Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 sends James Gunn’s misfit superheroes out on a high note

Warning: This review contains potential spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Readers eager to experience the movie completely unspoiled should wait until they’ve seen it before reading further.

“It’s good to have friends.” This sentiment is expressed more than once over the course of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’s 150-minute runtime, and it’s bound to resonate with audiences. After all, the blockbuster’s eponymous team of cosmic adventurers have become less like fictional characters and more like actual buddies since the first entry in their Marvel Cinematic Universe sub-franchise dropped back in 2014. It’s been good knowing them – but now we have to bid them farewell.

Marvel Studios has made much of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 serving as the final chapter in writer-director James Gunn’s trilogy. It’s time for the Guardians to face the music, to borrow a phrase from the film’s marketing campaign. And while many MCU devotees will lament the prospect of the Guardians blasting off into the sunset, the good news is that they’re going out on a high note, at least. Indeed, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is as good of a trilogy capper as you could hope for; a rousing, near-note-perfect encore performance by Gunn and his ragtag band of misfit superheroes.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’s story picks up where 2022’s The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special left off.

Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is still struggling to move on from the death of Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) – a source of mounting frustration for his teammates Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel). However, Quill’s pity party is soon brought to an abrupt end after Rocket is mortally wounded during a botched kidnapping attempt undertaken on behalf of deranged scientist the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji).

With his friend’s life hanging in the balance, Quill leads the Guardians – along with an alternate timeline incarnation of Gamora – on a daring mission to recover information that may hold the key to saving Rocket. Their odds of success seem slim, and even if the Guardians do find what they’re looking for, it will mean coming face-to-face with the High Evolutionary himself, whose horrifying schemes are inextricably linked to Rocket’s hitherto untold origin story…

It’s busy, even for a sequel – not least of all because Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 almost functions as two films in one. There’s the main present-day narrative centred around the Guardians’ quest to save Rocket, which is itself interspersed with regular, extended flashbacks detailing Rocket’s traumatic backstory. A structure like this can (and very often does) sap a movie of its momentum, yet Gunn makes it work. What’s even more impressive is that he does so while keeping so many plot points – several of which he inherited from other MCU filmmakers – humming along (relatively) smoothly at the same time.

Everyone gets a moment to shine in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, from franchise stalwarts to newcomers such as Will Poulter’s Adam Warlock. The characters and not the sprawling, interconnected reality they belong to is what Gunn homes in on here, and this lends proceedings a refreshingly standalone feel. Freed from any real obligation to set the stage for the MCU’s next big thing, Gunn actually manages to bring a disarming degree of closure – or the closest thing to it that the perpetual MCU story machine can muster – to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’s entire roster of loveable outcasts.

In doing so, he also serves up a celebration of the franchise itself, remixing and running back iconic moments from earlier entries in a way that somehow never seems derivative. This isn’t just a “greatest hits” album, though (despite the inclusion of yet another batch of killer licensed tunes). On the contrary, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is easily the cosmic superheroes’ freshest adventure since the original movie.

The dazzling action set pieces aren’t rote, but rather choreographed and executed with Gunn’s signature brio, and the film’s bizarre locales similarly benefit from the writer-director’s fertile imagination. However, just as much of this freshness stems from the sequel’s tone. Not only is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 a markedly darker movie than its predecessors, but it’s also darker than every entry in the wider MCU the team has shown up in, too.

Sure, the franchise’s trademark humour is still very present and very on point in this third and final sequel, but with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Gunn stops pulling his punches. This is a more violent, ugly film than fans have come to expect from Marvel Studios – at times shockingly so. Cashing in on his considerable credit with the studio, Gunn peppers his MCU swansong with the kind of gore that has until now set his Guardians of the Galaxy outings apart from the rest of his filmography. It’s a creative choice that’s bound to alienate some viewers, however, for better or worse, it makes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 feel like Gunn’s most personal MCU effort yet.

What’s more, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’s graphic violence is never gratuitous. Indeed, without it, many of the film’s disarmingly emotional scenes would fall flat. I’ve previously criticized earlier entries in the franchise for undercutting heartfelt moments with comedy, but there’s none of that going on here. Gunn isn’t afraid to wade into grimy, brutal territory in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and the beauty and heartbreak he finds there are both surprising and genuine and will stay with you long after the credits roll.

Not that Gunn deserves all the credit, of course. Once again, he’s backed by a stellar line-up of acting talent, many of whom have inhabited their roles for going on 10 years at this point. Of the returning core cast members, Pratt, Bautista and Klementieff are the standouts – especially Pratt, who turns in one of his best performances in recent memory. Considerable kudos must also go to Cooper, Linda Cardellini, Asim Chaudhry, and Mikaela Hoover, whose voice acting (coupled with Framestore’s incredible CGI) drives Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’s flashback sequences.

Of the newcomers, Iwuji makes the biggest impression. Admittedly, Iwuji’s High Evolutionary doesn’t quite reach the heights of all-time great MCU villains such as Thanos and Loki, however, he doesn’t suffer too much by comparison, either. The classically trained Nigerian-British thespian effortlessly shifts gears from quietly sinister to full-blown Shakespearean theatrics throughout the movie and, crucially, this delicate balancing act results in a baddie who’s equal parts compelling and contemptible.

The importance of just how hissable Iwuji is in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 can’t be overstated, since the evil he represents is clearly designed to make the film’s themes sing. This is a story about found families doing the best they can in a universe filled with monsters like the High Evolutionary willing to use, abuse, and dispose of them on a whim. Life can be shit – aggressively so, in the case of the younger Rocket and his fellow lab animals – and most people may never see you as anything more than a screw-up, but Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 makes a strong case that it’s all worth it so long as you’re surrounded by people who love you.

It’s the same simple yet profound message at the core of Gunn’s previous Guardians of the Galaxy instalments, yet it’s arguably never hit home harder than it does here.

All this isn’t to say I didn’t have a few quibbles with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. For one thing, the dialogue early on is often distractingly expository – an unavoidable by-product of Gunn having to bring more casual MCU enthusiasts up to speed with the state of play heading into the Guardians’ latest adventure. This clunkiness is mirrored by some of the character beats late in the game, which aren’t exactly subtle (even by the standards of the superhero genre) in telling you what to feel and why.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is also dogged by a series of “Did that beloved character just die?!” bait and switches that yield increasingly diminishing returns. After the umpteenth instance of a member of the team appearing to kick the bucket, you’ll have cottoned on to the fact that they’ll probably turn up alive and well five minutes down the line, if not sooner. Again, knowing that our heroes will almost always survive whatever gets thrown at them is part and parcel of the genre, but it’s that much harder to forget this trope when it’s constantly waved in your face.

But far and away Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’s biggest weakness is its extended epilogue, which is the closest the movie comes to overstaying its welcome at any point in its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Gunn clearly loves these characters and isn’t quite ready to let them go, even if that means allowing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’s ending to drag slightly. This would be an even bigger problem, except most viewers will find themselves in much the same boat: they won’t want to part ways with Quill and the gang a moment sooner than they have to, either.

And who can blame them? After all, while it is indeed good to have friends, forging these connections means eventually having to say goodbye. That’s never easy – even when the farewell itself comes in the form of a movie as good as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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