'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3' review: Marvel heroes given fine but muddled send-off
Courtesy of Marvel Studios
In 2014, when James Gunn was enlisted by Marvel Studios to bring the obscure Guardians of the Galaxy to the big screen, everyone had written it off, assuming it would be the studio’s first major flop. How can a movie about a tree whose only dialogue is “I Am Groot,” a raccoon with an anger management problem, and that chubby dude from “Parks & Recreation” usher in the next phase of what was becoming the biggest studio experiment of all time? Gunn, who at until that point, was mostly known for B-movie “Slither,” the underseen “Super,” and writer for “Scooby Doo,” had a tall order: make these characters household names. Almost 10 years, and plenty of needle drops later, we have arrived at “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” the “finale” to this band of misfits and 20 movies removed from when Chris Pratt’s lovable Star Lord aka Peter Quill fired up Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” for the first time.
This also marks a Marvel sendoff for writer-director Gunn as he’s been given the keys to the DC Comics empire, overseeing their entire film division. With those stakes in mind and hints from the cast this will be their final “Guardians” ride, you’d think there would be some finality; and despite the film’s emotional center (there’s major emphasis on the origins of Bradley Cooper’s fractured Rocket Racoon), “Guardians of the Galaxy 3” feels like another cog in the never-ending Marvel machine that, while approachable, is overstuffed and mundane compared to the highs of its 2014 predecessor. It’s fine, but these movies have exhibited such a higher level of quality within the MCU framework, you expected something a touch more grounded. For long stretches of the movie, the gang is split up on various side quests where, when the dust finally settles, adds up to practically nothing. When you think the movie might take a narrative risk, it folds on itself.
Instead, the movie is filled with non-stop action and enough cheeky needle drops to keep fans at bay, but where’s the spitfire one liners and banter we’ve seen in the past? Obviously, Gunn wanted to deliver a somber final spin and recontextualize Rocket’s journey from lab experiment to full blown loose cannon. And to its credit, it’s what holds the movie together. From the start, the Guardians crew is on a mission to save the furry creature’s life after he’s badly injured following an attack on Knowhere, the Guardians headquarters, by Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a gold man who could’ve easily had another career starring in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Golden boy has nothing against Rocket, he’s just following orders from someone called The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji – terrific) a maniac hellbent on creating what he deems is “the perfect society.”
Once upon a time, The High Evolutionary manufactured Rocket, as well as dozens of other furry animals, to populate another universe. The movie bounces back and forth between Rocket’s early run-in with his maker, where he was known only as “89P13” (which is said a lot), and his comatose state on the Guardians ship while Star Lord, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) traverse across the realm trying to save him. That’s a strong enough hook, but “Guardians 3” also must contend, and try to wrap up, other storylines, like Peter’s drunk and depressing state after Gamora was thrown off a cliff in “Infinity War,” a subplot that gets a lot of airtime; Kraglin (Sean Gunn who also voices Baby Rocket in flashbacks) trying to master the arrow Michael Rooker’s Youndu left behind; and weather or not Drax is as dumb as Nebula thinks he is. Not to mention whatever is going on with Warlock’s journey to save his species.
It takes the gang to some unexpected places and the catharsis around Rocket and his relationship with the Guardians crew is a solid foundation Gunn employs (the flashbacks are the bedrock of the film and work wonders although animal lovers beware, some moments are grueling and sad), but there’s so much to take in and serves as a reminder of how the MCU has been bleeding oil for a while. At least Gunn can still mesh his sensibilities with Marvel’s in house style of moviemaking, including one killer sequence set to Beastie Boys “No Sleep till Brooklyn.” Yet, long gone are the days when the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” didn’t feel beholden to interconnected story threads and radiated a certain freshness the superhero genre desperately needed. The soundtrack being the key ingredient.
Sadly, most of that magic has faded and the cast seem tired and ready to hang up the mantle. You can sense elements of previous Marvel films played a significant role in how Gunn shaped the narrative around the characters in Vol. 3 (at one point, Quill is forced to monologue about the events of “Infinity War” and “Endgame” because casual viewers would likely be confused). At the end of the day, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is a decent excursion that moves brisky and packs an occasional wallop of emotions. Rest assured, there are two post credits that hints toward the future despite the movie being teased as the last ride. Marvel is always two steps ahead, and by recent standards (looking at you “Ant Man”), “Guardians 3” would be considered a winner, but within its own franchise, it’s hard not to see the movie as disappointing.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 3 opens in theaters Friday, May 5th.