Directed by: James Gunn
Distributed by: Disney
Written by Anna Harrison
It’s funny how timing works out. Pre-Covid, pre-firing and rehiring of director James Gunn, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” was set for a May 2020 release; only three years after the fact do we finally have the film in hand. In those three years, Marvel has lost some of its sheen, even to once-diehard fans like myself, and part of me wonders if I only liked “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” so much because what came before was so uninspiring that it made Gunn’s swan song better by comparison. Maybe that played a part, or maybe it was the realization that the last corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe I really care about is gone, or maybe it was just a pretty decent movie. Not perfect, of course, but imperfect in that scrappy way that reflects its own characters’ ethos: the Guardians have always been a flawed, ragtag bunch with a big heart, and “Vol. 3” simply follows in their footsteps.
After the events of “Avengers: Endgame” (and I guess “Thor: Love and Thunder,” but the less said about that, the better), the Guardians have settled on Knowhere, a mining colony from the first movie, and are attempting—in their own off-kilter way—to improve the place, although Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) has developed a habit of drinking himself to sleep after the death of Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) in “Avengers: Infinity War” and subsequent appearance of alternate-timeline-from-the-past Gamora in “Avengers: Endgame.” Aside from that hiccup, things seem to be going about as smoothly as they ever have until Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) suffers a life-threatening injury, and the gang, including Gamora, goes on one final adventure. While the fate of the world might not be at stake this time around, the fate of a friend is, and that’s just as important, especially to a group such as this, filled with society’s cast-offs: in addition to Quill, Gamora, and Rocket, there’s Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Groot (Vin Diesel), and Nebula (Karen Gillan), all with their own multitude of flaws.
Their quest takes them into the crosshairs of the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), the scientist who created Rocket in an effort to perfect life. As Rocket lies unconscious in the Guardians’ ship, we see flashbacks to the High Evolutionary’s experiments on him, as well as the other animals subjected to his testing, and here Gunn reminds us of his Troma and horror roots: think all of Sid’s weird toys from “Toy Story,” but with a CGI otter, rabbit, and walrus instead. In classic James Gunn fashion, these horrific oddballs become the beating heart of the story, even if they only exist in the past—in fact, these flashbacks with Rocket and his friends prove more compelling than the present timeline, whose forays into a “Counter-Earth” prove uninspiring, save for the MCU’s first use of the f-bomb.
Not all of these faults lay at the hands of Gunn. By killing Gamora in “Infinity War” (helmed by Joe and Anthony Russo), even with permission, it threw her arc and her relationship with Quill into disarray; the existence of alt-Gamora feels more like a bone that got thrown Gunn’s way as a way of saying, “Look, we know we just killed a character you spent two movies building, but here’s the exact same one, so really nothing has changed!” Except, of course, things have changed, and no amount of timeline shenanigans can change that. Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) also feels less like an organic extension of the movie and more a Marvel-mandated inclusion, first hinted at in “Vol. 2” and now seen—where once the MCU’s “it’s all connected” motto used to seem like, if not a blessing, then at least pretty cool, now it feels more like a curse, though to Gunn’s credit, he does a decent job trying to fix the small mess that Marvel handed him and even wrings some pathos out of it.
But still, in the days of increasingly lackluster MCU entries, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” feels like something of a miracle. So much within the film is anathema to the current Marvel productions: the CGI and green screens don’t cause offense, the performances are genuine, it has a clear structure, and character arcs are handled with care, rather than a passing glance. If not everything works, it’s still easy to forgive because all the Guardians remain so damn charming, and because Gunn has earned these moments, not just thrown them on a page and called it a day (and yes, also because the post-“Endgame” Marvel has been artistically empty for the most part and so the bar is low). When you look at what’s coming down the line for Marvel, it’s hard not to think of “Vol. 3” as its last heartbeat—everything that comes after might as well be a zombie.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” Trailer