Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 finds the scrappy team banded together again after universe-rending the events of the Infinity Saga, though still reeling from the loss of Gamora (Zoe Saldana), their teammate – and perhaps for their leader, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), his soulmate.
There’s never a certain future in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where even death isn’t necessarily permanent and any number of factors like magic, time travel, and multiversal tinkering can flip the script. Avengers: Endgame also set up a new Gamora thread with a displaced pre-Guardians variant of her character from an earlier timeline who doesn’t share the deep familiar bonds forged over their adventures, except for her connection with her sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan).
But there is a sense of finality circling this trilogy-closing chapter of Marvel’s most cosmic film series. While we can’t say for sure if this is the last go-round for the Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s certainly the last ride, for now at least, for this version of them, and for writer-director James Gunn, whose new role at Warner Bros has him wrangling the future of the multimedia empire of DC, Marvel’s primary competitor.
It’s clear that he’s approaching the material with a sense of closure, crafting a film that’s far more about its characters than its plot, closing up loose ends and and setting a path not necessarily for what they’ll do, but for who they are.
While earthborn leader and captain Peter Quill has been the primary protagonist of the series, this film arguably belongs to Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper). The surly and sarcastic former bounty hunter harbors the pain of a shrouded past which transformed him into an intelligent being with genius-level intellect, incredible dexterity, anthropomorphized pshysiology, and a bad attitude.
And in this respect, this third outing is a darker and more somber story which heavily features Rocket’s fevered memories as a lab animal for “The High Evolutionary” (Chukwudi Iwuji), a madman with a god complex who has spent decades performing cruel experiments on animals, including Rocket and his friends, to forcibly evolve them to higher forms of intelligence. In all his years and failings, Rocket was his greatest triumph, and he still wants to dissect his success – setting into play the events of this chapter. This aspect of the story includes some animal cruelty and will be particularly upsetting, especially for kids.
The film also folds in a new secondary antagonist, Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), originally hinted in a teaser at the end of Vol. 2. While his role is relatively small in terms of screentime (a source of dismay for some fans eager for a better characterization), he’s important to both the film’s inciting incident and its resolution, and he gets an arc thematically fitting with the the overall sentiment of the series.
Gunn and his willing cast of collaborators once again make a thrilling, humorous, wacky, and sometimes absurd adventure with a soundtrack full of impressive needle-drops (now expanding the scope of 70-80s songs bound by Peter’s mom’s mixtapes that diegetically colored the first two films).
And there’s some really new and amazing stuff on the screen that reawakens a sense of exploratory adventure and wonder: an organic space station made of flesh and goo, a surreal alternate “Counter-Earth” setting, and a hallway battle with an army of animal-cyborgs.
But the secret sauce to this ongoing tale – more so than any other Marvel property – has been its keen heart. A band of misfits, thieves, and ruffians suffering losses, finding their family in each other, and striving to do – and to be – something better. In this throughline fans have often treasured their tears as much as their laughter. Even the return of small supporting characters in cameo appearances (such as Howard the Duck, and Christopher Fairbanks as The Broker) is a deliberate and loving nod to the sense of community that drives the Guardians and their new home of Knowhere, the formerly rough and tumble facility that now serves not only as the Guardians’ home base, but as a refuge for the castoffs of the galaxy. (I also understand that Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman, who gave Gunn his start in the biz, reportedly reprises his cameo role – his hilarious appearance was my one of my favorite little easter eggs that I immediately spotted in the original. I didn’t catch him this time but I’m trusting that he’s in there somewhere).
For some the film’s darker and devastating tone may make this film more difficult than its predecessors, but it’s committed to having finishing in a way that gives each of the Guardians a critical piece of (and I’m being intentionally vague here) defining a new chapter. I’m especially appreciative that Gunn makes the “mature choice” instead of the “Hollywood choice” in one critical respect.
I’m generally a fan of what Marvel does with their sprawling universe their long-format storytelling with mostly hits and a few overall misses. But on a more intimate scale, the three Guardians films are the greatest sustained distillation of demonstrating what Marvel does best.