REVIEW – “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3”: Marvel’s Best Era Rides into the Sunset

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

When last we saw James Gunn’s (The Suicide Squad) band of raucous intergalactic misfits, they were teaming with Thor and discovering the true meaning of Christmas to cope with their changing worldview post-Endgame. These rogues have been through a lot over time, and so has Gunn in his journey to clear any bad air and reestablish his Hollywood loyalties. Atoning for hurt feelings has led to what could best constitute a deliberate “end of an era” for the MCU. The kind where risky moves were appreciated, and storytelling felt liberating instead of idled in a vacuum. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 epitomizes the movie swansong like two sides of the same vinyl LP or mixtape cassette. One covers any brushes with scripted fantasy, the other is bound to remind the listener of its real-world connection. A goodbye that warmly embraces both these sides with equal joy, sadness, and optimism.

It’s tough not to see all three emotions painted on Rocket Raccoon’s (Bradley Cooper) face. For the longest time, he’d been trying to make sense of a dark past, back when he was a mere lab experiment. Just as the Guardians have found a stable hitching post on the placid planet of Knowhere, all that energy, and a smidgeon of repressed fury reaches a boiling point. This occurs when the conceited Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), under the eye of his mother Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), attempts to kidnap the Procyon for the services of the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a troubled scientist in need of a reality check. Warlock, unfortunately, can’t do anything cleanly and winds up nearly killing Rocket.

Peter (Chris Pratt) and his familiar compatriots – Drax (Dave Bautista), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and the now back-to-full-size Groot (Vin Diesel) – now find themselves on an all-or-nothing wild goose chase of a rescue mission. They need to find a genetic code that can recover the small part of Rocket that’s machine-based and save the rest of him. All while also dodging the Evolutionary’s advances, and with Peter swallowing his sadness in reteaming with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), still without any memories from the last few years. An awkward reunion, of the highest marks. Though maybe not as awkward as the film’s villainous presence.

The only walnut Gunn can’t entirely crack here, and I still wonder why knowing it was easy enough for him before, are the baddies. Iwuji’s giving the strongest go out of a weaker-than-standard Marvel villain, one occupying just one mode: unchecked rage with a superiority complex. It’s a terrifying part, albeit with muddled motivation. Poulter’s Warlock is far more memorable on screen, even when given less to work with, Debicki even less than that. Pairing the two as they weave in and out of frame incites a mild Too Many Cooks scenario, with Warlock’s rough-around-the-edges demeanor viable enough for future growth should Phase 5 dictate that open door.

Even while terror and dread take a longer stretch to build on, Gunn can still make quick work of channeling most other emotions thoroughly, with only the faintest gasps of filler, and balanced humor. His penchant for sophomoric, PG-13 crassness rolls unabated, best highlighting Bautista and Klementieff’s chemistry, as well as Gillen’s uncontrollable frustration. Any manner of wild scenery or character quirks acts like slow-chewing taffy to mildly stretch the runtime past its divots. The tension’s pulled taut before it has a chance to break, most in the closing 30 minutes.

And at no point does Gunn lose himself in a pit of empathic darkness. He’s taking the high, melancholic road with Rocket’s story, and the payoff is exponential. After two films where the focus shifted around from Quill to Gamora to the ensemble, and then back again, the lens now shifts to the most animal of the gang. As seen in a series of flashbacks, the view softens as Rocket displays a yearning for life, a desire for kinship, and a heightened resilience. Nothing’s held back on the basis of exposing past trauma and personal despair. Like fractures in the kit’s mind, only soothed by the company of friends. Namely, his first crew, co-anchored by kindly otter Lila (a delightful Linda Cardellini).

The Rocket character was always seen in my eyes as a stark, inviting departure for Cooper. A sly, profane, if not often mellow performance, forever solidifying his comedic strengths. It only makes sense this third volume would humanize that idea, grounding him firmly in that delicate dance with finality. Both he and Gunn recognize that aim to deliver an honorable conclusion to the gun-toting short fuse’s arc. So much to the point, it’s easy to question why this couldn’t serve as a forerunner to a spinoff feature. Realistically, this is the closest we’ll get, and Cooper doesn’t waste that chance to impress. Neither do Pratt and Saldana, answering back the most significant question left behind in films past. Through their jumpstarted, rebuilt-from-scratch chemistry, we see rekindling in a plausible guise, stumbling through before gelling once more. Keeping on an established course, without a need to jump the shark and force anything previously existent. Thankfully, there’s none of that, only a second chance to fulfill.

There was no doubt this whole cast and their director were just living for the moment, recognizing their own finality. It’s all a joyride, made solely for the thrills, and the satisfaction of closure. Along the way, Gunn finds those avenues to poke fun at himself and his brand of self-awareness. If it means it can close off the long road his career veered on just to reach this point, I’m all for it. A simple Nathan Fillion cameo is one thing, and it works. Collaborating with your brother is another – Sean Gunn’s Kraglin builds more stock as that dependable home base mediator, alongside dog Cosmo (voiced by Maria Bakalova). Making a careful jab at either Disney’s vault of IP, or the monetary greed of healthcare, or both, while infiltrating a corporate HQ for secret data? That’s the piece de resistance as Gunn proves his penchant for chaos, not unlike his Troma days.

Any fears over this installment’s idea of tone are virtuous, at best. The only hesitation may fall at the beginning, with an acoustic rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep” to open the story, and a pandora’s box of a soundtrack, ranging from Spacehog to Springsteen. But eventually, like all the pieces in play, particularly Henry Braham’s industrial-chic cinematography, that boldness, the joy, and the tearfulness quickly take over. No wasted effort here in this adventure, knowing full well there won’t be another one. And in the overall sphere of the studio’s wide-reaching verse, there simply won’t be anything else like this film, and this franchise.

I’m sure what happens next in this MCU will dare to be different and try to cover so much thematic ground at its first step that it leaves a sour taste. So, I feel it best to treasure this almost perfect adventure while it unspools. It needs only minutes to eclipse more recent attempts to avoid sequel burnout elsewhere in the cavalcade. After that, it leans into unbridled fun, bringing quite possibly the strongest Marvel adventure since No Way Home, or even Endgame. At the very least, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is the best at having a wonderful time. Even with its quiet missteps amounting to little disruption – the third act and its antagonistic bend could’ve been tighter, it’s easily my favorite in the trilogy, capping off quite a cinematic adventure. One I will relish in more than once, and forever wonder… why can’t all comic book movies be this cool? (A-; 4/5)

Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3 opens in wide release May 5; preceded by ticketed sneaks at 3 PM May 4; as always, stay through the credits; rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, strong language, suggestive/drug references, and thematic elements; 150 minutes.