With an Awesome Mix of humor, heart, action, drama, and off-the-wall imagination, James Gunn delivers the long-awaited conclusion to the cosmic trilogy that reminded us that We Are Groot. And like the familiar tree guy, this franchise has branched in unpredictable yet fascinating ways but has always remained rooted in themes of found family, redemption, and reinvention.
In this third film, Gunn feels particularly confident and audacious as a filmmaker, pushing forward with a propulsive plot that knows when to release the tension with comedy and quirky character beats, as well as when to shift gears from heart-wrenching drama to awesome action and sci-fi space opera. There are some really fun set pieces and sequences, and only a couple of instances where things get a little too messy and chaotic. But overall, it’s a thrill ride visually.
Much like he did in the first two entries, Gunn deftly employs his signature needle drops to guide us through the varying emotional beats and tonal shifts. In the center of the story is Rocket’s journey from raccoon to rogue, as we learn his origin, and that of his first found family of misfits, through a series of flashbacks. The film invites us to peer behind his tragic eyes, and from his perspective, we experience the longing, love, and loss that coalesces into regret, before finally coming to understand that Rocket’s emotional scars truly are as lasting as his physical ones. It is within these flashbacks that we also meet The High Evolutionary, a villain with the kind of god complex his name would suggest, and the capacity to make Rocket’s old wounds fresh.
If you’re familiar with the comics, then you have a pretty good idea of what The High Evolutionary’s goals are, what lengths he’s willing to go through to achieve them, and just how many people he’s willing to kill or make suffer along the way (Hint: It’s all of them). And Chukwudi Iwuji performs the role to a T, knowing when to strike the notes of cold calculation, when to soften, and when to unleash his wrath. He’s not really an antagonist you root for in any fashion, and the movie never lets him off the hook, so by the time the bill comes due, the catharsis is earned.
Accompanying this main Rocket-centric story is the Peter Quill story, where he can’t get over the fact that Gamora 2, pulled from the timeline in Avengers: Endgame, missed all of the Phase 3 films, and he just can’t bring her up to speed on what she missed. Both Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldaña do a great job here, Zoe in particular. In a lot of ways she represents the viewer who doesn’t “get” the Guardians and what makes them special, but like the viewer, despite herself, she too is eventually moved by the adventure and finds her own groove to jam to.
But all the Guardians have got moves. Mantis remains the most empathetic and intuitive, and Pom Klementieff‘s comedic chemistry with Dave Bautista‘s Drax remains as satisfying as it was in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. The juxtaposition between her emotional openness and Nebula’s cold precision and bluntness provides a different kind of energy, as their dramatic tension helps to balance the hijinks. Even newcomer Cosmo (voiced by Maria Bakalova) and the perennially underrated Kraglin (played by Sean Gunn) get their moments to shine. The family continues to grow, and though they may bicker, when it’s showtime, they find their harmony.
Another newcomer to the Guardians story is Adam Warlock, played with flourish by Will Poulter as an ultra-powerful yet childlike being, who wants to impress his Sovereign mother figure (the returning Elizabeth Debicki), but whose hot temper constantly gets the best of him. Hardcore comic fans might find him confounding when compared to the cosmic near deity from the page, but the story leaves him with more than enough room to evolve. Keeping with the theme, after all.
What sets this trilogy apart from the other Marvel Cinematic Universe trilogies is that across the three films, the stories really do come full circle. Our heroes acknowledge the painful pasts that forged them, but they each stop being defined by them, and their arcs conclude with them finally being able to define themselves. And their Guardians compatriots, that aforementioned found family, grow to love and accept them, regardless of their respective flaws and scars. It’s a feel-good tale with a hopeful message, and by the end, you’re rocking out, from Knowhere to wherever the Guardians story travels next.
Thus far, Phases 4 and 5 of the MCU have been polarizing, with very few projects leaving us with the “rah-rah” feeling that makes us want to sing its praises and go back for encores. But Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 reminds us why we love these movies and reminds us of way back when, we were first Hooked On A Feeling.