Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

2023, PG-13, 150 min. Directed by James Gunn. Voices by Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper. Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Chukwudi Iwuji, Maria Bakalova, Sean Gunn, Will Poulter, Elizabeth Debicki.

REVIEWED By Trace Sauveur, Fri., May 5, 2023

The films generated out of the Guardians of the Galaxy division at MCU Inc. have always been a bit like their titular team: more uninhibited than the upstanding heroics of their dignified counterparts in the Avengers, but ultimately still working within the same conceptual framework of world-saving. They’re also similar because, despite overwhelming forces desperately trying (and sometimes succeeding) to pull them apart, they manage to come out largely intact and unscathed.

And so it goes with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, what is reputedly the final entry in James Gunn’s mini-saga that feels somewhat smuggled into the larger Marvel apparatus. Though not the only trilogy of films in the series to be helmed by the same director – the Spider-Man and Ant-Man films were all directed by Jon Watts and Peyton Reed, respectively – it is the only one from a director who seems to try and make the mold of a hulking enterprise work around his vision instead of the other way around.

It’s not a foolproof scenario, but it has seen consistent results, if nothing else. This new Guardians follows directly in the footsteps of its predecessors: still hampered by the defects of an oversaturated franchise, but with enough of its own plucky eccentricity and genuine charm that it’s still basically a good time. That it manages to credibly tie up the emotional throughlines of its ragtag team even in the face of storyline curveballs lobbed in by extraneous MCU entries is a marvel of its own.

The most glaring of these details looms over the film's beginning: Gamora (Saldaña). She’s not dead, but she’s not the version that roguish leader Peter Quill (Pratt) built a relationship with, either, and now she’s off scavenging and thieving with the piratical Ravagers. Things kick off on an aptly somber note, as the typically wisecracking Rocket (Cooper) takes a silent walk around giant floating head-turned-space base Knowhere, watching the daily antics of his friends in their new home while listening to a gloomy acoustic rendition of “Creep” by Radiohead (the first of many needle drops in a series with a large emphasis on them). He comes across Quill in an angry, drunken stupor over his lost love – far removed from his typical sarcastic charm.

The emotion is poignant but quickly – some may say “jarringly” or “abruptly” – shifts to intensity as a golden Will Poulter, introducing the character of Adam Warlock to the big screen, pummels his way into Knowhere with his sights set on Rocket. The Guardians manage to incapacitate Adam but not before Rocket is put in danger of dying via an apparent kill switch put in him by the High Evolutionary (Iwuji), his depraved creator (how this thing has never been triggered before beats me).

Thus, the stage is set for another adventure for our Guardians, although one with a bit of a Rocket deficit as he’s left largely out of commission while the rest of the team races to obtain the device to save him. Nevertheless, Vol. 3 is predominantly Rocket’s movie, the events in the present interspersed with flashbacks from Rocket’s past when he was living as an experimental test subject and prisoner with a collection of other anthropomorphized animals – his first real family as a conscious, intelligent being.

How emotionally compelling Rocket’s origins are to you mostly depends on how much you actually care about these characters vs. how much you enjoy these films as pleasantly shaggy and fluffy space opera pastiches – or how much the tragedy of cute little talking animals makes you cry, which, fair. Still, the actual story of this thing once again feels like a pestering obligation to the real highlight: just letting the Guardians do their thing. The dysfunctional found-family dynamics of the group are just as gratifying as ever; Rocket’s absence actually gives the newer recruits like Mantis (Klementieff) and Nebula (Gillan) a chance to prove their value as genuine members of the team; and Gunn is able to utilize the alternative timeline version of Gamora as an interesting new wrinkle.

It’s superficial fun but fun all the same, and Gunn and cinematographer Henry Braham are reliable for fashioning a more dynamic image than the flat, murky CG mush other MCU films are subject to. The action isn’t particularly innovative but is legible and mostly satisfying – one long-take sequence set to “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” is memorable, though far from groundbreaking.

Such an idea encompasses the Guardians series: The films are still beholden to overly expository, cliched storytelling, but the group of weirdos at the center of them are depicted with enough care and idiosyncrasy that it sets them apart in their own fashion. For a franchise in the throes of a post-Endgame wheel-spinning slump, and with a less-than-compelling upcoming slate of films, Guardians Vol. 3 is a refreshing, if overstuffed, respite. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t feel bittersweet to be seeing them off for the last time.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, James Gunn, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Chukwudi Iwuji, Maria Bakalova, Sean Gunn, Will Poulter, Elizabeth Debicki

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