When “Guardians of the Galaxy” took the world by storm almost a decade ago as a fresh jolt of energy in Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I wasn’t quite swept up like everyone else seemed to be. Jaded by the lighter, more comedic tone of the franchise and awaiting salvation courtesy the “darker” and “grittier” DC cinematic universe that was to come, I struggled to look through the goofy characters and boisterous soundtrack to see what James Gunn was really trying to accomplish with his story of found family.
A few years later, with some age and perspective, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” surprised me by being funnier, more heartfelt and more visually stunning than the first. The original film was an MCU vehicle with a James Gunn paint job, while “Vol. 2” was Gunn given carte blanche. As a result, it’s the MCU flick I’ve returned to possibly more than any other, and each time I’ve taken more from it to appreciate. The humor is stronger than the original, the characters offered more depth, and their respective arcs result in a stronger emotional payoff — it’s the best of what the MCU has to offer.
Six years, two landmark “Avengers” films and one Christmas special later, where does that leave us?
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” aims to be the grand finale for this group of Guardians and most, if not all, of this original cast. The crew from the first film sans Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), and with the additions of Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Nebula (Karen Gillian), have set up shop on Knowhere when the film starts. Peter (Chris Pratt) is still struggling with grief over his Gamora’s death, but he and the team are quickly thrust into action and venture out once more into the cosmos. More than ever, the focus is on the Guardians saving one another rather than the galaxy or universe at large. Gunn and Marvel have done well to keep the true story and structure ambiguous, so I’ll do the same.
What hasn’t been ambiguous whatsoever is the central role that Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper, portrayed on-set by Sean Gunn) is taking in this installment. Cooper has been something like the secret weapon hiding in plain sight for the MCU. He’s an incredibly famous and successful actor, yet his name is rarely mentioned when conversation rises about the MCU, the Guardians or even the best performances in the franchise. Gratefully, there will be no way to leave him out going forward as his work here and the story Gunn orchestrates around Rocket is the most emotionally charged the franchise has seen. It enriches the previous films and acts as the throughline that all the other characters latch onto. If the first film’s focus was about finding family, and the second film’s focus was on letting go, “Vol. 3” is about the lengths we’ll go to save and keep family together.
In terms of emotions, it’s not always the pleasant ones. Gunn clearly wanted to go out with a bang, and it’s evident in the tonal and stylistic chances he takes. Pratt had mentioned during the press tour that this film is a natural progression and maturity, that kids who were in high school for the original film — like myself — have grown up and will be able to experience this in a way as adults that they maybe wouldn’t have previously. I would actually say this isn’t exactly the four-quadrant family film we’re accustomed to with Marvel Studios.
It features what might be the most mature and disturbing content out of all the films, particularly in regards to Rocket’s origin and the cruelty he experienced as a young raccoon. Thankfully, all the pathos is earned, and Gunn gives as much as he takes. In terms of action and violence, the gloves are off, and this is as close as Gunn gets to revisiting his Troma roots. Grotesque character designs and brutal kills are prominent throughout and were a welcome surprise from a studio that has felt on autopilot — although I’m sure there will be more than a few crying kids and pissed off parents on opening weekend. All others will have to pick their jaws off the floor from some of the film’s most-thrilling moments, including a hallway fight sequence for the ages. From top-to-bottom, this film is the peak of what a comic book movie can offer in terms of VFX, designs and overall craft. Viewing in IMAX is a must, if given the option.
This is the longest film of the trilogy, and the film has a careful balancing act to make sure every character of the extensive cast gets time to shine. The background and motivations for the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) are relatively thin — including his tenuous connection to the Sovereign and new baddie Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) — but Iwuji makes the most of his despicable material and will go down as one of the MCU’s most vile foes.
For our heroes, they get the best material of the entire trilogy, and each moment in the spotlight is sewn in with such care for what has come before and where the character deserved to be at this point in the journey. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” will not please everyone with its disparate tones and more upsetting moments, but it undoubtedly serves as an emotionally-fulfilling and truly spectacular conclusion for the whole Guardians family.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” releases in theaters May 5, 2023.
Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."