The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become increasingly hit or miss as far as quality goes, with the somewhat rigid formula that the studio demands their filmmakers adhere to beginning to wear a little thin. But writer / director James Gunn has somehow been able to consistently execute on his vision across 3 MCU movies, and as a result has made the most entertaining and memorable trilogy that the franchise has ever put out, with a near perfect send-off in Volume 3.
The Guardians, less Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), have been operating out of their new headquarters on Knowhere. Peter (Chris Pratt) has been drinking himself into a stupor as he still struggles to get over the loss of the version of Gamora he once knew and loved, who died in Avengers: Infinity War but has been replaced by a version of herself from a different timeline. Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Drax (Dave Bautista), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Groot (Vin Diesel), Kraglin (Sean Gunn), and Cosmo (Maria Bakalova), all try to help Peter with his suffering but have been having little success.
As they and the other citizens of Knowhere go about their business, golden-skinned Sovereign warrior Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) crashes onto the scene looking for Rocket at the behest of a cruel scientist known as the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), whose experiments turned the raccoon into what he is today. The Guardians manage to fend off the powerful fighter who flees back to his mother Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), but not before Rocket is mortally wounded. As he lays unconscious, he recalls his life in the High Evolutionary’s lab and the friendships he made with 3 of his fellow test subjects; an otter named Lylla (Linda Cardellini), a walrus named Teefs (Asim Chaudhry), and a rabbit named Floor (Mikaela Hoover). These flashbacks are scattered throughout the movie, and vacillate between sweetly melancholic and horrifically disturbing, helping to establish the High Evolutionary as perhaps the most sadistically cruel villain in MCU history.
As the Guardians try to save Rocket, they discover that he has a kill switch installed, preventing them from giving him any medical aid beyond basic life support, and that if they don’t find a way to circumvent it, he will likely die in about 48 hours. So they fly off to Orgocorp Headquarters, where they believe they can find Rocket’s file and potentially a way to save him and meet up with Gamora and her fellow Ravagers, who Nebula had secretly hired for assistance. Now reunited, the gang set about trying to find the key to save Rocket’s life, while being hunted by the High Evolutionary’s forces, including the persistent Adam Warlock.
The Guardians movies continue to be the most inventive in the MCU, using their already off-the-wall premise to bring us consistently creative worlds, creatures, and characters. Gunn’s films are the only entries that reliably feel free from excessive studio interference and are all the better for it. The cast so perfectly embody these characters at this point (even those who are only lending their voices), that they almost begin to feel real, which makes their moments of heartbreak that much more effective. And there is a good deal of heartbreak to go around in Volume 3, in particular with Rocket’s backstory. It’s fortunately balanced out by Gunn’s usual absurdist humor and thrilling action sequences, but even with that said, this still feels like one of the darkest and most viscera-filled stories Marvel has released.
While Gunn and company don’t shy away from grossing us out there are some deeper ideas floating about too. Much of them revolve around the fairly ordinary superhero movie themes of self-acceptance and the importance of family, whether by blood or chosen. But seeing Peter have to reckon with the difference of this “new” Gamora reminds us all that sometimes the people we love can never be who we want them to be, and that just because we care for them it doesn’t give us the right to insist that they should be, a bittersweet pill to swallow for sure that is well-served by the script. For his final outing at the helm of a Guardians of the Galaxy movie, Gunn keeps us all on the edge of our seats and on the edge of tears throughout, leading up to a finale that actually feels like an ending, while still leaving room for some continued (but different) adventures. One can only hope that they wind up being handled by someone as capable as him. ★★★★★
rated pg-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, strong language, suggestive / drug references, and thematic elements.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor