It’s too easy to forget how close we were to getting a version of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 that wasn’t James Gunn’s. A bunch of internet hoopla over more-than-a-decade old tweets from the director nearly resulted in a finale that could’ve been cookie-cutter and an ultimate disservice, especially after the mixed-bag sequel we got in 2017.
After seeing this intense, emotionally stirring finale, I can’t imagine anyone touching these characters again and finding half as much success. Vol. 3 — or, maybe more aptly, “The Miseducation of Rocket Raccoon” — fundamentally rejects the idea of fan service and doubling down on the thrills of its predecessors in delivering a last hurrah. Gunn gives us a darker and more meditative sequel in which each individual is permitted a moment in the spotlight.
The Marvel machine has so quickly snatched-up young directors hot off a hit indie film that it’s understandable why a corporation’s checklist of demands winds up marginalizing their own personal visions. Gunn is the only Marvel director who, over the course of three films, has been permitted to (mostly) play by his rules, and we as fans and moviegoers can proudly reap the rewards.
The film opens by telling the story that we’ll flashback to a handful times: the origin of Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper). As a baby raccoon, he was abducted from a wildlife center on Earth and taken into space, where he was one of many test subjects by the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), an unhinged scientist seeking to turn animals into anthropomorphic species to populate a new Earth (known as Counter-Earth). Cut to present, and Rocket is bummed out, feeling like an outcast. Cue the need-drop of Radiohead’s song “Creep,” which sets a gloomy tone that carries over the rest of the film, particularly when focused on that lovable, foul-mouthed raccoon.
Then comes the attack on Knowhere. A muscle-bound, golden-hued warrior named Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) comes flying into Guardians HQ like a bat out of hell, severely wounding Rocket in the chaos. Unable to save their friend due to a killswitch embedded inside his body, our heroes — Peter Quill (Chris Pratt); Drax (Dave Bautista); Nebula (Karen Gillan); Mantis (Pom Klementieff); and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) — pay a visit to Rocket’s creator in hopes of finding a way to disable it and save his life.
Peter is still reeling over the loss of Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), who was killed by Thanos, but returns here as a character on an alternate timeline who doesn’t remember her involvement with the Guardians. Because of this, there’s no romance between Star-Lord and Gamora like we’ve come to know; in fact, this Gamora is meaner and pricklier than her counterpart. The film splinters the storyline into the past and present, showing the Guardians’ efforts to resuscitate Rocket while finally giving us context on a period in his life he’s not keen on speaking about himself.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 assumes a darker tone than its predecessors, largely due to the origins of Rocket. The film sets this tone early on by showing the darkness and fear in the baby raccoon’s eyes as he, and several other animals, are used as the subjects of maniacal experiments. Rocket befriends a genetically modified otter, walrus, and rabbit, and I’d be lying if I said the moments those four share don’t prompt some of the most impressive pathos of the series yet. Gunn employs these flashbacks at the right time; their integration into the storyline doesn’t disturb nor offset the momentum of the present storyline.
Rest assured, there is plenty of humor baked into the premise. It wouldn’t be a true Guardians installment if there wasn’t. Drax is still a bumbling fool, but a lovable one at that. Mantis provides both comic relief — including some very spry one-liners during a kitchen-table meeting with a resident of Counter-Earth — and Nebula provides the logic when the rest of the group is spinning their wheels. You might recognize the voice of Maria Bakalova (Bodies Bodies Bodies) as a talking dog named Cosmo, Linda Cardellini as the aforementioned rabbit, and the return of Sylvester Stallone (I confess I liked him more as King Shark in Gunn’s The Suicide Squad).
Gunn flirts with the idea of going the extra mile in delivering two emotional gut-punches over the course of two and a half hours, but he stops just short of delivering the ultimate blows. This is Marvel, after all, and ultimately, if a character like Gamora can come back, albeit as a different version of herself, holding a funeral for any particular individual might not matter in the long-run. The saving grace is that Gunn is effective in justifying his decisions by making them narratively satisfying. The stakes feel real here, and the core-chemistry of the group is fractured, sometimes hanging by a thread.
The vast array of producers of Marvel could learn a thing or two about Gunn’s approach. Each of the three Guardians movies have been mostly contained to the core group of characters. They’re uninterested in converging storylines and plucking characters from other movies for any kind of reunion or large-scale significance. They don’t require binge-watching two or three Disney+ series as a prerequisite. I suppose that’s why this trilogy, alongside the recent Spider-Man films, ranks as my favorite of the overarching cinematic universe. Instead of incorporating an entirely different ensemble, focus on the ensemble at hand. There’s already plenty of characters to develop here.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 feels like the most realized Marvel film in years. What do I mean by that? It feels as if Gunn and company truly assessed what these characters and their camaraderie meant to the fanbase, and instead of opting for a remix of past adventures, they took the route of further exploring their origins, flaws, and eccentricities whilst creating a fittingly darker storyline. It’s memorable and impacting enough to wash the sour taste of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania out of our mouths (unsettling sequences of animal experiments aside), and it could very likely be the films within this vast and still-developing universe that loan themselves to subsequent viewings more than the others. The MCU is an achievement in itself, but what Gunn inside the larger machine feels like the biggest creative statement yet.
NOTE I: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is now playing exclusively in movie theaters.
NOTE II: At this time, I have no plans to see another Marvel movie. I’ve been choosier on the ones I have seen over the last couple years, and in doing so — on top of not keeping up with the many Disney+ series — I’ve more-or-less nudged myself out of the lore and countless ongoing storylines. The ones that I have seen, I confess, I’ve mostly approached with a shrug and/or sense of obligation. Watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and emerging completely satisfied and riveted makes me feel like this is an appropriate jumping-off point. I’m not saying I won’t ever review a Marvel film again, but at this point, they’re no longer a priority and I’d prefer to seek out other films in theaters and on streaming services going forward.
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Chukwudi Iwuji, Wil Poulter, Elizabeth Debicki, and Sylvester Stallone. Voiced by: Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Maria Bakalova, Linda Cardellini, Asim Chaudhry, and Mikaela Hoover. Directed by: James Gunn.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!