Film Review – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
There is an air of finality all throughout Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023). Sure, when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is anything really over? I wouldn’t be surprised to see any one of these misfits show up again in some form or another down the road. But when it comes to this particular group, it does feel like the end of a long journey. Not since Avengers: Endgame (2019) do we get a sense that a chapter has closed. This isn’t a steppingstone to the next installment or spinoff, but a conclusion that is entertaining and heartfelt. I’m not sure it has the best story compared to the previous two entries, but in terms of emotion, it sticks the landing with flying colors.
Much of that success comes from writer/director James Gunn. Unlike other MCU properties that feel churned out of a factory, Gunn had the opportunity to helm Guardians entirely from his own imagination. He punctuates his trilogy with as much laughter, nuttiness, compassion, and music as we would expect. His personality is felt in every moment, which can’t always be said of other filmmakers. In Vol. 3, we see him waving goodbye to the characters he has held dear since 2014. It’s no secret that Gunn has moved on to co-run the DC slate of superhero films. This will be his last hurrah with the MCU for the foreseeable future. He injects his narrative with melancholy, but not sadness. If anything, this is a celebration. It’s as though Gunn is saying, “Don’t be sad that it’s ending – be happy that we had this time together.”
There is a big switch in character perspective. Instead of focusing on Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and his relationship with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the film centers squarely on Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper). This is his story – he is situated as the heart and soul of the Guardians. He gets kidnapped by the mad scientist known as The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), who means to use Rocket for genetic experiments. The Guardians – including Quill, Gamora, Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Groot (Vin Diesel) – spring into action, traveling through space to gather macguffins in hopes of rescuing their furry friend.
The multiple storylines and contrasting tones make for a hodgepodge of a plot. We flip back and forth between the Guardians galivanting around space, and flashback scenes in which we witness Rocket’s origin. The story of how Rocket came to be is filled with tragedy and pain, and I was surprised by how invested I became emotionally. To see these hard-hitting sequences juxtaposed with the goofy nature of everything else was a little jarring. As a result, the pacing suffers. The relationships involving Quill and Gamora, Gamora and Nebula, Drax and Mantis, etc., were once the headliners of the previous installments. Sadly, all these elements are watered down due to how much emphasis is put on Rocket. The side story involving Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) and Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) was glossed over to the point of being an afterthought. To see Rocket suffer cruelty and abuse and then jump over to Quill and Gamora hashing out their issues was weird, to put it mildly.
But you know what – who cares? We often put too much emphasis on cohesiveness and not enough on ambition. I would much rather see a filmmaker take a risk and swing for the fences than making sure every single plothole is filled. That is precisely what Gunn does here. He treats the material from a creative point of view, and not as a product to be packaged and sold. We see this in all the strange places we visit and all the peculiar beings we meet. The production design makes the environments tangible. Actors are placed in actual locations when possible, and not just in front of greenscreens to react to invisible characters. From a place that looks like the inside of an organic lifeform, to an Earth-like world inhabited by creatures straight from the island of Dr. Moreau, every site we visit gets weirder and weirder, and I mean that as a compliment.
Music has always played a big part of the Guardian films, and Vol. 3 is no exception. The choice of which song is set to which scene creates distinctive reactions – whether we are meant to be thrilled or moved. It’s clear that Gunn and his team are very specific with the soundtrack listing, using pop and rock to help evoke mood or build character. This is no better exemplified than in an early scene featuring an acoustic version of Radiohead’s “Creep.” Not only does the song call attention to itself, but it is used to develop Rocket’s character. As the music rings out, we see Rocket from behind, walking past his friends one after the other. The sequence reflects Rocket’s inner thoughts – how he feels like an outsider, that he doesn’t fit in, that his size and appearance will always make him different from everyone else. If anything, the film is a journey of self-acceptance for Rocket, to give him purpose and a sense of belonging.
With all these interesting uses of writing, character, and structure, it’s almost a shame that the production reverts to the action-filled spectacle of the third act. Luckily, Gunn put his own stamp on the set pieces. If you’re familiar with his work, including Slither (2006), Super (2010), and The Suicide Squad (2021), then you know that he isn’t afraid of violent, over the top action. Some parents should be wary of bringing young kids to this one, as Vol. 3 has its fair share of excess (enough to earn a PG-13 rating, anyway). But the mayhem has a style and flair that is a lot of fun to watch. The main highlight is a long, drawn-out fight inside of a hallway, where the camera (Henry Braham) zooms up and down and all around in an unbroken shot. Each character is spotlighted as they hack, slash, and shoot down bad guys. If we step back and think about it, the scene doesn’t really make much sense. All these moments take place in consecutive order, instead of at once. Have you ever seen a brawl where people wait their turn to fight each other? Of course not. But again, that issue is not a concern. It doesn’t matter if the sequence is logical – it just looks cool. Sometimes, looking cool is all that’s needed for a scene to work.
I don’t know if Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is one of the best MCU films, but it might be one of my favorites. Because it doesn’t shy away from taking chances, and because it embraces its oddball quirkiness like a benefit and not a hindrance, it becomes endearing. James Gunn was granted the opportunity to see his trilogy out in its entirety, and he took full advantage of it. He understood that every great story must have a great ending. In that way, he sent us off with a fond farewell.