When the first Guardians of the Galaxy skipped its way into theaters almost 10 years ago, it arrived like a cool, spiked glass of tonic water. Technically the first scene of the movie is a familiar refrain: a young comic book protagonist discovers he’s an orphan. But the second? It’s that same character as an adult sashaying his way into a space ruin while grooving to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love,” a disco-laced standard from ‘70s A.M. radio. The second movie then raised those good vibe stakes when the same character and his surrogate son, a sprite-sized talking tree who did the Baby Yoda schtick first, got lost in the symphonic, Beatlesque harmonies of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” Baby Groot (and the viewer’s mood) is practically doing cartwheels.
Hence the immediate jolt of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’s opening. After a six-year absence from real quality time with these characters, the misfits return fuller, and also wearier, than we remember them. Sure, we’ve technically seen the Guardians since Vol. 2, but they’ve often been in the margins of someone else’s story. Back under the watchful gaze of their steward and true director, however, they’re not defined by simply pluck or dances. Rather everyone’s favorite character, Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), is the first one we see. And he walks alone.
At his side, the furball carries the mp3 player that Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) nicked in the last flick, which at the time promised ’90s pop havens. Yet instead of Ace of Base or Hanson, Rocket is brooding, sulking even, to Radiohead’s acoustic and despairing version of “Creep.” This turns out to be a promise that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 keeps all the way to its closing credit: For the final installment with this line-up and cast, the filmmakers are not going to rely just on bubblegum or fan service. Instead, for the first time in several years, a Marvel movie is going to drill down into its characters and say something about who they really are.
… Which may be a long way of saying thank God that James Gunn is back in the MCU!
While Gunn isn’t the only filmmaker who has a knack for cosmic comic yarns full of mischief and moxie, he remains one of the few genuine auteurs that Marvel Studios allows a wide range of latitude. He makes films; not product launches. To be sure, there are inevitable concessions provided to the commercial side in Vol. 3 (perhaps including the most ungainly element of what is a fairly top-heavy film), however Gunn has always been a filmmaker able to cut through the commerce and see the humanity of what others might deem as merely IP. And for his final adventure with these glorified space pirates, he’s found the grace to make a fairly wistful character study gussied up in the trappings of a Marvel romp. Whenever the movie rests on Cooper’s pensive raccoon, it’s working in a way the MCU hasn’t in a long time.
Luckily then, most of the movie is about Rocket, which becomes apparent from the aforementioned opening. It introduces us not only to the raccoon’s alt-rock tastes but also the movie’s setup. As last seen during the Guardians’ Christmas special (which you don’t need to have watched to follow along), the Guardians are now living in a floating den of iniquity for space pirates called Knowhere. It’s filled with all the usual suspects: Kraglin (Sean Gunn), a former ravager turned part-time Guardian, Cosmo (Maria Bakalova), a Soviet space dog who survived her one-way trip into orbit and is now a talking adventurer in her own right, and of course the main team.
Alas, despite the colorful locale, the atmosphere is bleak as Pratt’s Quill mopes over the loss of Gamora (Zoe Saldana), whose convoluted absence after the events Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame (2018, 2019) is glossed over to be “she doesn’t remember who she is.” One senses Gunn as a writer-director is struggling to adapt to what Marvel did with the Guardians in his absence. However, it ultimately plays to his advantage, adding yet another layer of regret to the most intimate and barebones plotting of Gunn’s three MCU films. Hence, shortly after the movie begins, the Guardians are attacked by a new threat and Rocket is left at death’s door. Worse still, given that he was so badly experimented on by his “maker,” an intergalactic Frankenstein with a god complex called the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), the Guardians are forced to hunt this Holy One down if they want to save Rocket’s life.
The movie is thus divided across two tracks: the Guardians’ various space escapades that bring them closer to understanding the true malevolence of Rocket’s god/demon, and poignant flashbacks of Rocket’s youth where he was the prized pupil of the High Evolutionary, and fairly carefree despite his suffering. He even had other talking animal friends whose good humor belies the nasty and extremely painful-looking implants the High Evolutionary has installed on their bodies.
So yes, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is the darkest installment in its trilogy. Yet unlike certain other superhero properties, the new shadings of gray and melancholy are not an affectation or thin coat of paint. It is in service to a film that sincerely enjoys spending time with its protagonists, and takes to heart the old adage that suffering builds character. Whenever it gets lost in Rocket’s revelries, which are interspersed throughout the story, the film has a sharper edge than most Disney films, but it’s also a tone of greater earnestness, sentimentality, and heart than Marvel’s entire Phase Four.
The film is often able to balance this shadow, too, by basking in the sillier side of Gunn’s imagination during the other Guardians’ best sequences. For instance, the first act features a break-in of a bioengineered space station. Think as if the interior of the human body in Fantastic Voyage was floating across the stars… and covered in athlete’s foot. The whole aesthetic makes you giggle for reasons you can’t quite pinpoint. It’s Gunn’s singular brand of frivolity that only heightens as the Guardians stumble across the set piece in candy-colored space suits like children who’ve been left in a classroom unsupervised.
The humor in these moments, derived from the ensemble performances and the script’s innate understanding of the characters, is natural and effective, offering sweetness to the larger bitterness of Rocket narrative. Among them, Karen Gillan’s Nebula may be the standout, having graduated from antagonist to background player, to now essentially a co-lead next to Pratt’s lovelorn Star-Lord. Her seething deadpan was a good counterbalance to Robert Downey Jr. in Endgame and works even better here (it even gives us Marvel’s first f-bomb!).
Not every piece of Gunn’s swan song is as evenly judged though. The inclusion of Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a dimwitted Superman painted gold, and Queen Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), appears as little more than a franchise obligation, making good on a half-forgotten post-credits scene from six years ago. But beyond Adam Warlock’s big entrance, the character has little to do other than interrupt and drag the pace of the movie down as a nuisance who unconvincingly sets up another movie and/or Disney+ show.
Fortunately, Iwuji fares far better as the film’s central antagonist, a sinister and abrasive creation that might be considered arch if not for the wide-eyed conviction the actor imbues in the character. He is ultimately a sci-fi update of H.G. Wells’ titular mad scientist in The Island of Doctor Moreau, and the film is unsparing in shaping his vanities and cruelties into the most loathsome villain a Marvel movie has featured in memory. You are desperate to see the Guardians erase him from this timeline.
As a consequence, the film’s themes, which deal with animal cruelty and lab-testing run amok, lack the nuance or sophistication of Vol. 2’s structure as a story about adult children grieving awful parents. But when seen as a film in tandem with that installment, especially with Rocket still navigating the wounds of a broken childhood, Vol. 3 maintains the messy bleeding heart that gives texture to all of Gunn’s filmography.
Some colleagues have critiqued the film’s stakes as being too small or anticlimactic in what presumably should be a grand trilogy finale. I disagree. The Guardians of the Galaxy series going out on a story about potentially sacrificing everything to spare one of your own is the trilogy at its most compelling. These films were never about saving the galaxy; they’re about dysfunctional screw-ups saving themselves. And when it’s not wasting time seeding potential spinoffs, Vol. 3 finds salvation too.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 opens Friday, May 5 in the U.S. It is now open in the UK.