It’s been almost five years since James Gunn was fired from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, only to be brought back on board several months later. As behind-the-scenes drama raged, the Guardians embarked on side quests with the Avengers, Thor, and Kevin Bacon. Gunn also had a side quest with The Suicide Squad, getting his feet wet before officially switching to Team DC. Although these characters and this director have remained prevalent the past few years, Vol. 3 feels like a reunion, although it’s just as much a goodbye. This might not be the last we hear from the Guardians, but it’ll likely be the last time all of the stars align.
Vol. 3 goes to emotional depths some may not anticipate. That’s largely because the saddest moments involve Rocket, who most associate with comedic relief. Vol. 3 delves into Rocket’s backstory, which can be best described as “Animal Holocaust.” That sounds ridiculous, although so does the idea of a raccoon and a tree saving the galaxy. This series has consistently surprised us with the weight of its characters, and Rocket’s star-crossed romance with an otter named Lylla is the biggest tear-jerker yet. The top-notch CG animation for Rocket is every bit as authentic as Bradley Cooper’s performance. Cooper will probably win an Oscar next year for Maestro, but can we consider his tragic turn as Rocket for Best Supporting Actor?
While Rocket is the heart of this story, he spends much of the film separated from his fellow Guardians. Star-Lord is still working through the stages of grief after losing Gamora, which is even more complicated with another version of her walking around. Nebula steps up as a reluctant leader, Drax is his usual oblivious self, and Pom Klementieff has officially made Mantis my favorite Guardian. Despite being prominently featured on the poster, the film occasionally forgets about Kraglin, Cosmo the Spacedog, and Groot, who peaked in his baby form. Regardless, this ensemble piece finds the time for every member to shine, including newcomers like Will Poulter as Adam Warlock. Chukwudi Iwuji delivers this trilogy’s most chilling villain as the High Evolutionary. Iwuji’s line delivery salivates with the menacing charisma of a Shakespearean antagonist, making every moment on screen count.
In addition to being the trilogy’s most emotional outing, this is easily the darkest. A gruesome reveal during the climax is the most R-rated the MCU has gone since Wanda’s rampage in Multiverse of Madness. And yet, both of these Marvel movies share the same rating as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., which is PG-13 for openly talking about puberty. #TheMPAIsBroken. The heavier moments can get in the way of the franchise’s signature comedy with fewer laughs than its predecessors. When the film wants to be funny, though, Gunn’s script delivers, which is more than can be said about Thor: Love and Thunder. Visually, it feels like the MCU has been repeating itself lately. Thankfully, Vol. 3 contains some of the franchise’s most alluring makeup and production design. The highlight is a mission to a facility resembling a giant anatomy model.
It might not be as fun as its predecessors, but Vol. 3 completes Gunn’s Marvel tenure with physical stakes that match the emotional stakes. After the Ant-Man trilogy ended on one of the MCU’s lower notes, the Guardians are going out on top. Vol. 3 rounds out arguably the MCU’s best trilogy, although Captain America may have something to say about that. At the very least, this is Marvel’s most consistent trilogy with virtually every character receiving a fitting sendoff. There are plot points that leave something to be desired, including an attraction between Star-Lord and Nebula that ends faster than it begins. Coming off one of this franchise’s most complicated productions, though, this is the happiest ending we could’ve hoped for.