May 7, 2023

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is an Emotionally Devastating Final Ride (Review)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is perhaps Marvel Studios’ most exciting project since Avengers: Endgame. It’s been long-delayed, and more newsworthy than most Marvel projects (especially considering writer/director James Gunn’s firing and subsequent rehiring), and as many consider the Guardians series to be among Marvel’s best sub-franchises, expectations are high.

Image courtesy of Marvel

I am one of those people who was absurdly excited for Guardians Vol. 3. It’s been my most anticipated Marvel movie since 2021’s No Way Home, and I (along with many others) were eagerly, and somewhat nervously, anticipating how Gunn would end his trilogy of wackos and weirdness. This is one of those rare Marvel films where anything can happen, and the stakes are exponentially higher than normal (after all, are they going to make any massive story swings in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, or save the big moves for the next Avengers movie?). With unpredictability at an all-time high, it’s time to return to a cosmic corner of the universe for a grounded space adventure with the capability to absolutely destroy me emotionally.

Picking up a few years after the earth-shattering fallout of Avengers: Endgame (and their brief stint in Thor: Love and Thunder), the Guardians of the Galaxy are settling down. As seen in their holiday special (which released on Disney+ this past fall), they’ve purchased the base Knowhere and have transformed it from a desolate mining colony into a respectable town of very nice folk. When you’re in an action movie, true peace never lasts, and they’re soon beset by a consecutive wealth of problems that threatens the team’s stability and hearken back to their individual pasts.

Image courtesy of Marvel

Forgive the vagueness, but I usually find that to be necessary when it comes to Marvel movies. Their trailers usually do a great job of disguising what the true story is, and I fear to speak on it in detail out of sensitivity to spoilers.

What I will say is that Vol. 3 strikes a balance true to its predecessors, but in a far more sustained manner. While the first two Guardians flicks relied on comedy first and foremost, and expertly factored in character moments that brought the emotion at very select points, careful to not bombard the audience and stay true to the “Marvel schtick” while also forming an identity for themselves outside of the Marvel formula.

Guardians Vol. 3 brings the emotion in full force, from the first moment to the very last. Rocket is the central focus, and it becomes abundantly clear that his arc (which has threaded primarily through the two Guardians movies and Avengers: Endgame) has been a storytelling priority since the beginning. Through flashbacks, we learn more about the devastating backstory he’s been so far resistant to share with his compatriots. Bradley Cooper, of course, gives such a remarkable voice performance, perhaps the best in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far, that you will want to go back and revisit Rocket’s arc from his previous appearances. Better get out those tissues now while you have the chance.

In fact, every cast member (both new and returning) is giving their best Marvel performances yet, perhaps excepting Karen Gillan and Sean Gunn (who had more of an arc in 2017’s Vol. 2). It helps that this film also acts as the concluding chapter in every single one of their arcs, most of which have been building across six movies over the past nine years. But that’s how it operates best — not as well on its own, but with the support of its predecessors. I encourage rewatches of the previous chapters in the Guardians saga, especially if it’s been a while, because the three of the core films tie together remarkably well when viewed successively.

Image courtesy of Marvel

Guardians Vol. 3, set-ups are sparse but payoffs are magnificent. Gunn draws from the wealth of story he’s already established with each of these characters as opposed to containing everything within this singular narrative, which has both advantages and drawbacks. It rewards longtime fans and those who’ve kept up, but at the same time makes for an incomplete experience if Vol. 3 is viewed on its own. Thus, Vol. 3 works best as the conclusion to the trilogy, as opposed to a standalone arc, and Gunn’s writing is not as strong as it is in previous installments.

Even then, there’s a distinct lack of retconning, and the story of the trilogy remains remarkably cohesive. Plus, there were elements that were clearly difficult to work with (at least initially); it’s plain to see that James Gunn is unhappy with the narrative baggage that the end of the Infinity Saga saddled him with, but he still makes full use of what Infinity War and Endgame gave him. Zoe Saldaña turns in a fantastic performance as Gamora, but not the one we’ve grown to know and love — this Gamora is time-displaced, removed from any former character development (including her romance with Peter, which has been wiped clean on her end). She is essentially an entirely different character, and Guardians Vol. 3 makes certain to keep reminding you of that. Her storyline is an unexpected one, and does not go in the direction you think it will.

I’ve discovered that after I see a genuinely good Marvel movie (more of a rarity these days than not) for the first time, I end up chasing the high for a few days before I’m able to see it in a fully objective light. Maybe I should've waited to write this review, but I don’t see my takeaways drastically changing — set to the tune of a signaturely rocking soundtrack, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 concludes the trilogy with the gusto and the perfect combination of action, comedy and emotion that has defined an era that must now, unfortunately, come to a close. But that doesn’t mean it’s the end; there’s always more story to tell.

Image courtesy of Marvel

“Once more with feeling.” The tagline doesn’t lie.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is playing now in theaters.

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