Directed by James Gunn — Screenplay by James Gunn.
“What a bunch of a-holes,” were the last words spoken in the very first trailer for James Gunn’s original Guardians of the Galaxy film back in 2014. Here was a trailer that introduced Marvel Studios’ biggest swing at that point in time — a team-up film built around a talking raccoon, a Chewbacca-esque tree, a wrestler in body paint, Avatar’s leading lady having swapped out her blue alien for a green one, and a minor supporting actor from Parks and Recreation, who was thrust into a stardom that he still enjoys. Back then it seemed like a huge risk to back C or D-list Marvel characters, but a lot can happen in nine years. Now, Rocket, Groot, Drax, Gamora, and Star-Lord are some of the most beloved characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they had their own Star Wars-inspired Holiday Special just last Christmas, and the films’ director, James Gunn, is about to end his time with Marvel after having been both fired from (due to social media ‘receipts’ detailing offensive jokes) and re-hired for this very film in the late 2010s. Gunn didn’t just revive Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling,” and make your mom and dad know who Groot is, Gunn also established himself as one of Marvel’s actual auteur filmmakers, which is a reputation that has landed him a huge job over at Warner Bros. as the shepherd of the soon-to-be rebuilt DC Comics cinematic universe. But first, he had to finish his Marvel Studios trilogy. And, so, how did it turn out? Well, let’s just say, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films go out on a high note, as they are now arguably the very best Marvel Studios trilogy.
James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 takes place after the events of their holiday special, which means that we now find the Guardians at their own headquarters on Knowhere — the massive Celestial skull out in space — where they live together with other strays and misfits they’ve picked up along the way, such as Cosmo the Spacedog (voiced by Maria Bakalova). But all is not well on Knowhere. We find Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) listening and singing along to an acoustic version of Radiohead’s “Creep,” while a binge-drinking Peter Quill (Star-Lord, played by Chris Pratt) is still affected by the loss of Gamora (played by Zoe Saldana), his green-skinned will-they-won’t-they who died in Avengers: Endgame. An alternate-universe version of Gamora now finds herself in our world, but she has no interest in getting together with the lovesick Star-Lord. But things suddenly go from bad to worse for Peter and Rocket, as the all-powerful, gold-skinned Adam Warlock (played by Will Poulter) attacks Knowhere and gravely wounds Rocket. When the remaining Guardians try to save and treat their genetically-engineered furry best friend, they find out that the abuser who created him for what he is today has implanted a killswitch inside of him that won’t allow them to treat his wounds without inserting a passcode. To save Rocket, the Guardians are now in a race against time to retrieve the override code from the High-Evolutionary (played by Chukwudi Iwuji), the cruel and detestable scientist who experimented on him. However, the High-Evolutionary wants Rocket for himself, so that he can experiment further on him to figure out why he became as intelligent as he did, whereas his other test subject animals struggle to think for themselves.
The people that know me best know that these characters mean a great deal to me. Not only did they help to get me back into comics, but more importantly, I saw the first film at a point in time when me and my family really needed it. I had just lost my Godmother, and the emotional wound was still very much open. What James Gunn’s film did was exactly the warm blanket of emotion, friendship, and family that I needed at that time in my life. That first film is special to me, and I think of it as one of Marvel Studios’ very best. I also have an emotional attachment to Volume Two, though I, admittedly, had more notes, issues, or things to nitpick once it came out. As for the holiday special? I had a lot of fun with it. I’m stating all of this to establish that I am very protective of these characters and that these films mean a lot to me. And from the perspective that I have, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 is a fantastic continuation of James Gunn’s story insofar as it is all about character, all the while still focusing on themes that were present back in that very first film.
I’ll elaborate on those strengths that make it such a powerful film for me in a bit, but I do want to highlight certain elements about it that stick out for the wrong reasons, or that perhaps do not work as well as intended — because there are some things that hold it back from the levels of that first film. Chiefly, the film is slightly overstuffed. I think there are some characters and story elements that feel like they are only there because previous films set it up for them to be there and not because they are an essential part of the key story. I am referring specifically to ‘alternate universe Gamora’ (though her subplot does work quite well in the end) and Adam Warlock. The original Gamora character died and was replaced by the alternate universe version of her in an Avengers film that James Gunn didn’t direct (but did produce), and the latter was in a post-credits scene for Volume Two which came out so long ago that Thanos hadn’t even snapped his fingers yet. I can’t know whether or not this is true, but it sure felt to me like Gunn had to work to find a place for them in a story that very much isn’t about them. This feels especially true for Adam Warlock, who once appeared to have been set up to be either a future big bad for this film or an important part of the Avengers films, but who now is just kind of there. Here he’s more of a lesser henchman-type with a strange mother-son relationship that feels like it doesn’t have enough room to be something. I also think these story strands short-change Groot a little bit, as that character isn’t as integral to the whole ordeal as he possibly should’ve been.
With all of this having been said, for as filled to the brim with characters as it is, I do think Gunn makes it work. Even if some elements don’t feel entirely organic, Gunn tries his hardest to make them feel somewhat natural. When it comes down to it, I think the more serious potential problems with this film are that it is a tad overlong (there are a couple of scenes that I think could’ve been cut), but also that the film’s opening is somewhat unevenly paced in a way that gets the film off on awkward footing. This is both because there is a very early and startling action scene, but also because the first ten minutes or so introduce you to a tonal balancing act that you have to get used to. Because, and this is a little bit of a warning to parents, while this film is often a zany, family-focused action-comedy, which you would expect it to be, Volume Three goes to some very dark places both tonally and visually. There are a couple of gnarly visuals, implied acts of torture, and actual bloody violence that surprised me, as it probably goes over the line for what most people would expect to see in a Marvel movie. Though this is more of a warning than a criticism, it should be said.
I will expand slightly on this tonal balancing act by expressing what two storylines the film switches between. Frankly, the film is both a present-day race against time with emotional but zany, tongue-in-cheek characters often wearing their hearts on their sleeves, as well as a full-on flashback-reliant film about Rocket’s origin story as a test subject animal going through cruel experimentation and genetical engineering. Both of these two halves of the film work quite well, but I thought the Rocket-origin story half of the film was especially well-realized by Gunn. Here Gunn pulls together story threads from the first two volumes, to tell a story about animal cruelty, test subject animals, narcissists with a god complex who seek to dominate and control, complicated relationships with creators, and the chosen family we pick up along the way. These flashback scenes tug at your heartstrings with outstanding visual effects and motion capture that bring four genetically-engineered animals to life in a way that is absolutely unforgettable. It’ll make many people weepy, as it is a story marked by deep sadness. Some may say it is too manipulative and maudlin, but I feel that it is a feeling of melancholia that is wholly earned by the genuine heart at the center of these films and the way the characters have always been designed. This theme of animal cruelty isn’t just based on Rocket’s origin, Gunn also peppers in the theme by using Cosmo the Spacedog, who is a clear reference to Laika, the dog that Soviet Russia sent into space knowing full well that it would die in the process. This theme hits you like waves of emotion that run throughout the film, and I thought this part of the film was not only powerful but that it felt like it had more than just superhero movie ambitions.
A powerful emotional current is not the only key ingredient that is necessary to build a successful Guardians of the Galaxy film, of course. These films are often known for their comedy, their music, and their fun action, and, let it be known, that Volume Three also delivers in those regards. That is because the action, the comedy, and the music are all elements that continue to be tied directly to the characters, which is the key element that Gunn never loses sight of. While I don’t think the music is as smoothly integrated as it was back in the first film, it is undeniable that the music informs us about the characters and their state of mind, and the music heightens scenes in a way that well-designed soundtracks (both diegetic and non-diegetic) must. I think the comedy is honestly maybe a little bit better executed here than it was in Volume Two, as it certainly felt to me like there were fewer misses than previously. I thought it was consistently funny, in large part thanks to the fact that Pom Klementieff’s Mantis and Karen Gillian’s Nebula have come into their own as well-rounded characters capable of getting you to laugh just as much as Bautista’s Drax or Pratt’s Quill can. I think this is particularly true of Klementieff’s Mantis who shone brightly as a comedic force in the holiday special and who gets a lot of really great moments here (thanks in large part to her great comedic sibling-esque rapport with Dave Bautista). Action-wise, there is a really strong action scene built around a Beastie Boys song that, however, is obviously CG-manipulated to appear as if it were a one-take. But this hallway/corridor action sequence does what the action elements of these films do best, which is to zoom in on character moments within the action. We see it in the way they use their powers for great laughs or with how they may scream out or swing around as they fire their weapons. It’s all good fun; it still is. It also should be said that the film is colorful, and features a strong blend of practical and CG effects, but also that there are some really cool and odd world designs (the fleshy OrgoScope was wild) that feel like they belong in Gunn’s corner of the MCU.
Having already mentioned Klementieff and Bautista’s great rapport, as well as the fact that Karen Gillian is also quite funny here, I want to also highlight some of the other cast members. Chris Pratt is still a solid lead here. Maria Bakalova and Bradley Cooper’s voice performances are quite good and get both laughs and awws. Chukwudi Iwuji plays the film’s detestable villain with an occasional intensity that I thought was really fitting, while Will Poulter does a lot with a little as he seems to have had good fun playing Adam Warlock as a super-powered individual who doesn’t understand life all that well (in that he has this simple, immature dumbfoundedness in some scenes — like he was born yesterday). It’s also interesting to see Saldana play Gamora in a different way than she is used to.
With Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3, writer-director James Gunn was faced with the daunting task of not just serving up yet another excellent film about his Marvel misfits but also closing out his trilogy with what could potentially be the end to their story with his final Marvel film. In spite of it perhaps being a tad overlong or a little bit messy, this trilogy-capper, whose themes resonate deeply with the other two volumes, nails exactly what has always been so powerful about these films. It is all about character, it has a ton of heart, the zany comedy hits the right spot over and over again, the soundtrack feels personal, the action is directly tied to what makes the characters tick, and it is jam-packed with emotional heft. If this is to be a farewell to the lovable a-holes that have become like family, then it is a fully satisfying swan song that celebrates the characters for who they are and what they mean to each other and us.
8.5 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.
One thought on “REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 (2023)”