The Guardians of the Galaxy go out with a big ole bang in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, the final film in Marvel’s weirdest franchise about a bunch of space misfits. Written and directed by James Gunn—to date, the only person to usher a full trilogy through Marvel without completely sh-tting the bed—Vol. 3 picks up sometime after the events of Avengers: Endgame.
The Guardians have set up shop on Knowhere, the galactic outpost built inside the head of a dead Celestial. The visuals of Vol. 3 are constantly amazing, ranging from beautiful to whimsical to deeply gross—lots of body horror in this one, folks—and I’m happy to report, the VFX crunch problems that have plagued other Marvel productions recently are not in evidence here. This film looks fantastic.
But the Guardians themselves are not doing so hot. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, the best he’s ever been in this role) is sunk into a deep depression, drinking to cope with the loss of Gamora. Rocket (voiced once again by Bradley Cooper) is also in a funk, haunted by his past. Nebula (Karen Gillan) is barely holding it together, and Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Groot (voiced again by Vin Diesel) are largely unchanged. Well, Groot’s more grown up, he seems to be a teen or young adult with a big time focus on working out—Swole Groot is here. The Groot effects are so good, at times he appears to be a person in a suit, not a work of motion capture and CG.
Gamora, meanwhile, has taken up with the Ravagers, the space pirates led by Sylvester Stallone. She does not remember her time with the Guardians, and she would really like Quill to stop dragging up a past she doesn’t share with him. Zoe Saldaña is still good as Gamora, but she isn’t given much to do other than yell and be snippy with Quill. Similarly, Karen Gillan doesn’t have a lot to do but scowl, but then, Nebula’s character arc was resolved in Endgame and Gunn has the sense not to mess that up. But that does mean the emotional heft of Vol. 3 is left to Quill and Rocket and boy, does that make for a sad time.
The aggressive 1990s soundtrack does a lot of heavy tonal lifting to keep things from becoming a complete drag, and there is a steady undercurrent of comic relief, largely provided by new characters Cosmo the Spacedog (voiced exceedingly charmingly by Maria Bakalova) and Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a space himbo man-baby engineered to be a perfect specimen of the golden Sovereign people. Poulter is hilarious as self-absorbed Adam, though fanboys will undoubtedly bitch about rendering an all-powerful character as comic relief in the film. Still, he’s very funny, and a much-needed counterbalance to Quill’s anger and Rocket’s…whole deal.
It’s a lot going on. Vol. 3 needs the respite provided by Cosmo and Adam, and to a lesser extent Drax and Mantis, but this film is overlong and overstuffed, a common problem with Marvel sequelae. It isn’t messy, everything hangs together, and the plot is a relatively straightforward “get X to save Y” setup, but you cannot help but feel the story bursting at the seams, trying to do justice to so many characters at the conclusion of their arcs, while introducing new characters to move forward in the larger MCU. Stuffing Rocket’s entire backstory into one film is also a little overwhelming, not only because of the graphic cruelty and animal body horror on display, but also because it’s just SO much going on in a film that is already very busy.
But that’s the gist of the film, Rocket is finally reckoning with where he came from, which involves a villain called the High Evolutionary. Chukwudi Iwuji is simply outstanding as the High Evolutionary, truly one of the most hateful villains ever entered into the MCU. He’s not the biggest or the grandest or the most ambitious, but he is unquestionably the evilest, and clocks high on the “someone punt this asshole into the sun already” meter. It is emotionally cathartic to root against him, the sign of a great screen villain. The actual, visceral thrill of watching Rocket come for him is one of the most satisfying emotional payoffs in the MCU.
There is so much to like about Vol. 3, so many individual moments of great humor and awe and thrill—a corridor fight involving all of the Guardians is extremely fun and cool—and the emotional beats involving Quill and Rocket all stick the landing, but it is just so. Much. Movie. Is this the best MCU film ever? No, that’s still Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but Vol. 3 is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious MCU films, in both scope and narrative reach. It works, it really does, and Rocket makes a great protagonist—even if he does spend half the film unconscious and experiencing flashbacks—but how this films plays will depend on individual tastes and how much you like the GOTG franchise, overall. If your patience is already thin, Vol. 3 will just wear you out further. But if you’re a fan interested in seeing how things end up, Vol. 3 is a very satisfying conclusion to this chapter of cosmic weirdness in the MCU.
This review was published during the WGA strike of 2023. The work being reviewed would not exist without the labor of writers. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is exclusively in theaters from May 5, 2023.