In a lot of ways, the Guardians of the Galaxy movies have always felt different from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s not just because they take place mostly in space and feature innumerable strange creatures and aliens. As written and directed by James Gunn, the films have had the ability to combine laugh-out-loud insanity with grounded, heartfelt moments, something made more difficult due to the lack of human characters.
Amazingly, Gunn has made perhaps his best film yet, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3, his last one for the MCU before leaving to take over the DC Extended Universe. And he does so by presenting a story with low stakes for the galaxy but high personal stakes for the Guardians: Trying to save the life of Rocket (Bradley Cooper), who gets gravely injured in a fight early in the film at their home of Knowhere.
To do so, Peter (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Groot (Vin Diesel), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) – and, eventually, Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) – must track down a piece of code that will fix the mechanically-altered raccoon. Their quest leads them to a world called Counter-Earth, where a villain named the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) is trying to create a utopia with other modified creatures.
As a whole, the film is the long-awaited – by both the rest of the Guardians and fans – origin story of Rocket, with Gunn interspersing flashbacks to Rocket’s early days as one of the High Evolutionary’s experiments with various animals. To say that the story is tragic, both for Rocket and the other animals around him, is an understatement, as they are subjected to grotesque body alterations that seem to serve no purpose other than pleasing the sadistic nature of the High Evolutionary.
What the audience is witnessing is objectively weird and off-putting stuff, yet Gunn is able to present everything in such a way that the strangeness melts away, leaving just the emotion of the situations. Rocket’s bond with his fellow mutated animals quickly becomes the heart of the film, with their scenes together never failing to be touching even in lighter moments.
However, as with the previous two Guardians films, hilarity abounds throughout, with the Guardians constantly making fun of each other and getting into funny interactions at every stop they make. The character archetypes – Peter being the wise-ass, Drax being the dumb guy, Groot … well, he is Groot – are so well-established by this point that all they have to do is hint at their eccentricities and laughs will result.
Even more impressive is the effectiveness of the various action scenes, due to the lack of good CGI in recent MCU films. Given the setting and the various monsters and creatures in play, the film is as CGI-heavy as any Marvel film, but the fights have a visceral nature to them that never becomes boring. A bravura sequence in the final act taking place in a cramped hallway shows off Gunn’s skills and may secure an Oscar nomination for the visual effects department.
Each of the actors playing the Guardians is as good as ever, as they know exactly how to play off each other for maximum entertainment value. It’s been a long wait for the payoff of Adam Warlock, who was teased at the end of Vol. 2 in 2017, and Will Poulter does a fantastic job in the role. Iwuji makes for a great villain, consistently going over-the-top in a way that makes him scary instead of ridiculous.
It’s highly unlikely there will be a fourth Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and even if there is, the defection of Gunn means it likely won’t live up to the types of films he’s been able to create. Vol. 3 is right up there among the best MCU films, with a blend of comedy and drama that can only exist in its galaxy.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 is running in theaters.