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‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’ review: Emotional damage

By April 28, 2023No Comments6 min read
(L-R): Pom Klementieff as Mantis, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord, Dave Bautista as Drax, Karen Gillan as Nebula in Marvel Studios' Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2022 MARVEL.

The freakin’ Guardians of the Galaxy return for a third and possibly final outing in this brutal, beautiful sci-fi rock show from James Gunn.

If the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie (released all the way back in 2017!) was more the chill B-side to the first entry’s louder, more bombastic setlist, then Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 certainly ran the risk of being a low-effort “Greatest Hits” collection. This is, after all, James Gunn’s fourth extended outing with these colorful characters in what has always been an action-heavy, kaleidoscope space blockbuster therapy session for found families with profound trauma. Fortunately, Vol. 3 comes off more like Gunn and company’s live recording of a farewell tour, and gloriously so.

Do I need to watch anything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to know what’s going on?

The story picks up not long after the events of The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special (which Gunn also wrote and directed). Aside from Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, the holiday special is the only piece of media between the previous Guardians of the Galaxy movie and this one that you might want to catch up on in order to avoid any small bits of confusion, though it’s certainly not required. You’ll get the gist of what’s going on, and if you’re also curious about what happened to Thor traveling with the gang, then you could always watch Thor: Love and Thunder, but maybe just the first ten minutes. Actually, the wikipedia page will probably do.

The Guardians of the Galaxy have set up a headquarters on Knowhere (a key location in the first movie), which they’ve also helped rebuild in the aftermath of that whole Thanos thing. But what they haven’t been able to fully piece back together is their complicated relationship with Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), who died in Avengers: Infinity War, but then five years later a past version of her from an alternate timeline came into their lives during Avengers: Endgame. It’s certainly confusing enough for the guardians to explain this breathlessly about three times over the course of Vol. 3.

(L-R): Sean Gunn as Kraglin, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord, Karen Gillan as Nebula, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Dave Bautista as Drax, and Pom Klementieff as Mantis in Marvel Studios' Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

“Did that look cool?”

This Gamora isn’t, of course, “their” Gamora, and Gunn utilizes this sci-fi weirdness by playing around with the concept of grief. It’s somewhat a retread for Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who dealt with this very issue in the first film concerning his mother. But Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 compounds this pain when he literally has to accept that the woman he loved is still alive in some way and looking right at him. But he can’t have her. It’s a wonderful little trick Gunn uses to emphasize the utter powerlessness you can feel after losing someone, either in life or through a breakup.

It also doesn’t help that Peter just keeps on losing people he cares about. He lost his father figure Yondu (Michael Rooker) in Vol. 2 and now faces the prospect of losing Rocket (Bradley Cooper), who takes center stage as the crowded ensemble film’s main protagonist. We finally get to see what exactly shaped Rocket into the wise-cracking, trouble-making tech genius he is now. Set off against one of the better MCU villains in recent years, the charmingly unhinged High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji).

Other villains are less successful. Will Poulter joins the Marvel family as Adam Warlock, an artificial super-being created by the Sovereign, as teased in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Despite being extremely powerful and dangerous, he has the mind of a toddler…sort of? Removing his character from the film entirely would change little. Though his introductory sequence does go a long way in making it clear that anyone can die in this movie. All bets are off, and that fun and goofy tone has to coexist with the existential dread of “all good things must come to an end.”

Facing the music.

Gunn uses music to diegetically paint the mood, as usual, this time merging the nostalgic 70s rock pop with hits from the 90s and 2000s, as if to send the message that time has to keep marching on forward. We can’t just recapture the past over and over again. It’s almost like Gunn’s talking directly to Marvel on his way out to DC in that respect.

Chukwudi Iwuji as The High Evolutionary in Marvel Studios' Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2022 MARVEL.

When it comes to the other main characters, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 pulls off a Paddington 2, in that it manages to weave believable, snack-sized arcs for everyone you care about the most. Nebula (Karen Gillan) finds herself as a full-fledged reformed leader amongst misfits, but is still trying to find her tin-man heart. Mantis (Pom Klementieff) wants to prove herself as more than the soft-spoken weirdo comic relief. Similarly, Drax (Dave Bautista) is the shameless knucklehead he’s always been, but he has his Shrek moment in wanting to show everyone he has layers. As for Groot (Vin Diesel), his story is massively intricate and complex. The only way to possible explain it in any meaningful way is by pointing out that, well, I am Groot.

The best Marvel movie since Avengers: Endgame.

Despite its issues — including a hyperactive third act, groan-worthy humor in spurts, and a few too many indulgent look cool for the camera moments — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is far and away the best Marvel movie since Avengers: Endgame. Yes, that includes the TV shows, and admittedly, it’s not like the bar has been terribly high lately. The three pillars of this film’s success lie in its spectacularly inventive visuals, the best action ever in the series, and most importantly its emotional structure and payoffs. The real bar to clear in these respects was Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Vol. 3 manages to pull it off in stride.

The scenes in Vol. 3 are constructed around ideas, not just gags, which has been a weakness of so many other Marvel and DC films of late. Gunn starts with a concept or an emotional current and seems to express it through smart imagery that suits and even enhances the sci-fi vibe. It’s like the first film in the best way, because you actually feel like you’re discovering this universe for the first time again. As for the action, one particular group fight scene toward the end is sheer bliss, enough said.

The bottom line.

It’s the end of an era. This is Marvel’s last franchise that bothers with numbers in the title. It’s the end of a trilogy that started with virtually unknown underdogs somehow becoming household names as well as the beating heart of a 32-movies-and-counting universe. The guardians were pioneers in bringing the Marvel cosmos to the big screen and proving space blockbusters can be meaningful without being dramas.

And we now have the rare chance to let a series go, and sure, some of these characters will likely pop up again and again in the MCU’s party-sized event movies. But Gunn gets to finish his trilogy on his terms, and we’re lucky he and the team put their whole heart into it.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 opens in U.S. theaters on May 5. Watch the trailer here.

Images courtesy of Marvel Studios

Jon Negroni

Jon is one of the co-founders of InBetweenDrafts and our resident film editor. He also hosts the podcasts Cinemaholics, Mad Men Men, and Rookie Pirate Radio. He doesn't sleep, essentially.

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