Timely Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3


James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 breaks a lukewarm streak for MCU films, partly because it doesn’t fit into the current run of Marvel fare.  Instead, it’s both a satisfying conclusion to a distinct trilogy and the true, final epilogue for the Infinity Saga.

There are no references to multiverse incursions or cameos from other Marvel IP to set up the next link in the Phase 4-5-6 chain.  Even the post-credits scene is a humorous snippet from Peter Quill’s new life on Earth, rather than an off-ramp into a new adventure connected to a larger story.  The film does conclude with a promise that Star-Lord will return, but only in a vague, 007-esque way, not with any specificity or connection to an upcoming film.

Rather, Gunn focuses on completing character arcs, especially that of Rocket Racoon.  More on that in a moment.  But the out-of-place feel of this MCU entry likely partly owes to the delay caused by Gunn’s firing and eventual rehiring.  Vol. 1 came out in 2014, followed by 2017’s Vol. 2.  Pre-production on Vol. 3 was well underway in 2018, with Gunn finishing the first draft of the screenplay just weeks before his firing.

Instead of having a film ready to go shortly after Endgame, we waited an additional two or three years for a Gunn-helmed Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.  It was undoubtedly worth the wait, as Gunn was able to bring each of the major characters to a point that felt natural and satisfying.

Yet, this film’s placement in 2023, rather than in 2020 or 2021, means we’re now a few steps toward Kang and a few more steps away from Thanos.  That passage of time makes this film feel almost nostalgic, with characters rehashing certain plot points that date back to Endgame, most notably the issue of this Gamora not being the same one who fell in love with Peter Quill over the course of the first two Guardians movies.

In fact, there’s a subversively funny scene during an elevator ride in which Quill recounts the events of Infinity War and Endgame that led to Gamora’s death and “resurrection,” cynically noting that Gamora was thrown off of a magic cliff, and that he doesn’t understand why all of the other people brought from the past got dusted (by Tony’s Snap), but Gamora didn’t.

Gunn’s meta-snark here is unmistakable.  His understandable irritation with having to write his way out of a corner that Kevin Feige put him in comes through with every word.

But I haven’t said much about the film itself.  First, the visuals are stunning, in a way that even recent MCU films haven’t been able to achieve.  Quantumania made some, uh, odd choicesWakanda Forever looked downright unfinished in spots.  By contrast, Guardians 3 looked dazzling, especially in IMAX.  The variety of locales, including an organic space station, demonstrated how effective state-of-the-art VFX can be when handled properly.

Likewise, the fight choreography was outstanding.  Fans of extended action sequences will be pleased, but, at the same time, the action rarely feels overwhelming.  That’s a problem that crops up fairly frequently in large-scale MCU films—even very good ones.

Case-in-point, the first Avengers film gets a bit silly during the Loki-led Chitauri assault on New York, with countless aliens facing off against, you know, Hawkeye’s arrows and Black Widow’s handguns.  The scale of the attack, coupled with the endless waves of identical villains, becomes a bit much at points.

The only time Guardians 3 briefly skews into that territory is during the space portion of the final assault on the High Evolutionary’s ship, when he unleashes hordes of genetically-modified security beings on the Guardians’ spacecraft.  But that’s about two or three minutes, tops.  Otherwise, it’s a non-issue.

Speaking of the High Evolutionary, let’s talk about that plot.  The High Evolutionary provides an excellent, pure villain.  And I mean “pure” in the best sense.  Villains like Thanos or Killmonger or (obviously) Loki are charismatic, have a point, or both.  While that can make for interesting storytelling, there also comes a point where you just want to see a flat-out bastard get his comeuppance, without reservation.

Again, perhaps also speaking for Gunn once again, Peter Quill chastises the High Evolutionary when they finally meet, saying he has no interest in hearing some speech from a bad guy about how his mom didn’t love him and that’s why he has to conquer the galaxy.

There’s no such issue here.  Nor is there even a desire to conquer anything, per se.  Just a single-minded, evil obsession.

That’s the High Evolutionary, played superbly by Chukwudi Iwuji.  He’s brilliant, motivated, and brazenly immoral and unethical.  That’s all there is to it.  He wants to create an allegedly perfect society, but he doesn’t care how many creatures have to die for him to achieve that goal.

As it turns out, he was the one who experimented on Rocket and (very painfully) gave him his enhancements.  But what the High Evolutionary didn’t count on was the fact that, for reasons even he doesn’t understand, Rocket has transcendent, unique mental abilities that (implicitly) owe their origins to a power even higher than that of the Evolutionary.

Gunn tells Rocket’s story through a series of flashbacks, and I can say easily that this is the hardest watch of any MCU film.  Guardians 3 is the only Marvel film that has ever evoked feelings of genuine sadness in me.  This is because that what happens in G3 goes beyond mere animal cruelty, and it surely isn’t played for laughs.

Instead, young Rocket lives a painful life in a dingy cage next to three other enhanced creatures, Lylla (an otter), Teefs (a walrus), and Floor (a rabbit).  To start with, these animals have all been horrifically mutilated.  Lylla’s front paws have been removed, replaced by metallic arms.  Teefs has wheels attached to him, and, for some reason, he has mechanical eyelids that never seem to close.  Poor Floor has a mask over her face, and her hind limbs have been amputated in favor of strange, spider-like metal legs.

A picture of Floor the rabbit from Guardians of the Galaxy


But each animal also has some measure of intelligence and can speak.  Lylla, played by Linda Cardellini, is seemingly as smart as a normal human.  On the other hand, Teefs comes across as simple-minded, while Floor would be mentally handicapped by human standards.  For example, Floor names herself “floor” because, well, she happens to be on the floor when the others are coming up with names.

Yet, all of these creatures are also good-natured and innocent, talking to each other from their dingy cells about how they’ll all see the sky one day when “Sire” takes them to the perfect world he’s building.  Rocket delights his friends with fantasies of flying them in a ship, which is how he settles on the name “Rocket.”  They also speak to each other about how wonderful it is to have friends, and they remain cheerful at all times, either oblivious to their predicament, or defiant in the face of it.

Even though the audience instantly understands where this is all headed, that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.

Put bluntly, we eventually see what is essentially the unceremonious murder of three sentient creatures, all of whom were happy and loving, and two of whom were simpletons.  These are just three of the countless creatures, sentient and otherwise, that the High Evolutionary has killed in his insane quest.

That is tough stuff to watch in a movie like this, and I would caution any parent to consider the age and relative maturity of their children before taking them to see this film.

That emotional impact serves a very important purpose, though.  This is not gratuitous heartstring-pulling.  We now know who Rocket Raccoon truly is.  We understand his jaded outlook on life, and, in fact, we realize that it’s remarkable that he isn’t even more jaded.

In fact, a quivering Rocket’s first spoken word is a labored, heartbreaking ” . . . hurts,” which sets the stage for the tragedy to come, as well as Rocket’s later outlook on life.

By giving us the full explanation of who Rocket is and what made him that way, not only does the climax of the film completely make sense, but that backstory also helps the rest of the team reach the conclusion that Rocket can—and should—be the next leader of the Guardians.

I should also mention here that Bradley Cooper acts his ass off, even in a voice-only role.  Likewise, Chris Pratt’s range is incredible.  He can be the delightful goofball in one scene, and an emotionally destroyed best friend a few minutes later.

Like Rocket, the remaining characters also wind up in the “right” places.  Groot remains by Rocket’s side in the new Guardians.  Mantis leaves on a journey of self-exploration.  Drax and Nebula stay on Knowhere to raise the refugee children rescued from the High Evolutionary’s experiments.  Gamora returns to the Ravagers, who, for her, are the family she always wanted, just as the Guardians were for the “previous” Gamora.

And that’s something else that sets this film apart from the typical MCU fare.  We all love a perfect ending, but the ending that Gunn gives us here for Gamora and Quill is perfectly imperfect.

In less-capable hands, this Gamora would have fallen in love with Peter by the end of Vol. 3, or at least joined the Guardians.  Instead, just as she did in Endgame, Gamora walks away, albeit with a smile on her face this time.  She knows that this is not her family.  And Peter comes to accept that this is not his Gamora, and that he needs to learn to thrive on his own.

Not only is all of that “okay,” that was the right decision in a dramatic, storytelling, and narrative integrity sense.

If I have any minor quibbles with the movie, they are few.  I didn’t understand why Adam Warlock didn’t switch sides immediately after the High Evolutionary (indirectly) killed his mother.  I also didn’t care for the fact that Groot says “I love you guys.”

The other 99.9 percent of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 was a showcase not only of Gunn’s skill as a filmmaker, but also how delightfully different the Guardians were from other Marvel IP.  That contrast is even more pronounced now, when this film exists during a post-Endgame run of MCU outings that are decidedly uneven.

That’s why I’m a little sad to see Gunn leave Marvel for DC.  The move was a no-brainer, as he’ll now have Feige-like power to shape the new DCU.  But the MCU has lost a lot of its momentum, and Gunn taking over DC films means that Marvel loses a major asset—one who was able to make films that still “fit” the MCU while simultaneously blazing a unique and distinct path.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a perfect send-off for James Gunn (and most of these characters / actors), and a reminder of how good these movies can be.

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