Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 Review:
For what the MCU lacks in style and chutzpah, its best offerings mostly make up for with heart. The cinematic universe’s greatest moments—though grounded in computer-generated spectacle—never fail to tug at the heartstrings, truly understanding that the power of character is stronger than the actual superpowers they hold. It’s Tony Stark, not Iron Man that commands the screen, inviting us to not only see how these lovable, iconic characters overcome adversity but how they grow as people. Yet, the MCU of today, reeling from the finality of Endgame, has noticeably undermined its focus on character in service of a central vision that hopes to build towards another major conflict and a central villain.
The cost? Individual stories and their emotional impact are wholly limited, with little credence given to how unsatisfying a specific film might be as long as it fits into the master plan. This teetering interplay between studio interests and personal storytelling is at the core of the MCU, and the best movies not only know how to balance those concerns but skillfully tip it in favour of the latter.
James Gunn is one such blockbuster filmmaker who excels off this very interplay, never failing to inject his personal flair into a corporate product. His trilogy closer, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 juggles that interplay in clever, interesting ways. Mostly. But one can’t help but envision a stronger, more impactful version of this film if he found a few more ways to skillfully emphasize his heartfelt, personal brand of storytelling in a way that wasn’t diluted by convention and the Marvel formula. Yet, the final story we have about this loveable group of outcasts does its job well and is the best MCU outing since Endgame.
Vol. 3 picks up with our loveable band of misfits as they settle into life on Knowhere (a massive, severed head of a celestial being floating in space, which has come to be a series staple). Yet, their lives are explosively upended by Rocket’s dark origins, as the powerful Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) attempts to violently snatch him away from the group for the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji)— a scientist who not only created Rocket (Bradley Cooper) but entire species and civilizations, including the one Warlock hails from. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), still devastated by the loss of Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), is forced to rally his ragtag team on a perilous adventure to save Rocket’s life— a quest that threatens to destroy the very essence of the Guardians.
It’s a fairly boilerplate plot given force by Gunn’s signature touch of heart and humour. He loves his outcasts and knows how to seamlessly weave them together, playing off their clashing personas and various degrees of likeability in a wholly cathartic fashion. Dave Bautista’s bumbling brute, Drax, and the soft-spoken Mantis (Pom Klementieff) are the greatest example of this effect, with the two’s strengths and shortcomings perfectly complementing each other, creating a symbiotic whole that is the epitome of endearing. The uber-serious Nebula (Karen Gillan) does the same with the witty Star-lord and an alternate timeline version of Gamora— with the stoic, single-word master of conversation, Groot (Vin Diesel), rounding out the cast with his own iteration of badassery (which includes an awesome sequence where he wields about twenty guns at the same time). While Rocket, usually inseparable from Groot, takes on a more solo role, with his backstory serving a central, tear-eliciting purpose.
Yet, this time Gunn’s vision takes on a few too many additions and it proves to be more than he can handle. While a comedic delight at times, Poulter’s Warlock is a played-out rendition of the “dumb blonde archetype. While Cosmo the Spacedog (Maria Bakalova) and Rocket’s cute critter buddies are forgettable anthropomorphs that only exist because of Disney’s unquenchable thirst for cuter IP. Though a hilarious Nathan Fillion cameo makes those flaws easier to swallow.
Gunn’s great charcuterie of 70s and 80s needle drops injects the film with its own trademark panache, allowing it to be one of the rare MCU films with its own sense of identity. It’s key to what makes the Guardians series easily recognizable from the horde of other, virtually identical superhero fare. As a result, Vol. 3 is more akin to an entry in a separate sci-fi franchise than a Marvel property.
Vol. 3 is flush with cool ideas but not all of it is given the boldness and ingenuity required to be satisfyingly executed, much of it the result of concessions made for the Marvel machine. As evidenced by its predecessors and The Suicide Squad (2021), Gunn is a master of world-building and creature design. He vibrantly blends sleek futurism, zany body horror, and a 70’s sci-fi aesthetic (à la Star Wars and THX 1138’s shiny, lab-like look) to create singular, truly unique arenas and foes for his characters to interact with. The retro sci-fi feel is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise unvaried, repetitive cinematic universe. Couple this with a bombastic, one-take action sequence that sees each member duke it out with baddies in their own, eclectic style, and Vol. 3 taps into that superhero magic the MCU thrives on, while still managing to be its own thing.
Yet, the film’s prime antagonist manifests as an interesting idea wasted by safe choices. Gunn’s thematic aspirations of moving beyond the basic hero/villain narrative by positioning the High Adversary as a wicked god, who wants his creations to surpass him and then lashes out at them when they do, is truly interesting and thought-provoking— creating a vivid personality that is awash with insecurity and sociopathy. But his execution is far too cartoonish than visceral, rendering Gunn’s attempt to defy the Hollywood machine too submissive, straddling the line of convention with each of his crazed outbursts and lazy plan explanations. It’s a grasp for depth muted by the Marvel filter, ultimately cementing the High Adversary as nothing more than another derivative villain with a god complex.
Moreover, Rocket’s tragic (and at times moving) backstory is integrated into the story haphazardly, miring the film in a jarring flashback structure that zaps the film of momentum. These leaps back in time often occur at exactly the wrong moments, draining many confrontations of immediacy and impact as all of the tension is diluted by a need for greater exposition—the exact thing it should be in service of.
Though Vol.3 falls prey to the formulaic trappings of the Marvel vision, it does so with Gunn’s signature personality intact. It never sacrifices heart for cheap thrills, crossing off the superhero checklist with character and style. It caps off the trilogy Gunn started with a heartfelt bang, serving as a great teaser for what’s to come in the cinematic DC universe under his wildly idiosyncratic direction.
– Prabhjot Bains