James Gunn brings the Guardians of the Galaxy together for one last ride in a trilogy-ender that’s as thrilling as it is emotional.
Nobody knew what to expect when Guardians of the Galaxy hit theaters in the summer of 2014. A relatively unknown property helmed by an unproven creative, starring a seemingly odd mixture of talent as some of Marvel’s least-recognizable cosmic heroes. Hot on the heels of The Avengers, fans were being thrown a massive curveball they weren’t sure could be a hit. So, nearly a decade later, it still feels genuinely surprising the Guardiansfranchise has produced what might be the best comic-based trilogy there is.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Directed By: James Gunn
Written By: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Bradley Cooper, Chukwudi Iwuju, Will Poulter
Release Date: May 5, 2023
Somehow, an inconspicuous tale of ragtag misfits learning to better themselves in the face of great personal challenge has become a beacon of hope for viewers and critics alike. With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, director James Gunn caps off a beloved space-faring series using more of everything that made it special in the first place. Raw emotion, spell-binding visuals, belly laughs, and most importantly: completed character arcs.
If there was one word that might sum up the feeling evoked by the two-and-a-half-hour runtime of Vol. 3, it would be “satisfaction”. The latest project from Marvel Studios is immensely rewarding, for both longtime fans and the casual viewer, due in large part to its functioning as a singular story. As much fun as it’s been to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe expand into endless corners of genre and narrative, it’s actually quite refreshing to sit through a superhero movie with no tasks beyond what the title implies.
There is no constant set-up for future installments and there are no moments engineered specifically for an applause break. Most everything that occurs comes off as earned and organic, a direct result of the film’s prioritization of plot over spectacle. Gunn appears to be of the opinion, rather adamantly, that this is the third and final Guardians film, and that’s exactly the adventure audiences can expect to enjoy when they enter the cinema.
That being said, Vol. 3 is not without extravagance. There are several extended sequences bound to make viewers cheer, it’s just nice the excitement will come from their importance to the characters as opposed to their effect on the fictional universe at large. In fact, the majority of the movie’s most awe-inducing scenes are rooted far more heavily in characterization and development than they are in set design or action choreography, although both of the latter are admittedly achieved as well. The gorgeous, big-budget optics one has come to anticipate from movies like this are present, and for the first time since perhaps before the pandemic, they manage to pop off the screen in a manner that looks truly cinematic. Furthermore, while Gunn has always excelled at allowing his protagonists to partake in some unique action scenarios, the fight scenes in Vol. 3 stand out as particularly well-filmed.
While nothing necessarily lives up to Michael Rooker’s “whistling arrow” bits from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the finale of the franchise does make a noticeable effort to enhance it’s set pieces and combat by injecting them with a little extra frill. Gunn appears to take some cues from anime in one or two especially thrilling sequences, and never wastes an opportunity to show his leads looking stellar in slow-motion. The non-leading characters, too, are much more entertaining than the grunts from previous Guardians works. Gone are the generic alien armies, replaced by grotesquely creative animal-cyborg hybrids that are as threatening as they are curious to stare at.
Of course, these monstrosities wouldn’t be possible without the presence of Vol. 3’s main baddie. The High Evolutionary, played by Chukwudi Iwuji, has been teased within the series for a long while, and his ultimate arrival does not disappoint. Much of the genius behind his portrayal comes from Iwuji’s willingness to play him as almost mewling, an arrogant leader constantly on the brink of self-collapse. It adds an extra layer of unpredictability to the character that sets him apart from the Guardians’ former adversaries and makes him an understandably vicious figure from the past of Bradley Cooper’s Rocket Raccoon.
It’s no secret that Rocket, the lovably foul-mouthed mammalian of the titular group, would be a focal point in this movie. A longtime favorite of Gunn and, at this point, Marvel’s truest believers, Rocket has been front-and-center for all of the project’s marketing and much of the director’s promotional interviews. From the original Guardians straight through his last appearance in Thor: Love and Thunder, the little guy has stealthily had one of the MCU’s most fulfilling and fluent individual arcs. Dealing with trauma and grief stored from untold horrors, the character’s journey from pained loner to begrudging family man has been a joy to watch. Vol. 3 aims to capitalize on this by using Rocket as both its catalyst and its axis, the entire thematic purpose of the Guardians franchise spinning firmly around him.
Thankfully, Rocket’s origins are handled well. After the wide release of Vol. 3, one might even expect him to become an MCU favorite. The execution of his flashback scenes, though, is not to be trifled with. It’s worth a fair warning that certain segments of Vol. 3, specifically the ones pertaining to Rocket, can be brutal. These scenes are important, and luckily, they aren’t gratuitous. They serve an integral part in the film’s storytelling, but they’ll likely also produce more audience tears and eye squints than any superhero flick in a while. With a lot of his Vol. 3 visuals, Gunn seemed free to tap into his Troma days, and the film’s flashback sequences are a big part of that.
Yet, the inherent darkness of Rocket’s story is absolutely necessary to what makes Vol. 3, and the overall trilogy, tick with such efficiency. The movie is a perfect representation of the human condition, told via the body of a raccoon. It’s as hopeful as it is morose, and foolhardy as it is calculated. It’s both grand and personal, with sprinkles of laughter – the humor often lands – and devastation throughout. It’s gorgeous, genuine, and occasionally, difficult to watch. It’s a look into why people love each other, and by the end, there’s a good chance the audience won’t want it to end. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is what blockbusters should feel like.