Written by Tom Augustine.
If we are at the point that we can start genuinely reflecting on the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s early rise and current creative stasis, it’s fairly easy to see that the period between the first Avengers film and the arrival of Black Panther, somewhere in Phase Three of the MCU’s grand plan, was the high watermark in terms the series’ overall quality. Smack bang in the middle of those phases were James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume One and Volume Two, and it is striking to think of what a risk the title was at the inception of the series looking back. These characters were virtually unheard of outside of hardcore comic fandom, and Gunn was entirely untested at the scale he’d be handed with the first Guardians. That it was a smash hit is testament to the personality that Gunn injected into the films, and the strength of the Marvel brand at this juncture – able to draw audiences through brand-name recognition alone.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume Three arrives some time after that glorious heyday – indeed, it has been a whole six years since we’ve had a big-screen solo adventure from these rebellious underdogs, though they have popped up elsewhere in the MCU. All the while, the stock of the MCU itself has been waning in the public eye. Post-Endgame, the series has struggled to find a sense of forward momentum or creative footing, feeling more mass-produced and devoid of personality with every half-baked TV project or nostalgia-tapping, box-ticking bigscreen offer. Established and talented directors like Ryan Coogler, Taika Waititi and even genre-master Sam Raimi floundered in trying to grasp a tone or vision amidst all the expectations each project required to ‘further the franchise’.
Surprisingly, it is Gunn who has fared best and most consistently across his sub-franchise. Where Waititi and Coogler’s sequels to their initial hits were found lacking, Guardians 2 expanded the original’s scope messily, but effectively, leading to an all-timer ending among the series. Gunn’s brand of pop-fuelled juvenilia and sentimentality results in work that is unquestionably broad but manages to tap into just enough weirdness and genuine emotion to set them apart. The same is true for Volume Three, which centres on the series best and most complex character, Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and his sad history of abuse and pain. When an attack on the Guardians’ sanctuary by Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), artificially manufactured son of minor antagonist Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) from Volume Two, leaves Rocket seriously injured, the other Guardians scramble to cure him. The only way, as it turns out, is to locate Rocket’s ‘creator’, a mad-scientist type named the High Evolutionary (a fearsome Chukwudi Iwuji) who desires to create a utopian race with himself as God-Emperor.
Returning for one last ride with the eponymous heroes that he made into household names, director James Gunn pumps the third instalment of the Guardians trilogy with everything the series has been lacking in recent years – personality, colour, stakes and pathos. Easily the best Marvel film in several years, it feels positively nostalgic amidst the waves of slushy piles of content for which the post-Endgame brand has become known.
What Guardians 3 gets that other MCU offerings seemingly don’t is that colour, flair and individuality help the outlandishness, the outright silliness, of much of the project go down a treat. It worked for Raimi’s Spider-man series back in the day and it works here. The third and final go-round for Gunn is jam-packed with honest-to-goodness personality, which proves so refreshing that it allows much of the film’s sprawling messiness to be forgiven. At this point, the Guardians series is so packed with characters – from Chris Pratt’s musclebound Star Lord to Dave Bautista’s gruff warrior Drax to Pom Klementieff’s empath Mantis, not to mention new players like Sean Gunn’s Kraglin and a talking dog voiced by Borat 2’s Maria Bakalova – that juggling all of them and positioning the series for a satisfying conclusion is a difficult ask. Gunn mostly delivers by film’s end, establishing a meaningful end-point for this iteration of the Guardians while offering a path forward in the future.
Part of what makes Guardians’ particular alchemy work, sometimes against the odds, is the dash of jet-black darkness that lurks on the outskirts of the story. The Guardians are all damaged, in their own way, the product of torture or abuse or absentee fathers. Volume Three ups the ante in this regard, with some of the darkest and most upsetting sequences the MCU has yet encountered, scenes of violence and cruelty to animals that are genuinely difficult to watch in parts. The film isn’t using these elements for no reason, though – they build to moments of surprising power, as was the case with Star Lord’s relationship with his foster father Yondu in Volume Two. Gunn’s taste for the weird, the asymmetrical, the broken things of this world makes itself known in lovingly gooey and garishly coloured art direction and some appreciably creepy creature design. It creates a whizz-bang atmosphere that generally distracts when the story lags, as with the many subplots the film seems required to check off, like the introduction of the aforementioned Adam Warlock. As played by Poulter, his performance is a comic highlight, but the character nevertheless feels tossed in begrudgingly, as if by mandate. Performances elsewhere are solid – the central Guardians, played by Pratt, Bautista, Klementieff, Zoe Saldaña, Karen Gillan, Vin Diesel and Cooper, are well-established by now, and their rapport and sense of community is strong. What makes Guardians 3 such a breath of fresh air is the sense of effort, and of care – there’s a ‘one more for the road’ camaraderie which is infectious. It’s borderline old-fashioned, harkening back to the days when a Marvel movie could make you feel something, and provide more than the sum of its parts, scratching at the underside of cinema, hoping to join the crowd.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 in cinemas now.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume Three
Movie title: Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume Three (Gunn, 2023)
Movie description: Returning for one last ride with the eponymous heroes that he made into household names, director James Gunn pumps the third instalment of the Guardians trilogy with everything the series has been lacking in recent years - personality, colour, stakes and pathos. Easily the best Marvel film in several years, it feels positively nostalgic amidst the waves of slushy piles of content for which the post-Endgame brand has become known.
Date published: May 5, 2023
Country: United States
Author: James Gunn
Director(s): James Gunn
Actor(s): Chris Pratt, Chukwudi Iwuji, Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy