Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is worth seeing—after the WGA strike

If you’re looking for a way to conclude your relationship with Marvel’s most vibrant characters, this is it.
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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. // Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Before getting into whether or not Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is worth your time, I want to note that it feels inappropriate to recommend seeing any major studio releases while the WGA, without whom there would be no movie for you to watch, is on strike. That fact will not otherwise color the content of this review. Just know that you—yes, you!—have an opportunity to show studios the impact of their bad choices (which really do affect what you can see and how you see it!) on their bottom line, and you should take that seriously.

Got that? Great!

Remember when the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie released in 2014? Hiring James Gunn, the Troma, Slither and Super guy, to make a major blockbuster based on one of Marvel’s more bizarre titles felt like a long shot then. The first Guardians became a major creative breakthrough for everyone involved. Gunn set a template for comic book adaptations that mixed crass humor with surprising vulnerability, one that’s now taken him from the MCU to creative lead for DC’s films.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. // Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Gunn’s final outing with his ragtag band of intergalactic a-holes, leans hard into pathos, with mixed-to-positive results. The laser-specific aesthetic of the trilogy has gotten a little scrambled. The movie also falls victim to the trouble plaguing other recent Marvel films, which have become overly interconnected and complicated. However, Gunn knows and loves these characters deeply, and that dynamic makes the dramatic beats work. Once your brain settles down, you’ll probably get a little misty-eyed.

This movie’s focus is Rocket (Bradley Cooper), the weapons expert raccoon of mysterious origins. After Rocket is targeted and gravely wounded by a Sovereign named Adam Warlock (first introduced at the end of Vol. 2 and now played by Will Poulter), his survival depends on his friends finding the technology that created him, and using it to heal him. That tech comes from The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji of Peacemaker), a eugenics-obsessed being who wants Rocket back to further his work.

Various subplots spin out from there, including Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) pining over Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who through all the time-jumpy weirdness in Avengers: Endgame is alive again, but as a version of herself who hasn’t experienced the events of the last two Guardians movies. Mantis (Pom Klementieff) also struggles with her role in the group, and her identity apart from them.

Vol. 3 jumps right in, which might leave you a little at sea if you haven’t kept up religiously with every Marvel release of the last few years, and to a lesser extent the Christmas special that aired on Disney+ last December. That “Wait, what?” rush isn’t an ideal way to start a movie, but if you’re willing to grit your teeth through those early scenes, Gunn and crew eventually steady the ship. 

The cast delivers as always, with the focus shifting to give some new and new-er additions room to shine. Klementieff steals scenes as Mantis, exuding empathy in some moments and adorable chaos in others. Poulter plays Adam Warlock like a well-intentioned upper-class twit to charming effect. As the High Evolutionary, Iwuji carries the same gravitas he brought to his role in Gunn’s Peacemaker series for HBO Max, this time with malevolent intent.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. // Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Rocket’s backstory is the centerpiece of this outing, which is appropriately heartbreaking but worth flagging for animal lovers. Fans already know Rocket is the product of extensive animal testing. The flashbacks detailing how he became the cynical, foul-mouthed critter we know and love involve images of animal captivity, experimentation and death. These are meant to highlight the High Evolutionary’s cruelty and its effects on Rocket, and as such, they hit hard. The payoff is moving, but anyone sensitive about cute critters getting harmed—even CGI ones—may want to tread carefully.

Finally, there’s the vibe of the Guardians movies, dictated by its colorful palette (still intact, if a little muddy) and its spot-on musical selections. The music has expanded beyond the 70s and 80s hits that dominated the first two entries, and they don’t work as well the further out they go. Beyond feeling weird that we’re listening to The Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize” where once we heard 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” these choices lack dramatic resonance. Quill’s mother’s mixtapes were braided into the fabric of the films, now replaced by an iPod containing hundreds of tunes he has no personal connection to.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a loving farewell for Gunn and this configuration of the space-dwelling super team he helped bring to the screen. If you’re looking for a way to conclude your relationship with Marvel’s most vibrant characters, this is it. Given signs of diminishing returns here, it’s also a good example of quitting while you’re ahead. The love is still there, even if the trappings feel off.

Categories: Movies