Nine years ago, doomsayers pegged the initial Guardians of the Galaxy as Marvel Studios’ first flop. You had a roster of obscure and wacky characters with a director known mostly for low-budget schlock. Since then, the first two Guardians films made over $1.5 billion worldwide and the protagonists were integral parts of two other billion dollar babies in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, along with a holiday special. The Guardians have even become mainstays at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
The Guardians of the Galaxy were originally created by Gene Colan and Arnold Drake as a team of heroes from the 31st century with names like Vance Astro and Charlie-27. Everyone’s favorite blue-skinned finhead Yondu Udonta was also a founding member. It was writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning that revamped the team into the line-up of D-list characters now seen in the MCU.
Vol. 3 serves as a swan song for writer/director James Gunn as he has jumped ship to Warner Bros. to run DC Studios. In contrast to the raucous dance numbers of the previous movies, Vol. 3 opens with a somber, acoustic version of “Creep” by Radiohead. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is drinking himself into a stupor, still pining over the death of his beloved Gamora (Zoe Saldana). Rocket (Bradley Cooper) has taken control of the Zune, signifying that his character will be taking center stage. No sooner do we launch into “Crazy on You” by Heart, when the Guardians are attacked by Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a golden warrior created by the Sovereign to destroy our heroes.
Rocket is gravely wounded and the Guardians embark on a journey into the deepest reaches of space in search of the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). Equal parts Mengele and Moreau, the High Evolutionary conducts gruesome experiments in his quest to create the perfect lifeform.
Also returning to for the threequel are Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Nebula (Karen Gillan), a swole as hell Groot (Vin Diesel), and Kraglin (Sean Gunn), who is still trying to perfect the sonic arrow left to him by the late-Yondu (Michael Rooker). The returnees are joined by Cosmo (Maria Bakalova), a Russian dog who was shot into space and gained telekinetic powers. The Gamora from Endgame is also back and wants nothing to do with Quill instead, choosing to spend her time with the Ravagers. Speaking of which, several of them stop by to say hello, including Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone) and the crystalline Martinex (Michael Rosenbaum). Even Howard the Duck (Seth Green) and Troma head honcho Lloyd Kaufman drop in for this swan song to the Guardians trilogy.
James Gunn’s off-kilter sense of humor and visual inventiveness are on full display here. You know Gunn has pulled out all stops when the idea of the Guardians living inside the decapitated head of a Celestial seems completely normal. First, Gunn takes us to a research facility made entirely of organic material that looks like uncoiled small intestines. All the while the protagonists bounce along the surface dressed in brightly colored space suits as if they were the little astronauts from Among Us. Next, we take a trip to Counter-Earth, a replica of our world circa early-80’s populated entirely by the High Evolutionary’s Ani-Men, animals transmuted into humanoid form. There’s plenty of action with the best sequence being a hallway battle set to Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn.” Shot as one continuous take, the fight sees the Guardians work as a team against the Evolutionary’s genetically engineered forces with slow motion and freeze frames sprinkled throughout. Each shot is composed just like a comic book splash page.
Meanwhile, Drax and Mantis have become THE comedic duo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Chalk that up to a mix of Mantis’s naivete and Drax’s bluntness, along with tremendous chemistry between actors Klementieff and Bautista. The humor is desperately needed as the story delves into Rocket’s tragic backstory with flashbacks interspersed throughout the movie. Animal lovers be warned. Vol. 3 gets the tears flowing right away with a prologue featuring an ominous hand reaching into a cage full of baby raccoons. We even meet some of young Rocket’s cage mates, other critters with crude cybernetic enhancements. They are almost reminiscent of Sid’s patchwork playthings from Toy Story. Gunn also plays into expectations that some of your favorite characters may not survive this final film leading to some heartstopping moments.
The High Evolutionary also stands as one of the MCU’s best villains as Chukwudi Iwuji chews the scenery whenever he’s called upon. He may be one note, but it’s refreshing to see a Marvel villain that is truly evil without a sympathetic origin. While Gunn’s script is a bit overstuffed, he still gives ample time for his main stars to shine. The only superfluous addition is Adam Warlock, whose debut feels like an obligatory nod to the comics crowd though he barely resembles the version seen in The Infinity Gauntlet. Warlock just drops in from time to time as an irritant to the Guardians, but Poulter’s performance leaves plenty of room for growth.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 is arguably Marvel’s best theatrical release since Spider-Man: No Way Home. It’s easily the best of the Guardians trilogy. Gunn hits all the right notes when it comes to humor, action, and pathos. Guardians completes the journey for several characters, but leaves the door open for future adventures (Galactus? Annihilus?).
Film Rating: 8