Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, director James Gunn’s final bow before leaving to right a partially capsized DCEU, has a lot going on right now, man. Along with Gunn’s departure, there are plenty of other farewells—officially announced or implicit—from its cast, the requisite seeding of new faces, and the need to wrap up the most traditionally conceived trilogy on the sprawling slate of the MCU.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 also represents another chance to convince folks, “No, really, Phase 4 is right where we want it!”—an increasingly difficult argument to make. Granted, the box office success of the multiversally laden Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness ensured studio execs could continue to rest their weary heads on pillows stuffed full of cash, but there is no shortage of reasons for why the post-Thanos MCU has felt a bit underwhelming.
Black Widow was a narrative anomaly unmoored by the pandemic that served more as a baton passing than the thrilling spy caper it imagined itself to be, Eternals was beautiful but boring, and both it and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings showed that transforming C-tier Marvel properties into box office juggernauts might be a tad harder than the success of the original Guardians of the Galaxy would have one believe.
The more familiar properties and characters have fared only marginally better. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was solid but indelibly marked by the onscreen dictates of the real-life passing of Chadwick Boseman, Thor: Love and Thunder suggested there might just be a limit to how much creative control one should yield to Taika Waititi before returns diminish, and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania—in many ways the closest kin to the Guardians franchise in tone and humor—jettisoned much of that charm in favor of CGI swarms and formulaic tumult.
In its stumbles, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 lands closest to Love and Thunder and Quantumania. In the case of the former, previously benign—and even expressly positive—directorial tendencies take on a detrimental shade, as Gunn’s signature pairing of musical hits of yore with onscreen sequences feels more intrusive and, worse, often superfluous. But it’s in a Quantumania-esque breach of ensemble charm where the movie suffers most. (The CGI swarms and formulaic tumult don’t help, either.)
Scoff at one-note, broad-strokes characters all you wish, but the first two Guardians films showed how the right notes, in the right sequence, can make for a pleasing, catchy melody. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 shows us that some of those notes—particularly the furry one—were more crucial than others.
Vol. 3 finds the heroic crew of the Bowie at rest on Knowhere. As Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) are helping repair their oft-ravaged home base, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is handling emotional turmoil as he always does—badly. (Related, Zoe Saldaña’s time-displaced “New” Gamora is absent.)
The sudden entrance of Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) introduces and ups the stakes even as it effectively removes Rocket from the present-day narrative. But hey, it sobers up Star-Lord, quickly brings Gamora back into the picture, and gives our crew a mission, so great, right?
Except it’s not. Absent a functional Rocket and minus “old” Gamora, this group lacks some of the crucial notes provided by Quill, Gamora (OG) and Rocket, even as it doubles up on others. New Gamora is basically just “angry,” which occupies much of the same niche as Nebula. (Though Nebula’s character is moving out of that territory, it’s still mostly her shtick.) Meanwhile, Drax and Mantis, who have always served mainly as comic relief, find themselves asked to shoulder more of the interactions.
The result is a lot of shouting, the occasional huffing and/or eye-rolling, and a fair amount of berating, much of which doesn’t make sense beyond a need to manufacture drama. (Groot 3.0 remains a monosyllabic Swiss Army knife plot device.)
As keenly felt as Rocket’s absence is to the narrative present, the gradual reveal of his origin story via flashbacks will be, for many, more than enough to make the latest installment of the trilogy their favorite. These scenes provide a welcome counterbalance to the aforementioned shouting, do most of the work to flesh out the film’s antagonist (Chukwudi Iwuji’s High Evolutionary) and make Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 inescapably Rocket’s movie, while providing an emotion-filled coda to the found-family theme that dominated Vol. 2.
But between these sequences—and during the resolution—Gunn’s story feels more overstuffed than powerfully packed. The late ’60s sci-fi vibe of the Orgoscope notwithstanding, the closer we get to the end, the more it feels like we’ve been here before. Worlds are squandered, details are overlooked and, yes, there’s a CGI swarm. For better or worse, and much like the MCU at large, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 has a lot going on.
Director: James Gunn
Writers: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, Will Poulter, Chukwudi Iwuji
Release Date: May 5, 2023
Michael Burgin reviews movies from time to time.