As fans and consumers of superhero movies and fiction, we arrive at the 32nd film of the connected and so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe. We have written about it here at mxdwn often, both the quality and enthusiasm for the product and the massive financial success of each successive movie. Following the mega (and well-earned) success of the Avengers: Endgame, Marvel Studios, much like everything about our world, had its share of speed bumps thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Release dates shifted, production schedules were rearranged, and one of their brightest new stars, Chadwick Boseman, tragically passed away due to cancer. There was even a widely publicized dispute between the studio and their outgoing star Scarlett Johansson over revenue incentives and deploying her long-awaited movie Black Widow via Disney+ instead of in theaters as planned initially.
And as the pandemic ooged away—slowly and painfully—the Marvel machine spun back up, and a bevy of long-promised features started to fire out. This new release, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, makes for the fourth movie to hit theatres since July 8th last year and the fifth in just under a year if you go back to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness on May 6th, 2022. The problem is, while we liked Thor: Love and Thunder and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever for the elements that made them unique, nearly every one of these releases fans found underwhelming or downright bad. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania seemed particularly unfocused and off-model. The cries of “superhero fatigue” have become progressively louder from pundits and self-professed experts. The good news is that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is freaking fabulous.
Easily the best MCU film since Avengers: Endgame, it makes for a stellar finale to this trilogy of GOTG stories and a pretty awesome defiance of expectations and cynical judgment. Many prominent cast members have hinted (or, in the case of Dave Bautista, who plays Drax, downright insisted) that this would be the final edition of the characters for them. So rampant speculation began about what James Gunn had planned for the franchise’s final installment. The Guardians had a small and insignificant part in Thor: Love and Thunder and then enjoyed a pleasant, short sojourn in The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special on Disney+. The former was just an excuse for resolving the story of how Thor teamed up with them at the end of Endgame; the latter was just mirthful fun where the only major revelations were that the Guardians had purchased Nowhere from The Collector, establishing a settlement there and that Mantis (Pom Klementieff) was technically Star-Lord’s (Chris Pratt) half-sister.
From there, Gamora, having been brought back from the past in Endgame, is still missing, and Star-Lord/Peter Quill is still heavily mired in misery that his loss of Gamora in the events of Avengers: Infinity War was permanent after all. This movie is centered on the long-teased and alarming origin story of Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper). The opening moments show a snippet of a deeply buried memory of the lab where Rocket was created and the brutal/horrific things done to him and other animals like him. We then snap to Nowhere, where Rocket strolls through the streets as the camera follows him, slowly panning around. He takes in the sights of the mishegoss that his fellow Guardians are partaking in. He listens to Quill’s Zune MP3 player singing along to a rare acoustic version of Radiohead’s “Creep.” It’s tear-inducing from the first moment, underpinning one of the story’s major themes as a whole, and is a masterful bit of directing by James Gunn, on par with some of what George Cukor brought to My Fair Lady back in 1964. Rocket finds Quill in his cups, and that moment of weakness brings massive danger, setting off the need for a desperate quest to save one of the team members.
This journey takes them on a collision course with a new big, bad guy, The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), and the darkest depths of Rocket’s past. James Gunn made no bones about how he regarded Iwuji as the only choice for the High Evolutionary, which shows in his performance. While Jonathan Majors is impressed with his malevolent dominance in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Iwuji’s High Evolutionary is hardwired on insane, going-off-the-rails brutality. He’s a villain it is super easy to cheer against, and his performance is on par with the brilliant Wes Studi and his turn as Magua in Michael Mann’s vastly underrated The Last of the Mohicans. And as we learn about the vertex between this sadistic bastard and Rocket’s tragic origins, we also meet an adorable series of anthropomorphic animals. They’ve been revealed by Marvel’s trailers released online; otherwise, we would not name them here. Lylla, Floor the Rabbit, Teef the Walrus, and young Rocket will rip your heart out of your chest and have you in tears.
It was apparent in Avengers: Infinity War / Avengers: Endgame (not to mention A Star is Born, American Sniper, and Nightmare Alley) that Bradley Cooper brings immense gravitas and skill to the MCU in just his voice performance as Rocket and his character’s arc in this story becomes the tortured soul of the franchise. James Gunn crafted a story here that delivers powerfully on the terrible nature of Rocket’s origin, and the reveal of those details (which we will not spoil for you here) digs into the heart of a god complex and a deistic pondering of great suffering visited on creations by a creator. Reaching perhaps too far into this, one might conclude that the underpinning of this story is a comment on the horrific bounty of the fates that are all too often delivered on the residents of existence (see: the COVID-19 pandemic). How could a creator let such beautiful things suffer needlessly? But that may be reaching too far indeed. Whatever the subtext, the culmination of this massive and heart-wrenching story is supremely satisfying.
For those of you who always loved the Guardians of the Galaxy films for their comedy and space rock opera elements, fear not; you will find those parts in abundance too. The comedic interplay between Star-Lord, Mantis, Drax, Nebula (Karen Gillan), Groot (Vin Diesel), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and new characters Cosmo the Spacedog (Maria Bakalova) and Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) is fearless hilarity any time there’s a moment to breathe from the emotional storytelling or an action set piece. Adam Warlock’s emergence will not be on par with comic book fans’ memories of how critical the character became in the early ‘90s storylines. Still, Poulter’s performance of “him” as if Rocky from the Rocky Horror Picture Show was effectively Superman is precisely what this story needed. Adding a whimsical preacher to this would have been too much. Like the first two Guardians of the Galaxy films, the music supervision of the movie is ideally on point. The Flaming Lips, Faith No More, and Spacehog bring soul or joyful silliness nestled against classics from Earth, Wind & Fire, Alice Cooper, and Bruce Springsteen. You’ll find triumph in the Beastie Boys’ party anthem “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” you’ll sob like a baby in a way you’ve never imagined to Florence + The Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over.”
Much like the previous film Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the most gratifying part of this experience is each character’s arc and growth from point A to point B. Pratt, Saldana, and Klementieff do a tremendous job with these transitions, making each progression a somber but necessary evolution (much in line with the pain of maturation and growing up in general). If there’s any flaw to this film, it’s in that it’s been made bluntly clear this was the last version of this team viewers would ever get, and it’s so easy to see how the story could go on in so many directions. Never say never, though. Even deeply aggrieved performers can come around when years and time remind them of the fondness of the team effort.
Superhero movies are often derided for massive fights, extreme action, and CGI-filled spectacles. This film may excel behind its storytelling and performances. Still, thankfully, when there is a knockdown fight or an epic skirmish, it features some of the best fight choreography of any Marvel movie. The punches pack an actual punch, and you are either terrified for the survival of the main characters or thrilled to see them outdo their enemies. This is incredibly gratifying because when you see how well done the fight planning is here, it will remind you how much less thought is often put into fights in movies and TV shows, even ones that promote the inclusion of it.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 proves that any movie can be brilliant. It all comes down to the story. James Gunn’s vision for these oddball, offbeat characters is something to be remembered and studied for years. The only problem is: this is the end for him with Marvel Studios. He’s now in charge of the famed Warner Bros. DCEU line of characters and is well into planning a complete rebuild of the celebrated DC Comics’ film properties. It’s hard to understand why Marvel did not drive a dump truck full of cash up to his house to keep him working on their films. But then, much like this story and the Guardians’ character arcs in this film, existence is growth, and someone showing this level of quality is almost destined to outgrow one situation and need to restart elsewhere. On some level, we all eventually have to challenge ourselves in the same way, using knowledge, wit, and ingenuity to create a better tomorrow for our own lives and the lives of the ones we love.