A film review by Craig J. Koban May 16, 2023

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: 

VOLUME 3  jjj

2017, PG-13, 150 mins.

 

Chris Pratt as Peter Quill / Star-Lord  /  Zoe Saldana as Gamora  /  Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer  /  Bradley Cooper as Rocket Raccoon (voice)  /  Vin Diesel as Baby Groot (voice)  /  Karen Gillan as Nebula  /  Pom Klementieff as Mantis  /  Sylvester Stallone as Stakar Ogord / Starhawk  /  Sean Gunn as Kraglin Obfonteri / On Set Rocket  /  Elizabeth Debicki as Ayesha  /  Tommy Flanagan as Tullk  /  Michael Rosenbaum as Martinex T'Naga  /   Chukwudi Iwuji as The High Evolutionary  /  Will Poulter as Adam Warlock  /  Elizabeth Debicki as Ayesha  /  Maria Bakalova as Cosmo the Dog (voice)  /  Sylvester Stallone as Stakar Ogord  /  Daniela Melchior as Ura

Written and directed by James Gunn 

 

 

Looking back, the very first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY from 2016 was a small-scale miracle.  

What writer/director James Gunn achieved was not easy.  

He took a series of what would be best described as B or C-list Marvel Comics characters and somehow made their cinematic adventures work (and work marvelously) and, in the process, the resulting film became a box office bonanza.  To say that this first film was a huge gamble for the MCU is a huge understatement, but Gunn made these eclectic and colorful personalities (ones that - before at least - would never be mentioned in the same recognizable company as Marvel mainstays like The Hulk, Iron Man, or Thor) household names and potentially some of the most endearing characters of this entire franchise.  GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY represented return to the old fashioned conceits of high adventure that populated the sci-fi genre before it started to take itself far too seriously, and the wonderfully hip and evocatively irreverent tone to Gunnís world and character roster was perfectly married to cutting edge visual dynamism and action.  I thought - and still do - that it was the best MCU film and it made my list of the Ten Best Films of 2014.  

The inevitable sequel in VOLUME 2 was, in my mind, a messy endeavor.  The idiosyncratic weirdness of introductory film persisted, yes, and it was just as visually dazzling, action-packed, and funny as what we got before.  Unfortunately, Gunn's sequel was also overstuffed and bloated, which hurt it overall.  Now comes what he's describing as his trilogy closer in VOLUME 3, and this represents a glorious chance (remember: Disney fired him from the job over controversial Twitter posts, and then later re-hired him) to give his characters the proper sense of send-off that they deserve while leaving some story threads open for new adventures to come (plus, now that Gunn has become the Kevin Feige of DC, this sequel serves as a last hurrah for him as well with the MCU).

I'm somewhat happy to report that GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOLUME 3 marks a slight improvement on its predecessor and is - overall, at least - a genuinely satisfying ending for this series of standalone films.  Even further, I would say that this is perhaps the best MCU film as of late, but considering the ever diminishing qualitative returns of the last Marvel Phase...yeah...that might not be saying much.  GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOLUME 3, to its credit, is refreshingly darker than what I was expecting and - rather thankfully - rarely feels slavish to continuing new fangled MCU arcs (more than anything else as of late from this cinematic universe, this installment feels wonderfully self contained).  I only wished, though, that this chapter wasn't so long, so over-plotted, and had a much better and more memorable villain.    

Obviously, the Guardians of the Galaxy haven't been completely AWOL in the MCU apart from their standalone films.  They figured very heavily in the last few AVENGERS films and, more recently, had glorified cameos in the last THOR film (which is best left not remembered at all).  Gunn picks up his sequel at the GOTG HQ on Knowhere, where some of the members have fallen on hard times (which is reflected in Gunn's choice of using Radiohead's "Creep" blaring on the soundtrack to establish this film's mood).  Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is still trying to get over the love of his life, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), dying in the last AVENGERS film, only to return in a different timeline form and with no conscious memories of her time with Peter.  As Peter drowns his sorrows in booze and drunkenly collapses to sleep daily, Nebula (Karen Gillan) is trying to make things work as best as she can for the team on Knowhere and is assisted by Drax (Dave Baustista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper).  Any sense of new normalcy that this group of misfits feels in their new home is shattered with the sudden appearance of Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), who comes crashing in on Knowhere without warning and viciously attacks the Guardians, leaving poor Rocket on his death bed.

Desperate to save their raccoon companion's life, the team soon discovers that the key to keeping Rocket alive and well resides with delving into his origins, which brings the team to the cruel and despotic High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a morally depraved scientist that - back in the day - tried to play god by taking many Earth creatures (raccoons among them) and performing all sorts of nightmarish experiments on them in order to create his own utopian society.  Getting close to this madman will not be easy, so Peter has to awkwardly get Gamora back into the squad for help.  Once the old crew is officially back together, they plan an elaborate heist at the High Evolutionary's space station to locate schematics that will allow them to turn off a kill-switch surgically implanted in Rocket's body (simply turning it off would instantly kill him).  Concurrent to this are a series of flashbacks that deep dive into how Rocket evolved from raccoon to wise-talking space cowboy, albeit with a history of unspeakable trauma.    

 

 

I appreciated that Gunn has decided to make this third film essentially all about Rocket, where he came from, how he came to be in his current form, and why he maintains such a vicious streak as a hot headed pilot and loud mouthed engineer in the present.  There's a sincere attempt here to flesh out an emotional arc to this character, which is brought to the forefront in the aforementioned flashbacks to show how he was plucked from a cage of dozens of raccoons by the vile geneticist that is the High Evolutionary.  What was originally just supposed to be a basic test subject of his ended up becoming more intelligently advanced and self-aware, which left Rocket becoming a threat to the High Evolutionary and his plans.  Sometimes these flashbacks are organically inserted into the overall story, whereas sometimes Gunn struggles to find a way for the past and present to coalesce smoothly.  That, and some of these sequences of animal torture and cruelty (which pushes the boundaries of the PG-13 rating) may be too intense for young kids in the audience...or animal lovers in general...to endure.  Still, I admired Gunn's willingness to abscond away from this series' overall cheeky irreverence and instead go deeper and heavier into the psychology of one of these Guardians.  This really helps VOLUME 3 stand apart from its predecessors, and other MCU efforts as of late as a whole.

Peter himself is also given more of a newfound purpose as a character this go around.  I've been a bit hard of Pratt's other choices of roles and films as of late outside of the MCU, but he's so pitch perfectly cast as this sometimes dim-witted Han Solo-esque hero that it's hard to find fault with what he brings to the table in these films.  That, and beyond this loveable (but brave and heroic) doofus now lurks a hurt lover that's still trying to process his pain over losing Gamora (even though she's alive again, albeit in a different form).  Intriguingly, Gunn never really wallows in the will-they or won't-they angle of this pair renewing their past romance, which I think would have brought the film down and distracted from the larger and more important thread of Rocket's redemption.  There's something inherently sad about Gamora being killed by her father in Thanos, but then being resurrected without any memories of her past with the Guardians.  It gives Saldana a different and fresh take on the character and her frequently stressful interactions with her former team.  Wisely, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOLUME 3 doesn't waste any precious time on a potential Star-Lord/Gamora reunion and instead has the two learning to work together as platonic equals moving forward, which is a smart change of pace.    

For as solid as some of Gunn's storytelling choices are here, there's no denying, though, that he seems a bit undisciplined in other areas, like the fact that this sequel is just too jam-packed with personalities (some old, some new) all vying for attention and the spotlight.  He not only has to return us to the characters that we've grown to love over the course of several MCU films, but now also throws in so many new faces, with many of them taking attention away from those that matter most (two characters played by Elizabeth Debicki and a blink-and-you'll-miss-him Sylvester Stallone, for example - both of whom appeared in VOLUME  2 - are not much more than afterthoughts thrown in here).  Perhaps the biggest and most superfluous new addition is the remarkably ripped Poulter as Adam Warlock, whose Superman-like cosmic powers make him a mighty presence in the MCU, to be sure, but in the larger stakes of this sequel, he's less a compelling new addition than he is a generically rendered plot device to get the story moving from its first scene.  In the large scheme of things, Warlock could have been omitted from this film altogether and Gunn wouldn't have missed a beat.  If you're a fan of this hero from Jim Starlin's iconic comics, then watching him here may disappoint you. 

One thing in the post-Thanos MCU that has stuck out like a sore thumb is the relative weakness of the new villains, and this is kind of brought to the obvious forefront in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOLUME 3.  Even though the High Evolutionary figures heavily into Rocket's tormented backstory, he never fully emerges as a richly delineated or even memorable antagonist.  His plans to rapidly speed up animal evolution to allow for his plans of a Counter-Earth paradise of his own is interesting, but this baddie is not really developed beyond the core traits of a mad scientist with a god complex.  This is also not assisted by the fact that Iwuji ruthlessly overacts and screams his dialogue in so many scenes that it becomes almost comically distracting.  And like Kang in the last ANT-MAN sequel, the High Evolutionary's powers are quite ill defined.  There are times when he's capable of destroying everyone in the room with a wave of his hands and, in other scenes, he's easily taken down through simple means.  Of course, he's a focal point in the final sections of the film, during which time we get obligatory standoffs between him, the Guardians, and a whole lot of CGI chaos that becomes more fatiguing than exhilarating.  There's something to be said about VOLUME 2 and 3 feeling a bit too overproduced for their own good and relying way, way too much on VFX overkill that throws expensive-looking and bizarre eye candy at audiences.  More doesn't mean better

However, where GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOLUME 3 does succeed is in how Gunn's aesthetic identity can be felt through every minute of this film's running time (which, by the way, at nearly two and a half hours, is about twenty minutes too long for its own good).  So many other MCU films (especially the weaker lately) seem like committee-led, assembly line affairs that don't allow for their filmmakers' esoteric fingerprints to fully show on screen (I'm looking at you, DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS).  Watching all of the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY films (this one included) and it's abundantly clear that Gunn's unique eye has not been subverted really in the slightest.  He found an amazing way of working within the larger demands of the heavily budgeted/corporate blockbuster machine while preserving his unique stylistic sensibilities.  You can sense that Gunn has been allowed to let his fertile imagination run fully hog wild in what's basically his last turn helming an MCU flick, and on that level GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOLUME 3 is eminently watchable as a curtain call effort.  I don't think the film completely pays off as handsomely or as emotionally as I would have liked, not to mention that no GOTG sequel would even re-capture that first film's lightning in a bottle level of innovation in the same way.  But Gunn's absolute love of these characters shines through in the end, and his willingness to deliver what fans want (while subverting some expectations) is what ultimately helps make this mixtape an enjoyable ride.  

As Drax himself once said, "It's good to once again be among friends." 

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