well-earned answers and closure for this family of misfits. There’s a sophistication to Gunn’s storytelling that’s completely singular to the Guardians movies, where humor, heart, and song intertwine. That’s on full display throughout the film and it’s a delight to enjoy one last time before he puts on a red cape and flies over to DC Studios.