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4th May 2023

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 review: end of an era

James Gunn is hooked on a feeling—but his overstuffed movie occasionally gets out of hand.

Akhil Arora, a member of the Film Critics Guild and a Rotten Tomatoes-certified film critic

Karen Gillan as Nebula, Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, and Dave Bautista as Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Karen Gillan as Nebula, Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, and Dave Bautista as Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 // Photo: Jessica Miglio/Marvel Studios

As has been made abundantly clear by everyone involved, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is meant to be the swansong for the current crop of the ragtag team. And with writer-director James Gunn taking up a new job as the guy-in-charge at rival DC Studios, it’s a farewell of sorts for his time at Marvel too. To that end, Gunn seems to have taken every remaining idea on the table and stuffed it into the cap to his Guardians trilogy. He’s dealing with the fallout that emerged out of Avengers: Endgame and Infinity War. Holdovers from his previous overstuffed go, Vol. 2. A new Avengers-level villain who’s behaving like Brahmā. And dozens of subplots that it adopts along the way. Vol. 3 runs 150 minutes, a minute more than Infinity War. That’s mindboggling.

Though it might be overlong and overstuffed, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 never lets you feel it. It largely moves at a breakneck pace and—as you’ve already learnt—is crammed full of plot. Just like J.J. Abrams on the disastrous Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, this is an attempt to hide its flaws. But unlike that trilogy finale, there are definitely parts of Vol. 3 you can enjoy in the moment. There are some winning touches here, with every hero getting their 15 seconds of fame because we might never see them again. And parts of it pack quite an emotional wallop too—it’s a mix of the bond we’ve formed with these characters, seeing how far the Guardians have come, and Gunn doing his best to tug at your heartstrings.

A juggling act of tonal extremes

But once you sit and pause to reflect on the new Marvel movie, you realise how glaring its flaws are. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 might be exhilarating, but it’s also messy. It’s inconsistently funny—even as Gunn restrains himself a bit and doesn’t stuff jokes everywhere as he likes to do, very few of them land, others are chuckle-worthy, and some are just flat. That restraining is down to the fact that Vol. 3, due to its narrative happenings, feels torn between being jokey and being serious. It flips from one to the other in a moment—it’s not quite Taika Waititi-level bad on Thor: Love and Thunder—but it’s still a juggling act of tonal extremes that it can’t quite balance.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 also pulls its punches. Gunn had teased that some Guardians would die and though they get badly injured over and over again, it never actually happens. After a point, it becomes almost cartoonish, in how our heroes can seemingly survive anything. Vol. 3 pushes this beyond the limit in the finale, where it momentarily kills off one of the favourites, only to reveal that it was playing with our emotions and that it was all in the service of another hero moment. It’s a classic fake-out. Elsewhere, it packs in a lot of mischievous nonsense and a bunch of action mayhem driven largely by explosions—nothing you haven’t seen before, save for a long take in a spaceship hallway that’s very nicely done, utterly delightful, and a rare highlight of choreography.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3: the plot

Following the events of the two aforementioned Avengers movies, the Guardians have established themselves on the planet Knowhere, as we learnt in The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is still grieving Gamora and depressed over the fact that the younger version of his dead lover from another time (Zoe Saldaña) has no affection for him. While the rest of the Guardians look after Knowhere, Peter is spending his time drinking and lying on the ground. But after they are attacked by Adam Warlock (Will Poulter, from We’re the Millers)—the artificial being created by the all-golden Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) in one of the many post-credits scenes attached to Vol. 2—and Rocket is critically wounded, he’s pushed into action.

But the movie isn’t set up around Adam. If anything, he’s treated almost like an afterthought. Instead, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 gives us a new villain in The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji, from Peacemaker)—he’s not only Rocket’s creator but a eugenics scientist who’s created thousands of life forms, and entire planets to fulfil his sociopathic desires. He’s not very interesting, adding to a list of boring Marvel villains that will be forgotten very soon. More importantly, Vol. 3 becomes two movies in one: one about Rocket’s ghastly past and one in the present day as the Guardians try to save him.

Will Poulter as Adam Warlock in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Will Poulter as Adam Warlock in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 // Photo: Jessica Miglio/Marvel Studios

Underexplored characters

Except Adam isn’t the only item on the menu the new Marvel film ignores. Though Gunn finds a way to keep Gamora by the Guardians’ side, he seems to have no interest in this alternate version of the character. No wonder then that she leaves the Ravagers—the group formerly under Yondu which she now leads—to hang with the Guardians all movie long. That’s frustrating. In Endgame, this younger Gamora travelled to the future, gave up on her dad and sided with our Nebula (Karen Gillan), and saw everyone she knew turned to dust. Does she have no feelings about that? We’re just not going to address that? In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Gamora exists only to serve Peter’s emotions. She’s not a person in herself—that sucks.

The others aren’t served much better. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 fears any character moments that don’t fuel the humour engine. Groot (Vin Diesel) shares a minor running joke with new Gamora and lands into an unearned one-liner at the end. The new flying-arrow guy Kraglin (Sean Gunn) and the Soviet dog Cosmo (Maria Bakalova)—who joined the Guardians in Holiday Special—are literally left behind, reduced to a minor running joke. Drax finds purpose in his journey, but it feels like too little. Mostly, he’s comic relief.

As always, Peter dominates screen time, but Pratt isn’t very engaging, and his movie-long dedication to eke out affection from a woman who doesn’t even know him is tiring. Thankfully, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 makes up for it elsewhere. The movie benefits from the clashing dynamic between Nebula who operates in grunts and scolds everyone, and the always-animated and encouraging Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Sandwiched in between is Drax, whose ego and naïveté get in the way. Gamora is largely on the fringes, but Saldaña gets a few good eye rolls. And on the other end of the scale, the moments in Rocket’s past—with other animals he knew—are touching.

Teefs (Asim Chaudry), Lylla (Linda Cardellini), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Floor (Mikela Hoover) in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
A young Rocket and his friends in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 // Photo: Marvel Studios

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is hooked on a feeling

That most of this works—despite the undercooked humour and the overstuffed narrative—is down to the chemistry of the cast members and the bond we’ve formed with these characters. From the beginning, the Guardians of the Galaxy films have been about a misfit bunch who came to love and care for each other. In Vol. 3, they risk everything to help save one of their own—and thanks to that primal core, it’s an emotionally-resonating coda to their journey.

But that love isn’t universal. Poulter is underused to a fault. Debicki and Sylvester Stallone return for meaningless cameos. More importantly, its alien artificial worlds are devoid of any real personality or feeling—we’re zipping across the vast and bountiful universe, but it all links back to Earth—and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 has no care for them. Not one but two worlds are destroyed in this overlong movie that’s aching for a direction. And the new Marvel film doesn’t pause to mourn them.

Still, for a franchise hovering at its lowest and with superhero fatigue written all over it, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 feels like a respite. It’s not going to change anything for the Marvel Cinematic Universe—it’s disconnected from all of it, just as the two previous films. And though it’s better than anything we’ve gotten on the big screen since Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, that’s also because we’ve been treated to trash and mediocrity ever since. It’s funny that the guy who’s given Marvel some of their juice back is now at DC.

Sure, it’s morbid, maudlin, and flippant at the same time—but it’s also infectious and full of spirit. Gunn is hooked on a feeling and high on believing. It’s far from a smooth ride, it doesn’t always work, but it’s also the bittersweet end of an era. For us, for Gunn, and for Marvel.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is out May 5 in cinemas.

Akhil Arora

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