Ever since they exploded onto the big screen in 2014, the once-obscure Guardians of the Galaxy have become beloved mainstays of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). But, unlike many of the seemingly-endless story arcs of the MCU’s superheroes, the ragtag group gets a proper farewell tour with James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3.”
Following the death and (sorta) resurrection of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) in “Avengers: Infinity War,” the Guardians of the Galaxy have settled down and turned the once crime-ridden planet of Knowhere into a safe haven for refugees across the galaxy, but their captain Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is more despondent than ever. But when Rocket’s (Bradley Cooper) life is endangered, the Guardians are forced to journey through the troubled past of his creation at the hands of the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji).
The film takes the darkness that has always been something of an undercurrent in the “Guardians” films- after all, the iconic opening credits dance of the first film comes only after we witness Quill’s mother succumb to cancer- and brings it to the forefront. That doesn’t mean the film doesn’t have many of the same laugh-out-loud moments that made its predecessors iconic, writer and director James Gunn simply trusts that audiences are invested in the characters’ stories enough that they don’t need to be placated with silliness.
The shift in tone is also reflected in the film’s soundtrack. Once populated exclusively by songs from 1979 and earlier, Awesome Mix Vol. 3 ranges from 1973 to 2018, with some of the best cuts of the entire trilogy, including standouts like “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” by The Beastie Boys, “Dog Days Are Over” by Florence + The Machine and “In the Meantime” by Spacehog. Unfortunately, however, the songs themselves aren’t quite as tightly integrated into the story of the film as songs like “Fooled Around and Fell In Love” or “My Sweet Lord” in the first two films. But in the moments where the songs do integrate, they make for some of the most emotional moments in the whole series.
The emotional beats are all incredibly strong. While Rocket has always been a fairly prominent character, he’s never been given more time to shine than in “Vol. 3,” where he serves as the film’s emotional core. After nearly a decade, we finally see Rocket’s tragic backstory, and it’s far more raw, harrowing and heartbreaking than you’d ever expect from a Marvel movie. There’s some serious body horror in the film, with the High Evolutionary’s experiments being enough to make any animal lover’s stomach churn.
The cast is at the top of their game here as well. Pratt delivers the most vulnerable (but still hilarious and charming) performance of his career in this film, as a more mature yet heartbroken version of the legendary Star-Lord. Saldana further proves her pedigree as a movie star as the time-displaced Gamora, with a performance that is over-the-top when it needs to be, but tense and subtle in some of the film’s best moments. Karen Gillan’s Nebula also serves as a standout, masterfully turning all the aspects that made her so terrifying in the first film into aspects that may very well make her the funniest Guardian in this installment. The effervescent Pom Klementieff is as delightful as ever as Mantis, Dave Bautista brings big laughs as lovable himbo Drax the Destroyer, Will Poulter shines as the infantile Adam Warlock and Vin Diesel really knows how to say “I am Groot.”
The truest standouts in the cast are Cooper as Rocket and Iwuji as the High Evolutionary. Cooper’s vocal performance as Rocket has always been one of the highlights of the films, but his performance in this film brings the role to new heights. Iwuji, a new addition to the cast, brings the Guardians’ most unhinged and terrifying foe roaring to life, slipping into the role of a cruel and vicious self-proclaimed god with almost too much ease.
All in all, “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3” is an imperfect film, but features some of the greatest heights in the entire Marvel Studios canon. It is a truly grand finale, delivering perfect closure for each and every character, a masterful spectacle in every action sequence, and some of the most visceral imagery of the entire franchise. It’s bittersweet to watch the door close on this chapter of Marvel’s history, but Gunn’s forthcoming tenure as the head of DC Studios is now that much more exciting.
And let me say this, on a more personal note.
The “Guardians of the Galaxy” have always been important to me. But just two weeks before the release of this third installment, I lost my mother. And while the outpouring of love and support has been beautiful, it’s still felt very lonely in many ways. No one knew her quite like I did and I felt like no one truly understood the pain I was going through.
But when I looked at Rocket, I saw myself. I saw my pain in him. And ultimately, I saw his strength. So while “Vol. 3” is an imperfect film, it came into my life at a perfect time and for that I will cherish it forever.