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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 Review

In this age of serialized storytelling, of multi-film arcs that take years to resolve, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in real danger of doing something that the comic books these films are based on have struggled with for decades – keeping the status quo.

There’s a resistance to change, of not shaking the tree too much, or alternatively, of changing everything just to have the next writer that comes along reset everything back to zero. It stops being compelling storytelling and becomes story maintenance, and while it may be a comfort to the fans, it doesn’t make for an inspiring story.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 Review

I get it – this is a huge economic undertaking for Marvel Studios at this point, and when your fanbase greedily devours every crumb off the cake, it’s easy to keep wanting to feed them what they want. But it’s not healthy. In a chaotic world people want stability in their entertainment, but the stories that really matter challenge and motivate the people who experience them.

Fan service is great when it’s done well – the latest Star Trek: Picard season manages to please the fans and be terrific storytelling at the same time, but that’s a rare thing. Fans aren’t the best arbiter of storytelling. The great stories don’t give us what we want – they give us something we didn’t even know we needed.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 Review

James Gunn understand this. He understands that change isn’t to be feared, it’s to be embraced. He trusts us that we can handle it. It’s a mature outlook for a genre ostensibly meant for kids, but it’s also why the best films of the MCU resonate with us while much of the latest product feels like homework.

And while not every move Gunn makes in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 lands, enough of them do that make this easily the best Marvel Studios film since Avengers: Endgame. None of these characters are the same at the end of this film, and hopefully Marvel won’t get nervous and try to rectify what Gunn does here. It’s swerves like that that undermine the story, and I’d hate for Marvel to do with these characters what Lucasfilm did with The Rise of Skywalker after the fan upheaval of The Last Jedi.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 Review

Whether this is the last Guardians of the Galaxy film isn’t for me to definitively answer, but Gunn, who is moving to head DC’s film division, is most definitely not going to be involved from here on out. I hope that Gunn brings his story sensibilities to those movies, because those characters deserve that kind of treatment.

But Volume 3 isn’t afraid to upset people. It has some sequences that are downright bleak, and one particular plotline involving Rocket Raccoon (performed by Sean Gunn and voiced by Bradley Cooper) may be rough going for some children and animal lovers.

Rocket is the product of the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), an omnipotent being who likes to play God and create entire species and cultures at his whim, but when he gets bored or dissatisfied with them, has no compunctions in destroying them. Rocket’s the result of a failed experiment, but Rocket has something that the others do not – call it a soul if you like.

It’s the High Evolutionary that sends Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) to attack the Guardians and retrieve Rocket, and when Rocket becomes gravely wounded, the Guardians must do everything to save their friend, even if it means going up against one of the most powerful entities in the Multiverse.

What James Gunn seems to have over practically everyone else who makes these movies is a sense of character. He’s not putting these people in a meat grinder for the fun of it. He genuinely loves Rocket, Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Groot (Vin Diesel), and Kraglin (Sean Gunn). He also shares the wealth, giving everyone something to do.

Star-Lord is still struggling with his “breakup” with Gamora, who is from an alternate timeline and no longer remembers him or their shared love. Gamora, for her part, likes the Guardians well enough, but she hasn’t had those experiences and she’d much rather be a Ravager, committing all sorts of intergalactic crime.

Nebula misses her sister too, but she’s found some peace and harmony with this ersatz family, and she chooses to stay with them. Mantis is no longer under Ego’s sway, and while she is also fond of the Guardians, especially Drax, she is also questioning her place in the Guardians.

Drax is no longer seeking vengeance, and he’s looking to fill the hole in his life that his family used to fill before Thanos took them. And Groot… well, he is Groot, but in Groot’s prime, built like if Arnold Schwarzenegger was a tree and able to flex.

But make no mistake, this is Rocket Raccoon’s movie. Much of his story is told in flashback, as a young creature who catches the High Evolutionary’s eye. This is the story that James Gunn has wanted to tell since the first film, and with Volume 3 Rocket Raccoon becomes quite possibly the best hero of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I’ve always loved Rocket, whose sardonic attitude always hid great pain, but now we see where that pain comes from. These sequences go DARK. They raise the stakes, and while other films in the MCU have been about planetary or universal destruction, these stakes are more personal than any of the films so far.

Gunn doesn’t pull punches, either. For these relationships, these characters to matter, Gunn must take every one of them to places that we don’t often see in these movies. But I’m so appreciative that he did. For too long now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been spinning its wheels, showing us cool visual imagery but without the emotion to back them up. With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3, Gunn returns those emotions to the front and center, and it makes the film pay off dramatically.

It’s not all perfect. Will Poulter’s Adam Warlock feels like a character thrown in to remind us that Marvel’s still putting worldbuilding above story, but I did like his performance, especially in the second half of the film. There are a few moments like that scattered throughout the movie, where you can feel the corporate wheels turning, but it’s not a lot, and nothing that ruins what Gunn is doing.

I would have liked a little more explanation about the High Evolutionary’s past and motives, but Chukwudi Iwuji’s work here is wonderful, one of the best villains we’ve come across so far. The High Evolutionary is a nasty piece of work, and a formidable foe, and there are quite a few moments where you’re not sure the Guardians are going to triumph.

It also helps to have a genuine auteur at the helm (yeah, I said it). When Marvel lets their directors off the corporate chain, the rewards are substantial. There are some wonderful action sequences that feel directed and not just rendered in a bunch of computers somewhere. James Gunn knows what he’s doing, and if I may be so bold as to say it, he may very well be the Steven Spielberg of this genre, because he’s exceedingly good at telling these stories and making them relevant and resonant.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 may wind up being my favorite of the trilogy (this one and the first one keep flipping places in my head) because James Gunn is committed to this story and these characters, even as he is saying goodbye to them. Even the end credits scenes are lovely character moments and not about extending the Marvel brand.

Saying Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 is the best Marvel movie since Avengers: Endgame may not be saying too much, but it’s a needed course correction after the last few films.

I wish James Gunn well as he moves out of Marvel and into the DC Cinematic Universe, and more than ever I am very excited to see what he brings to Superman. But Gunn’s final MCU outing is a beautiful send-off, and you can’t help but take that love with you when it’s as strong as Gunn’s is. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 may keep me invested in these silly movies just a little bit longer.


Opening in theaters on May 5, 2023, Marvel StudiosGuardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, strong language, suggestive/drug references and thematic elements.