Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023) Review

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023)
Director: James Gunn
Screenwriter: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel, Sean Gunn, Chukwudi Iwuji, Will Poulter, Elizabeth Debicki, Maria Bakalova, Sylvester Stallone, Nathan Fillion, Linda Cardellini, Asim Chaudhry, Mikaela Hoover

How many trilogies really stick the landing?

In 2018, writer-director James Gunn was unceremoniously fired by Disney after some bad taste jokes from his early days as a comedian were unearthed on Twitter by right-wing trolls who objected to Gunn’s outspoken political views. Following a passionate campaign from fans and Gunn’s friends and colleagues, a year later he was brought back on board at Marvel to finish what he started. If you love this particular bunch of a-holes, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is going to be an emotional one.

Scoundrel-turned-superhero Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is in a dark place after making a mistake that doomed half the universe and lost him the love of his life, Gamora (Zoë Saldaña). The Guardians were restored following the defeat of Thanos, but a different Gamora – one who doesn’t even like Peter let alone love him – now stands in his paramour’s place. When an attack on the Guardian home base of Knowhere leaves one of their number mortally injured, the team set out on a quest that brings them into conflict with mad scientist the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) and causes Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) to confront his traumatic past.

What James Gunn has been hiding in plain sight up to now is that the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy is really about Rocket above anyone else. This is his journey, one that takes him from a bad start in life to being a full and happy person with people in his life he can trust and rely upon.

Much like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, if Rocket didn’t work as a VFX creation, then nothing else in this instalment (where he’s driving pretty much all the action) would either. Thankfully, the time-lapse transition between a terrified caged raccoon and Rocket’s older, cynically twitching nose that opens the film puts those doubts immediately to rest. Gunn’s empathy for all living things, but particularly those who have been mistreated, is what gives this story its power, and Bradley Cooper’s pitch-perfect vocal performance has the strength to make you feel all the feelings. Just as a raccoon crying over his lost tree friend made us shed tears in 2014, his relationship with his fellow abused creatures brings on the waterworks all over again here with some almost unbearably intense scenes in captivity. We don’t get to spend all that long with young Rocket’s animal experiment friends Lylla the otter (Linda Cardellini), Teefs the walrus (Asim Chaudhry) and Floor the rabbit (Mikaela Hoover), but we quickly grow to love them just as deeply he did.

This does have the feel of a victory lap, bringing everything full circle and giving everyone their time to shine. Everyone loves the literal-thinking lunk Drax (Dave Bautista) and towering tree-man Groot (Vin Diesel) but it is stoic cyborg Nebula (Karen Gillan) and eager-to-please empath Mantis (Pom Klementief), previously both pretty one-note, who end up being the undisputed highlights here. The former’s gruff and tough personality has gradually been eroded over her time with the Guardians, and the rare occasion when she lets down her guard and lets emotion overwhelm her really hits hard. The latter is the heart of the team, gets most of the funniest lines, and her unique power helps her and her friends out of a few tough spots in some unexpected ways.

Newcomers to this universe include Borat 2‘s Maria Bakalova as Cosmo the talking psychic cosmonaut dog who has an adorable film-long argument with space pirate Kraglin (Sean Gunn), Will Poulter as genetically engineered gold man-child Adam Warlock, and Chukwudi Iwuji as the High Evolutionary, arguably the most evil and irredeemable bastard in the galaxy who will mutilate, torture and thoughtlessly dispose of countless living things all in service of his delusional mission to create a “perfect society”.

The action is all very polished and exciting, and because this is the team’s last ride it all feels a lot more dangerous for our heroes somehow. A fight in a corridor in the final act might be the finest couple of minutes of action in the MCU to date – not only is it meticulously choreographed, ludicrously entertaining and set to a killer Beastie Boys track, but it lets the team work in violent harmony and gives every member of the team a chance to showcase their special abilities, each getting their own big character moment at the same time.

James Gunn has always happily leaned into the sillier visual and conceptual aspects of space opera, and rarely have such strange ideas been more convincingly brought to life as here. From a bio-formed space station seemingly made of meat to learning that the city of Knowhere (built inside the skull of a dead space god) can actually be driven to a new location, and even to a mirror image “Counter-Earth” populated by humanoids forcefully evolved from lower lifeforms, big swings are taken. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is an epic, galaxy-spanning quest, but all this imagination vitally remains in service of a very intimate story. 

A minor criticism that could be levelled at this particular Guardians iteration is that the soundtrack isn’t as memorable or pitch-perfect as in the previous two films, with John Murphy’s (Sunshine, The Suicide Squad) original score extensively incorporating choral singing provoking a stronger reaction than the vast majority of the needle-drops. Similarly, the final act of the film, after over two hours of putting every Guardian through one life-threatening incident after another, keeps piling on the jeopardy to an almost absurd degree even when it is already fit to burst.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 brings this unlikely team’s journey to an immensely satisfying and appropriately epic conclusion. It is spectacular to look at and really funny, but it is also easily one of the darkest stories in the Marvel universe and does not pull its punches to make its pretty explicit discussion of abuse and animal testing any more palatable. We may see some of these characters again down the road, but for now it’s a fond farewell to them all, especially the acerbic Racoon who just wanted to be loved.

Score: 21/24

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