You have to give James Gunn credit. Regardless of how you feel about his bold blend of idiosyncratic storytelling molded slightly into the Marvel Studios machine, he managed to make a collection of misfit toys born out of the depths of comics into one of the most beloved trilogies in the entire superhero genre. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3” once again defies the odds, both in terms of rich story from its characters no one could name 10 years ago and in saying goodbye to Marvel Studios altogether with his own words.
It seems fitting that this third and final entry feels the most at odds with itself, almost serving as an allegory for Gunn and Marvel Studios‘ own story both together and the decision to go their separate ways. “Vol 3” is packed to the brim with action and heart, but is by far the most unfocused and overstuffed entry out of the three. It is Gunn unhinged, and while that usually serves as a positive, the tonal imbalance as well as the film’s struggle to deliver the trademark humor amidst its brutally dark themes diminishes some of the emotional resonance in the overall conclusion.
Written and directed by Gunn, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3” picks up right where we last left our ragtag heroes after the “Holiday Special.” Star-lord (Chris Pratt) is still reeling from the loss of “his” Gamora, drinking himself silly regularly to the disappointment of his companions. Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Nebula (Karen Gillian) are reaching the end of their patience with Quill’s antics, but before they can decide what to do with him they are attacked by a new threat in the form of Adam Warlock (Wll Poulter). Sent by the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) a mad scientist with a god complex who is seeking to recover his lost experiment, Rocket Raccoon. The High Evolutionary wants to make the perfect world, and will destroy whole created civilizations to make the universe in his image. The Guardians must now save their friends and each other against this new threat, and come together to save the galaxy again….again.
There is so much to like in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3,” namely the Rocket backstory that is handled with so much care and gut punching emotion it could’ve been a whole film unto itself. Truthfully, it’s refreshing to see Quill’s baggage take a backseat and dig deep into the mysterious and haunting past of a different Guardian. Rocket is the MVP of “Vol 3,” and the emotional weight of his experiences and interactions with The High Evolutionary is sure to rip your heart right out of your chest. When we talk about brutal themes, it’s predominently in this key plot thread. “Vol 3” just may be the least family friendly film in the entire MCU, and without spoilers you should know that there are some harrowing things that happen to very cute animals. Gunn goes for broke with his darkness, the foreknowledge of having nothing to lose allowing him to push the boundaries further than any of his previous entries. Seriously, I don’t know how the hell Gunn was able to get away with as much as he does in this final entry.
Iwuji as the High Evolutionary is a worthy advesary, and delivers a disturbingly calm yet menacing performance. “Vol 3” tries to give him as much it can, but with so much to get to and get out of the overstuffed narrative, it leaves a little bit more to be desired from him. Though always threatening, there are times where he feels underdeveloped and unexplained, with Gunn banking on our own research of who and what he is instead of providing further exposition outside of the horrible tortures he subjected Rocket to in his past. He’s definitely a step up from Ronan, but not quite as purposeful as Ego. Villains often make or break all Marvel movies, and while this one isn’t in the very small company of top tier MCU bad guys, he is definitely not a Dark Elf. Betcha forgot all about the dark elves, huh? Poulter’s Warlock is a fine addition, but is never really given enough screen time to show off his tried and true comedic timing and presence. He’s just kind of there and doesn’t serve much purpose outside of the plot calling for his appearance. “Vol 3” doesn’t have a bad performance, with everyone (including the plethora of additions) taping into the comedy and emotion required of them.
Visually, “Vol 3” is miles above many of the most recent entries (I’m looking directly at you “Ant-man and the Wasp Quantumania“), and though it has the same amount of manufactured scenery, Gunn smartly makes all of his worlds feel lived in and in-universe real. Its packed with vibrant color gradings and skillful framing, and though we visit too many of them and the film never feels like it settles into itself, no one can accuse Gunn of not knowing how to make an absolutely stunning film. Additionally, “Vol 3” proves once again that no one does needle drops quite as good as Gunn. The man seems to know music as much as he know movies, and never slacks on blending them both beautifully. “The Dog Days are Over” by Florence + The Machine serving as the final anthem so unbelievably fitting and cathartic it just feels right. Ambition may have gotten the best of him tonally and narratively, but nothing else as far as craft suffers in the process. Makeup, special effects, costume design, action set pieces, and cinematography are all top notch and some of the best of all it that Marvel has offered in what seems like forever.
I get it, in a farewell you want to leave no stone unturned and tell all the stories you won’t be able to put in another entry. Unfortunately for “Vol 3,” Gunn’s boom or bust additions overstuff everything and makes it difficult to truly care or invest in everyone we meet. Some of these additions are meant to be key players in this particular story, but their introductions and usages are so clunky it is challenging to feel connected to all of them. That’s probably the most surprising element of “Vol 3;” Gunn is usually an expert at this kind of juggling act. It’s what made the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” so damn refreshing. But here, even he gets lost in own weird mind and the film continues to lose its way the longer it goes. The length is felt, especially as the story gets more and more bloated with every new character and subplot. It falls just shy of being emotionally manipulative as opposed to emotionally effective, and the line is incredibly thin in a lot of places in “Vol 3.”
Generally, I think most people will enjoy “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3” and will feel the weight of lackluster Marvel entries lift off their shoulders when the credits roll. “Vol 3” may be my least favorite of the trilogy, and I don’t mean it as pejoratively as it sounds when you consider how good this trilogy actually ends up being altogether. Being the least favorite of The Guardians franchise is still a top 3 winner, so it’s more of a compliment than an insult. Though the film is doing more heavy lifting than the story can sustain, and it doesn’t quite feel like a complete and worthy send off to these beloved characters, there’s enough to mine out of the mess to be satisfied when the Guardians say their goodbyes and when we say goodbye to the Guardians.
And if I’m being honest, the longer I sit with the film the more it pulls a Groot and grows on me. Is it clunky and messy storytelling? Sure. Is it more unfocused than the previous ones? Ya, I’d say so. But it is a good time at the movies? You damn right it is, and even if the journey to get to the end doesn’t quite land as hard as I would like it to, an entertaining as hell film is kind of the perfect send off for our ragtag group of space hero goofballs and misfits. In the 12 hours removed from leaving the theater and completing this review, I’ve actually bumped my rating up a whole half point. The strengths have slowly outweighed my initial misgivings, and while I stand by my criticisms the “Guardians” franchise can still make the case for being one of the best and most consistent trilogies of its time. And that’s more than worth the price of admission and a worthy goodbye to an era.
It’s got its flaws, but “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3” turns out to be a “good dog.” Come and get your love one last time before the dog days are over.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3” is now playing in theaters. You can watch the trailer below.