From the beginning, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had a distinct challenge: introducing their lesser known heroes to the world. Back in 2014, this came to a make-or-break moment with Guardians of the Galaxy, a film about a team composed of characters so obscure that even a good portion of Marvel fans barely knew about them. Thanks to a winning combination of action, comedy, and especially heart, the Guardians became some of the superhero film genre’s most beloved and celebrated characters. Now, their arc in the MCU is coming to a close with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, a satisfying climax that feels like a gift and a heartache in equal measures.
The Guardians have made the space station Knowhere their new base of operations, but before they can get too settled, a super-powered being known as Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) has come blasting in to bring Rocket Raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) in for crimes he committed in the previous film. In the fight, Rocket is gravely wounded, and to save his life the other Guardians must delve into his past and contend with a twisted scientist known as The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). The mission will not only test the Guardians’ abilities, but their connections with each other as they confront Adam, The High Evolutionary, and their own inner conflicts.
Now, I am going to be totally honest and say that I was not completely on board with Guardians 3 after seeing the trailers, which laid heavily into the idea that this was not only the end of the Guardians’ story but that it would be a somber and emotional film. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of that (and the trailers turned out to be more than a little manipulative). However, I was not expecting to get so completely swept up, energized, and (yes) even deeply moved by what might be one of the MCU’s most sincere and heartfelt films ever.
A good deal of the credit for what makes the Guardians films work deserves to go to writer/director James Gunn. When Gunn was famously fired from this film during pre-production, Marvel allegedly offered the film to several other directors, who all turned it down. The cast and crew also protested the firing, and Gunn was eventually re-hired. And honestly, I don’t know who else could have done a better or even equivalent job.
One of Gunn’s biggest strengths is ability to syncretize multiple energies, moods, and characters into a coherent whole while never losing the individual colors that make it up. The sum of the parts is a heterogeneous mosaic that can be appreciated as a whole; each part works to a greater purpose but doesn’t sacrifice its individuality. This is why not only the Guardians films resonated so uniquely, but why his take on The Suicide Squad (for all intents and purposes the DCEU’s Guardians) was also such a success.
Gunn allows every member of the Guardians a chance to shine here; nobody is side-lined or forgotten. We’re not just talking about showing off the character’s special abilities, although there is plenty of that and we’ll talk more about it in a moment. Every character gets the spotlight, every character gets to contribute to the story and gets their own personal arc. (Although some arcs are admittedly bigger and brighter than others.)
That’s a very good thing, because the Guardians feature some of the most unique and dynamic characters in the entire MCU. And unlike a team like The Avengers, who typically come from some kind of place of privilege, the Guardians are made up of outcasts and weirdos (and I mean that in the best way possible). These are characters who have come together in a found family to support each other, defying the odds and the cards the universe has dealt them to become something greater both as individuals and as a whole. All of the Guardians at this point have become capable and leveled up since their introduction, but when they work together, it’s truly amazing.
The film’s themes of unity and family are honestly best exemplified in the film’s most impressive action sequence. In the third act, the Guardians all come together on their way to the final showdown, facing off against a small army of The High Evolutionary’s creations in a long corridor. Every character uses every bit of their skill, ability, and power in this battle in a glorious, exhilarating, insanely-choreographed battle. We see each character’s unique style come to the forefront, but we also see them backing each other up at the same time. Gunn judiciously uses slow-mo and bullet time to highlight each character, and the fight’s chaotic, frenetic energy is perfectly balanced, all scored to the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.” You come away not only with the adrenaline high of seeing one of the MCU’s most amazing fight sequences, but with the inspiring realization that as a team, there is nothing the Guardians can’t handle.
But while there is plenty of the action and comedy that we’ve come to expect from the Guardians films, Gunn also injects a very liberal amount of drama and pathos to the proceedings. In fact, one criticism that can be laid is that he does so a bit too much and with a bit heavy of a hand. However, it all pays off in the emotional climax of the film, even if it feels occasionally oppressive and unnecessarily stretched out in the moment. A good portion of the film is taken up by flashbacks to Rocket’s past, where he was experimented on as a simple raccoon to become the Rocket we know today. These scenes often become incredibly dramatic and dark, squeezing the heart like a vice while doing so. Gunn takes Rocket’s story to some of the most emotionally challenging and uncomfortable places the MCU has ever explored, but it’s all with a purpose, and he never loses sight of the greater aim of the story. (Side note: If animal cruelty is a major trigger for you, you’re going to have issues with this part of this film.)
Part of what makes these scenes so effective is Bradley Cooper’s voice work as Rocket. While Cooper has made Rocket a favorite among the Guardians for his snarky attitude and surprising emotional complexity, his work here gets taken to another level. While Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord was initially positioned as the Guardian films’ central character, the true star of this movie is Rocket, who retroactively looks like he was the main protagonist all along. Cooper adds a tremendous amount of shading to the Rocket we thought we knew, and taking the Guardians trilogy as a whole, we can see a distinct and remarkable evolution in the character and his performance.
The entire cast does a fantastic job here as well, especially Karen Gillan as Nebula and Pom Klementieff as Mantis. Both characters get more screen time here than they have previously, and both are presented with distinct emotional journeys. Gillian fully connects with Nebula, expressing both her inner-turned-outward anger but also her commitment to her teammates and working for a greater goal. Klementieff gets a chance to give Mantis more agency here than she’s had previously, and her slow journey to maturity is played less for comedy than it has in the past.
The villains are sort of a mixed bag, but not always due to the performances. Chukwudi Iwuji’s High Evolutionary is a near-Shakespearean antagonist, hypnotic and dangerous. He tries to appear stoically cruel and perfectly confident, but as the Guardians continually thwart and foul up his plans, he becomes more and more unhinged. Iwuji is great at both extremes, making the Evolutionary’s slow metamorphosis into maddening rage fascinating to watch. Will Poulter’s Adam Warlock, on the other hand, often feels less impressive. Poulter definitely looks the part, and he’s putting all he can into the role. But as opposed to the cosmic bad-ass Warlock is in the comics, here he’s an over-powered himbo who is often taken out by lesser beings simply because Adam has no concept of strategy. It’s justified in-universe — he’s a created being who was taken out of his cocoon too soon and has the emotional maturity of a child — but fans of the comics character will be in for quite a shock here.
I realize that I’ve talked a lot about the characters here and not a lot about the other aspects of the film. It’s not that these aren’t worth talking about. The design and CGI is some of the best and most ambitious we’ve seen in the MCU, the music is solid, the script is incredibly deft, and despite the film’s length, the pacing is swift and enjoyable. There are even a few highly amusing but not gratuitous cameos that I won’t spoil here.
But more so than probably any other arm of the MCU, the Guardians films live, breathe, and exist solely because of the dynamic energy generated by the characters. These films are loved because we love the characters themselves more than their exploits and the cool things they can do. Their inner journeys are just as if not more important than their outer journeys, and I can confidently say that this film gives them (and more importantly us) a near-perfect sense of closure.
I went into this film suffering superhero burn-out, and I came out of it with the most wonderful and comforting form of heartbreak. And I can only say thank you.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+