Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 – Review
Reviewed by Jan
(Mild spoilers for plot & character elements / NO spoilers for character deaths etc.)
Phase 5 of the MCU is now well underway, with Guardians Vol. 3 coming in right after Quantumania. When I reviewed Quantumania, I somewhat grandiosely stated how the MCU was in dire need of a hit. Was it? After all, it’s the most successful cinematic franchise of all time, with an unparalleled 10 of those 30+ movies crossing the 1 billion dollar mark and many more landing just below. But that’s in the past now. Considering that the poorly received Quantumania barely made profit with a meager 474 million box office – after Avatar 2 made 2,3 billion and effing Super Mario crossed a billion –, I can only repeat myself: The MCU is in dire need of a hit.
Now more so than ever. Because since Quantum‘s out, the skies over ye olde MCU have darkened even more. Not only is Marvel facing hard decisions regarding Jonathan Major’s future as Kang. Disney also fired longtime producer Victoria Alonso. The D+ shows don’t make profit. Disney CEO Bob Iger promised how they‘re gonna course correct from quantity back to quality. And recently, MCU boss Kevin Feige threw the current director roster under the bus, reportedly stating how he now wants to hire more experienced directors like Sam Raimi over the young‘uns – funny, considering the nightmarish production history of Doctor Strange 2.
Enter James Gunn with his final MCU gig... before shepherding a new incarnation of DC on film. Will he be able to turn things around? Going into its first weekend, the film seems to open higher than Vol. 1 but below Vol. 2. We’ll know more once the 2nd and 3rd weekend drop numbers are in. But hey, who cares whether a mega corporation makes a few bucks less or more, right? We’re here for the film. Is it worth a damn, unlike the previous batch?
Why yes, it is. Huge sigh of relief!
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 is by far the best written and directed MCU entry since Infinity War. Ah, the bliss of having a good writer/director with personal stakes in his story. Gunn often stated how telling Rocket’s backstory was important to him on an intimate level; it’s the culmination of his ‚misunderstood outsiders & found families‘ trope. And it shows. Whereas everything phase 4 (except for the heartfelt No Way Home) almost made my eyes roll out of my skull, Vol. 3 is full of emotional moments that made me sob like a newborn.
That said, Vol. 3 is far from a perfect trilogy capper and unable to reach the fun heights of Vol. 1 & 2, instead opting for a much darker tone. And I’m not just talking about Gunn’s way more melancholic soundtrack choices. Despite a few good laughs, Vol. 3 is a very somber movie. This comes with the territory as far as the story goes – it’s probably the most unpleasant to watch MCU entry. Worse than Thanos slaughtering his way through the universe? For me and probably many other viewers – yes! And that’s mainly due to severe CGI animal cruelty. I’m not kidding. If you can’t take movies showing animal torture, you will have a hard time with Vol. 3.
We kick off with the Guardians having established a small base & town on Knowhere. Quill (Chris Pratt) is drunk and depressed over the loss of Gamora (Zoe Saldana), not being able to accept that the Gamora who’s still alive and kicking is a different past version transported to the present; one who never fell in love with him. Around him, life goes on... until golden superboy Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) comes crashing in, trying to abduct Rocket (Sean Gunn / Bradley Cooper) and mortally wounding him in the process. None of the medical machines can help him though since the mysterious person who created Rocket built in a firewall (or whatever tech gobbledigook) against such proceedings. The new mission is clear: Travel the galaxy in order to find a way to break the firewall and save the life of our comatose friend. This isn’t so much a Guardians Of The Galaxy adventure – more like a Guardians Of The Guardians drama.
It turns out Adam was hired by Rocket’s creator – the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a eugenics-obsessed maniac trying to create the perfect lifeform in order to create a utopian society: Humanoid and intelligent but docile and averse to any kind of warfare. Noble goals, it seems. The means of achieving those are quite the opposite though. Through flashbacks experienced by the comatosely dreaming Rocket, we see first hand his origin and the insane cruelty of his creator, the High Evolutionary, basically the Joseph Mengele of the MCU.
First he puts animals into an evolution chamber, turning them into more humanoid and intelligent versions of themselves. Then he goes on to mutilate them and replace body parts with machinery (and then goes on to do even worse things which shan’t be spoiled here). All of this sounds quite like what Nebula (Karen Gillan) and others suffered at the hands of Thanos – but hey, at least she still looks cool as hell, doesn’t she? These animals who are imprisoned by the High one next to Rocket are both extremely cute and thoroughly horrible to look at.
There’s Floor, the cutest CGI rabbit you’ll ever see. But she’s wearing a metallic mouthpiece and walks around on mechanical spider legs... because the High one apparently took sick pleasure in slashing off her legs and snout. And there’s Lyla the otter. She has a heart of gold and hopes for a better future – even though she had her arms ripped out and replaced with ghastly robotic grapplers. And there’s others like them. Not all of them are gonna make it out alive – and it’s a testament to Gunn’s writing & direction that the fates of these CGI animals we barely even know hit harder than most other content in way over 30 MCU movies. There’s is an existential nature to these scenes that gets under your skin and crawls deep. Rocket’s story – from the flashbacks to the film’s climax in the present – is both fantastic and surprisingly hard to endure.
The big problem of Vol. 3: The other characters are mostly just bystanders in Rocket’s drama. And considering how well Gunn handled the ensemble nature of Volumes 1 & 2, this is a bit of a letdown. Vol. 2 may be more controversially discussed than the original but damn did it have great character writing. Every character's journey reflected the movie's theme: Overcoming (your own) Ego and opening yourself up to others instead of pushing through your pain alone. This was expressed through conflict-ridden pairings. Quill & Ego. Quill & Gamora. Yondu & Rocket. Yondu & Quill. Gamora & Nebula. In all these pairings, there’s love-hate relationships to untangle and resolve for these misfits. Remember how Yondu & Rocket were at each others throats, then slowly came to understand each other better, until Yondu empathically yelled at Rocket: „I know you. Because you are me.“ Gunn clearly knows his dramatic writing craft!
Which is why I’m irritated that this time the other Guardians don’t have much going for them apart from helping Rocket. Quill is dealing with a problem Gunn didn't even want him to face; which is made sufficiently clear through pieces of dialogue summing up the Gamora situation in a rather acidic tone. Gamora's arc, I guess, is ending up slightly less annoyed by Quill compared to the beginning (at least Gunn doesn’t have her flip character for convenience, like with Loki who comes fresh off the invasion of NY, sits down to watch a movie of his life, and instantly turns back into nice & matured Loki). With Drax, we get... nothing, apart from the expected silly nonsense. This would've been the perfect opportunity to ask: What's his purpose now that he missed out on his revenge against Thanos? The movie has an answer: He's gotta be a good adoptive dad to alien kids who need one. But that‘s a payoff with no setup. Watching the film unfold, you wouldn’t know that Drax is looking for new purpose. Groot? He’s got a few funny moments but nothing as resonant as his sacrifice in Vol. 1 or the baby Groot insanity of Vol. 2.
Occasionally, Gunn remembers that he’s also introducing one of Marvel’s most important cosmic power players with Adam Warlock. But Adam‘s barely in the movie. Maybe he shouldn’t have been there at all. He’s a violent doofus who has to learn basic empathy – that’s very Gunn! But his Adam is also a far cry from the Adam of the comics – the one who stood against Thanos when all Avengers had been slaughtered in Infinity Gauntlet. If you‘re a fan of this character, you might be mighty mad at Gunn for reducing Adam to this adolescent punk. Don’t get me wrong, Poulter is running away with what he’s given. He’s great. But Adam shouldn’t have been just a comedic afterthought. He should’ve made for an awesome anti-hero / future ally.
The standout among the human cast is Pom Klementieff playing Mantis. Klementieff is at the peak of her comedic talents here. She’s got hilarious lines galore and her physical comedy is off the charts. In Rocket’s absence, she’s the glue that holds the Guardians together. And while Rocket is the soaring soul of Vol. 3, Mantis is its heart and humor.
Vol. 3 is a lesser movie compared to 1 & 2. But it's still a solid and sometimes great MCU entry with some incredible emotional highs among a bunch of more aimless stretches. I’ll take it. It’s more than I expect from Marvel these days. Thanks, Gunn, for jolting the MCU back to life – even if just for now. Will Vol. 3 turn a profit... or barely any? Will Gunn fall on his face with Superman Legacy? Or will Legacy be when the tables turn between the old rival studios, and DC takes the pole position? Things are changing in superhero land and I’m morbidly curious about its future. Until then, Vol. 3 is no masterpiece, but certainly worth watching and discussing!