Warning: There are some spoilers ahead for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3!
If you’re any sort of animal lover – or even just a lover of especially cute animals in viral videos – be forewarned that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 gets rough. The villain of the film, a cosmic vivisectionist called the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), likes to cut up and casually destroy such adorable critters, and the movie does not shy away from this. Writer-director James Gunn seems to want us to understand Rocket Raccoon’s PTSD by traumatizing the viewers, and it’s a tactic some parents will not appreciate. In wrestling parlance, it’s cheap heat. You think a character kicking a puppy is bad? Watch a space villain do things ten times worse.
Aside from that, the Guardians are their usual quippy selves, which can lead to some real tonal whiplash. When Rocket (Bradley Cooper) goes into critical condition following an opening battle sequence, the movie splits its time between the Guardians trying to find the tech that will save him in the present, and Rocket’s origin story in the past. Both narratives tie into the sudden appearance of super-powered Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), who has a built-in grudge against the Guardians stemming from the last movie.
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For anyone wondering, the Holiday Special should be viewed before Vol. 3, as it establishes a key character relationship and fully brings Cosmo the space dog (Maria Bakalova) into the fold. Should you skip it, just assume that any sudden plot development that seems out of nowhere came from there. Thankfully, Gunn doesn’t push the more jokey characters too far. Cosmo and Kraglin (Sean Gunn) mostly get left behind on this mission, resurfacing for very occasional comic relief.
Vol. 3 specifically feels like the conclusion of a trilogy rather than a mere third installment. It contains numerous callbacks and returning characters, retcons some of what has come before, and ties the three films together narratively and emotionally. It’s Gunn’s farewell to Marvel, and he wants us to feel the Shakespearean sweet sorrow of parting. It also makes a pretty good case that he’s had a master trilogy plan all along, Guardians cameos in other Marvel movies notwithstanding.
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Like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Guardians 3 definitely has a post Rick and Morty vibe, particularly when it comes to a Cronenbergian nightmare of a space station made of something akin to cloned body organs. Unlike Quantumania, it remembers to have a story too. And with the High Evolutionary being considered a deity by entire planets full of life he created (or at least modified), it fits in the larger Multiverse Saga theme of the gods generally being self-interested charlatans who need to die. Or at least shut up and butt out.
While the main team engage in heists and showdowns across some truly impressive sets, Rocket’s backstory plays like a prison flick. Both stories work – the action features several foot-tensing near-death escapes, and the flashbacks will cause anyone with a soul to tear up. Rocket’s cellmates – otter Lylla (Linda Cardellini), rabbit Floor (Mikaela Hoover), and walrus Teefs (Asim Chaudhry) – arguably present some of the best disability representation in the MCU. Although such goodwill may be erased by an opposing squad of cyborg predator animals coded as unrelentingly evil.
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It seems that with every recent Marvel movie, there’s always one major character, usually an antagonist, who’s thoroughly different from the comics. Namor, M.O.D.O.K., and in this case, it’s Adam Warlock. Coded as a messianic figure on the page, he’s presented here as the dim-bulb super kid of Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki). There’s room to grow, but right now he’s a violent, whiny dork, and not the Warlock you know. It’s for the best that Keanu Reeves didn’t get cast as this particular take.
Coming up with an instant analysis honestly feels tough this time. Emphasis on the feels. Guardians 3 works the heartstrings very well, and looks like the MCU getting back into form after all the obvious COVID-era soundstage shoots of recent entries. An early scene even features long takes of Rocket walking all around Knowhere just to show that it’s a gigantic practical set full of extras. Gunn’s clearly also eager to demonstrate that he can direct serious material as well as non-stop jokes. But some of the serious stuff here is so brutal he might want to consider modulating that some before taking over Superman. Rest assured there are at least two major toilet jokes as well, though.
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Most “trilogy” arcs within the MCU flub at least one of the entries (sorry, Cap, but Civil War‘s overrated). In the case of Guardians, the second film takes some heat, but the third might just redeem it a bit. The same way Infinity War retroactively made Age of Ultron better. Only Peyton Reed can also boast a start-to-finish trilogy, and his falls down a bit at the finish. Gunn might just have pulled off a minor miracle. And a lesson in pre-planning longer arcs without making it look like that’s what’s being done.
It remains to be seen how Guardians 3 might be assessed once the initial emotional responses wear off. For now, making audiences (this writer included) laugh, cry, and find themselves gripping the armrests is more than enough to justify the price of admission. Just carefully assess how much anyone you’re bringing along can take, vis-a-vis animal harm, albeit followed by John Wick-style payback.
Also: it does not feel like 2.5 hours. Additionally, there are two credits scenes, and you’ll want to hang around till the very end.
Grade: 4 out of 5
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opens in theaters May 5
Recommended Reading: Guardians of the Galaxy by Al Ewing Vol. 1: Then It’s Us
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