“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is being released at an odd time. It’s been six years since the last time the Guardians led a film, and beyond roles in “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame,” as well as a short cameo in “Thor: Love and Thunder,” they’ve barely been featured since “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” There’s a pretty understandable reason for that, of course, as writer/director James Gunn was briefly fired by Disney for some very old, insensitive tweets and began a relationship with rivals DC that eventually resulted in him getting hired as what amounts to the Kevin Feige of Warner’s superhero brand. He did return to finish the story he started, but it’s safe to say neither he nor most of his cast feature into the MCU’s ongoing plans. The result is a movie that feels unmoored from context, an especially odd experience considering Marvel’s slavish dedication to continuity.
At the start of the film, the Guardians have settled into life on Knowhere, with the core group (Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill, Dave Bautista’s Drax, Vin Diesel’s Groot, Bradley Cooper’s Rocket, Pom Klementieff’s Mantis and Karen Gillan’s Nebula) serving as the mining colony’s protectors. As is expected, the peace does not last long thanks to the arrival of Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), who has been sent to Knowhere to kidnap Rocket by his mother Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) on the orders of the mysterious High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). The Guardians are able to keep the nascent Warlock at bay but not before Rocket is gravely injured. In order to save their friend, Quill and crew have no choice but to enlist the help of the Ravagers, now led by Gamora (Zoe Saldana), to find the key to Rocket’s survival.
It may have been six years since the Guardians of the Galaxy headlined their own movie, but Gunn’s signature style remains undeniably intact. From the endless barrage of licensed music (the film opens with the acoustic rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep” and doesn’t let down from there) to the trademarked mix of sarcasm and sympathy, the film picks up right where things seemed to have left off, even with the seismic changes that both “Infinity War” and “Endgame” caused for the cosmos. Indeed, Gunn’s film doesn’t seem at all interested in the greater storylines of the post-“Endgame” MCU, with the changes to Gamora the only real indication that the status quo has evolved since the credits rolled on “Vol. 2.”
That’s honestly a breath of fresh air at this point, as the endless need to make one movie roll into the next, not to mention requiring watching an unending parade of Disney+ shows just to keep up with it all, has grown exhausting. This is a movie that stands on its own, not weighed down by the need to link to what’s coming next, making it a far easier watch than the other recent MCU films. Additionally, Gunn remains one of the few directors who manages to keep his own style intact (though that can be an issue at times), making “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” far more engaging than “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.”
The true star of the show here is Rocket, despite him spending much of the film out of commission. We’ve seen glimpses of Rocket’s traumatic past in previous films, both in the form of the damage inflicted on his body and his sensitivity to being labeled a freak. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” pulls no punches in its depiction of Rocket’s trauma through a series of flashbacks, tugging on the heartstrings with quite a lot of violence to cute, furry animals. It’s certainly effective in making you hate the High Evolutionary, depicting him as a callous, monomaniacal eugenicist who won’t hesitate to destroy a project that doesn’t live up to his expectations, even if that project is an adorable little turtle. It’s more than a little manipulative and straight out of the Cruella de Vil School for Awful Movie Villains, but it’s undeniably effective and the first time that I actually shed a tear during one of these movies. Cooper brings the necessary pathos to his vocal performance, bringing a naivete to the flashbacks that easily and effectively contrasts with the gruff, sarcastic and bloodthirsty demeanor of his present-day self. Iwuji makes for an impressive foil and is perhaps the most histrionic villain we’ve seen Marvel put on screen. He screams and wails and pontificates, losing his cool when even the slightest plan goes awry. He lacks the emotional heft of a Killmonger but ranks among the most impressive baddies in the canon.
Regardless of whether “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is a good movie in its own right or just a good Marvel movie, there is definitely something to this that raises it above the morass of the rest of the MCU post-“Endgame.” Because of that, it does feel like a major unforced error for Disney to have not only chased James Gunn away but to have chased him directly into the arms of their biggest competition. Time will tell how big of a mistake that was — I certainly can’t imagine a Superman movie full of needle drops, so we’ll see how adaptable his style is — but for now, it’s nice to see one of these movies and actually care about many of the characters.
The movie is not without fault; the back half spends too much time on the Gamora/Star-Lord relationship, Adam Warlock gets a bit of a short shrift, it’s too long by at least 20 minutes, and Gunn’s exhaustive music cues continue to provide diminishing returns. And yet, even considering all of that, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is a huge improvement over the standard Phase 4 or 5 MCU film, harkening back to a time when these films didn’t feel like a compulsory bore. It’s hard to tell if Gunn would have stuck with Marvel had his Twitter controversy not led to directing “The Suicide Squad,” but this film reminds us of what Disney has lost here.
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Sean Gunn, Will Poulter, Chukwudi Iwuji, Maria Bakalova
Director: James Gunn