Synopsis: Still reeling from the loss of Gamora, Peter Quill rallies his team to defend the universe and one of their own – a mission that could mean the end of the Guardians if not successful.
Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn, Chukwudi Iwuji, Will Poulter, Elizabeth Debicki, Maria Bakalova, Sylvester Stallone
Director: James Gunn
Running Length: 150 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Marvel diehards may be united in their overall fandom for the ongoing adventure series seen on film and television, but as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has expanded, it’s clear that specific groups are finding their niche favorites. In one corner, you have your Thor defenders (even if they were on shaky ground with 2022’s Thor: Love and Thunder); on the other side of the field, you have the next-gen crowd looking forward to 2023’s The Marvels, which hopes to combine elements introduced on two Disney+ series with the long-awaited return of Brie Larson as Captain Marvel.
Over at the snack bar with their Air Pods in are the Guardians of the Galaxy stans. They’ve eagerly anticipated this (supposed) final volume in a trilogy shepherded by outgoing Marvel hire and new Warner Bros. kingpin James Gunn. Initially fired from the project over an old controversy that got him canceled, he was hired back after an outcry from fans and big-name stars attached to this third sequel. Disney mea culpa-ed their way back into Gunn’s good graces, and I’ve got a feeling the free-wheeling nature of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and the November 2022 release of The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special was the result of their hands-mostly-off deal to get him to come back.
I’ve never been a massive fan of these films, finding them the epitome of Marvel Humor run amok. What has worked in doled-out doses in other movies of the MCU throughout the various phases is unleashed at full volume in Gunn’s swan song. The result is a fitfully entertaining, overlong, self-indulgent space race that aims to give the true-blue fans what they’ve waited for. I’m sure those devoted to these grungy Guardians will gasp in delight at every needle drop pulled from the kind of classic rock greatest hits you’d expect to hear before a Monster Truck rally. However, it’s so devoid of surprise and basic imagination that you wish Gunn had spent less time putting together a playlist and more on giving the audience breathless unpredictability.
To its credit, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 works mainly as a stand-alone entry and doesn’t have many ties to previous (or future) films in the MCU, so if you’re a bit behind in the movie or television series, then you won’t be at a total loss as the movie begins. (As opposed to Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania, which, while visually superior to Vol. 3, was narratively too intertwined with other projects.) Residing on Knowhere, an intergalactic port of call they chill on between missions, the Guardians continue to grieve for the loss of Gamora (Zoe Saldaña, Out of the Furnace), who met her end at the hand of her adopted father Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. Unbeknownst to several, a new Gamora with no memory of her past life has found her way back (as shown in Avengers: Endgame – a detail I’d completely forgotten) and taken up arms with the Ravagers.
Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, The Tomorrow War) blames himself for losing his love and continues his self-pity spiral we’ve seen in several films/specials. He’s still wallowing when Warlock (Will Poulter, Midsommar) crashes into Knowhere, disrupting the tranquility and causing intentional critical damage to one of their own. Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born) is seriously injured, and the only way he can be healed is to locate the lab where he was given his genetically engineered strength. In doing so, the gang will unlock a secret from Rocket’s past and draw the ire of the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji, Daniel Isn’t Real) that created him. Eventually reuniting with an indifferent Gamora will put Quill, Groot (Vin Diesel, Riddick), Drax (Dave Bautista. My Spy), Nebula (Karen Gillan. Oculus), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff, Oldboy) on a final mission that might save their friend or kill them all in the process.
There’s a lot of shouting in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which becomes aggravating as Gunn moves into the final act. The chief offender is Iwuji, who goes right off the rails with the villainous role he plays to the back of the movie theater and then some. It’s one thing to fill up the space on the screen and make yourself into a commanding presence, but it’s another thing to make the viewer want to plug their ears every time you speak. Iwuji is a strong actor and one of the more intriguing villains the MCU has created, but the performance is so enormous that it becomes a painful distraction. The rest of the cast also tends to deliver their lines with a guttural shout, as if they shot the movie in a machine shed. Gillan digs so far down for her coarse voice that you expect to see her tonsils sweeping the floor.
Speaking of Gillan, when she isn’t giving gravel voice, she’s offering a finely shaded performance that helps give the film some emotional arc, because it isn’t getting one from Pratt. While Pratt looks far more invested in this film than in the Jurassic World movies, he never feels entirely present. At least he has solid actors like Gillan and a surprisingly activated Saldaña to share scenes with. Watching the film also reminded me how much we undervalue Bautista as a successful presence onscreen. My mileage has always varied with Cooper voicing Rocket. I can appreciate that Cooper sounds like he’s having fun, and Vol. 3 is most definitely the Rocket show, giving extended glimpses into his origin story (one that reaches a peak with an emotional payoff I wasn’t exactly prepared for) and allowing a healthy amount of time for the Oscar-nominated actor to emote using only his voice. Painted Goldfinger gold, Poulter and especially Elizabeth Debicki (hidden behind a tousled stringy Gwyneth Paltrow wig) are wasted in their roles, undefined and only there to distract.
The fans of this trilogy (and the other MCU films the characters have turned up in) will undoubtedly walk out of the movie with a full belly – there are just too many Gunn-isms that I know will send them reeling with pleasure. I wish Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 had stuck to its, erm, guns more and trusted its finale status as just that. Promises of loose ends tied up are left slack, and windows that we think are locked when the final frame fades to black are already cracking before the last credits have run. That feels like giving us a slim slice of cake dripping with more frosting than it can support and then letting us watch while you eat a second steak dinner at your table.