Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023)

By now, the news has finally sunk in that writer-director James Gunn is fully committed to his new role as one of the two heads of DC studios, his next feature being Superman: Legacy among a fresh slate for the studio. But what about the Guardians of the Galaxy? The ragtag group of misfits brought together because of an orb that just happened to be the power stone Thanos needed to complete the infinity gauntlet. Reluctantly working together, the group danced their way into our hearts, saving the galaxy one wacky adventure at a time. With Vol 3, everyone’s favorite dysfunctional family of the MCU has become a part of the heart and soul of the ongoing cinematic universe. James Gunn took D-List characters in 2014 and turned them into an unforgettable global phenomenon.

With Gunn’s 2nd departure (this time of his own accord) from the MCU, Vol 3 becomes both his and this current group of Guardians swan song until they all have to come together again for the next two Avengers films. But following the formula, If you would call it that, the Guardians have functioned in complete isolation from the rest of the heroes that inhabit this cinematic universe, aside from a brief stint with Thor Odinson, which the group most likely forced themselves to forget, as we all try to do.

My one consistent criticism since the beginning of phase 4 and now continued into phase 5 has been the stake less implications that the universe is currently residing in. To really make a bold statement about the future MCU, give us a moment that can’t be undone by the multiverse offering a quick replacement. Give us something to mourn, to feel and live with the emotional weight by not just having these familiar lived in characters get through unscathed, ready to take on the next challenge. There may be damage done along the way but at the end there is always a happier sigh of relief. The MCU needs to take a risk – something that gets our attention and reminds us why this is the most successful 30 plus project saga ever to be constructed.

At its core, Vol 3 focuses all of its energy on Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper, motion capture by Sean Gunn), and his tragic origin story that has been alluded to over the course of the trilogy, who’s still hesitant on identifying himself as a raccoon. When the current events transition to that origin of severe, horrific and traumatic animal cruelty, it makes the past films more poignant when those moments come. But for the present, Rocket’s twisted and heavily experimented on figure can be credited to a sociopathic mad scientist known as the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) – stepping in to create perfect beings because as he puts it, there is no god.

What sets Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 in motion however starts with Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), the one prophesied savior of the Sovereign, also created by the High Evolutionary who attacks the Guardians homebase of Knowhere, critically injuring Rocket before the other Guardians come to his aid. The basic premise outside of the origin story is this, the Guardians, led by Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and including Nebula (Karen Gillan), Drax (Dave Bautista), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) race against the clock to save their fellow Guardian and friend from dying.

They may be dysfunctional a-holes but they’re all they have in the farthest reaches of the galaxy and Gunn writes his characters as such, with a sense of urgency behind their actions to save a beloved invaluable member that has continued to be the glue that holds this group together.

As Quill often says, Rocket is his best friend with Drax quickly and comedically correcting Quill that Rocket is his second-best friend.  

The Guardians as a unit have become synonymous with their actor counterparts allowing their arcs to come full circle to when they were first introduced. Chris Pratt is at his most vulnerable as Star-Lord, desperately clinging to his relationship with Gamora (Zoe  Saldana). Karen Gillan has turned into the moral compass of the team, fully transitioning from minor villain to full on hero. In what he confirms as his final performance as the character, Dave Bautista hits his comedic delivery without missing a beat while still making an emotional impact. One of  Vol 2’s issue was the comedy being oversaturated with every character getting a line of comedy well after a joke has run its course. Vol 3’s comedy is better suited to each actors strength within the group, finding a balance when the tone gets too dark and severely depressing.  

Newcomer to the universe is Will Poulter’s Adam Warlock. A famed character in the comics and a major player in the Infinity saga (he even held control over the gauntlet), his role in Vol 3 overcrowds an already large ensemble that also includes Kraglin (Sean Gunn) and Cosmo the dog (Maria Bakalova). Adam Warlock after being teased in a post credit Vol 2 scene doesn’t make the impact Gunn was hoping for with Poulter salvaging the role. Warlock is just there when it’s convenient for the film.

When the narrative hits the climatic action sequence, the stunt work and cinematography from Henry Braham stand out the most. All the emphasis is on the team, working in tandem putting their chemistry on full display among the carnage of the High Evolutionary’s henchmen and the remaining loyal disfigured experiments. The scene alone is one of the best the MCU has to offer since Endgame.

Throughout the bloated runtime of 150 minutes that has the Guardians plus the past version of Gamora on the trail of the override code to the implanted kill switch in Rocket, Gunn changes gears to remind us of the peril and egregiously sickening experiments taken place on defenseless animals. The jarring tone shift is one thing, all the momentum is halted. It may not be one of the better villains, though, that’s not saying much, but the High Evolutionary is one of the cruelest villains the MCU has ever seen. From the opening moments shown in slow-motion, the real mission is to save all the innocent lives even if it sadly means cracking a few of those eggs in the process.

After all, Gunn has a habit of adding animals to the roster of his films and spin-off tv series, making them a central part of the story. Nothing will be more triggering to most adults and all kids than seeing these creatures with cybernetic limbs and matted fur with tears in their eyes. And with all that has been done, the innocence remains, they may change in appearance, but they stay pure in spirit. Vol 3 may be the most unrelenting R rated PG-13 MCU film given the implications. Make sure you hug your fur babies a little bit tighter after experiencing this rollercoaster of sobering emotions.

Leave it to the mind of James Gunn to blend a bizarre premise with mature themes and varying tones together within a more traditional family friendly environment and the result is something only James is brave enough to pull off. Time and time again Gunn has proved that his vison can be trusted to stick the landing especially after a rough start to the multiverse saga. Within that vision this time around is more of the same family dynamic between the Guardians, a well-placed and earned MCU first F-bomb and a killer soundtrack with incredible range among a dazzling visual display of bright colors contrasted with dark blacks.

The dog days may be over for this iteration of the Guardians, but their camaraderie and contribution to comic book movies as a genre will not soon be forgotten. Whoever is brave enough to direct the next team of Guardians has massively weird and nerdy shoes to fill. Vol 3 wraps up the trilogy in the best way possible, giving us a proper send off and a sense of finality. One more with feeling, we are Groot!

Screenplay By: James Gunn

Directed By: James Gunn

Music By: John Murphy

Cinematography: Henry Braham

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn, Chukwudi Iwuji, Will Poulter, Elizabeth Debicki, Maria Bakalova, Sylvester Stallone

Edited By: Fred Raskin & Greg D’Auria

Release Date: May 5, 2023

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 Minutes

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 81%

Based On: Guardians of the Galaxy by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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