Cinematic superheroes have been going through a rough patch lately. Already this year, both Shazam and Ant-Man proved a bit at sea in their latest adventures. So it comes as a relief to report the trilogy-capping Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. achieves what it sets out to do, which is provide a stirring and audience-pleasing finale for a franchise that has proven to be one of Marvel’s biggest and most unlikely success stories. Well, at least until the next iteration of the Guardians comes along.
Arriving six years after the last installment (an eon in superhero years), this edition begins in startling fashion. As we hear an acoustic version of Radiohead’s “Creep,” we see a drunken Quill (Chris Pratt), obviously still mourning the loss of his beloved Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), collapsing into a stupor. It leads you to think that maybe this is going to be less an interstellar adventure tale than a harrowing addiction drama.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
The Bottom Line
Chaotic, but gets the job done.
Not long afterward, Quill is reunited with Gamora. Of course, she’s an alternate version, since the Gamora he loved was killed by that pesky Thanos in one of those Avengers movies. The new, younger Gamora has little use for Quill, which doesn’t exactly improve his mood as he vainly struggles, like a depressed high school student, to remind her of what they once had.
He doesn’t have much time for moping, however, as the Guardians must rally themselves to save their beloved Rocket (Bradley Cooper), who’s at death’s door. This leads to flashbacks involving the fan-beloved raccoon’s backstory and his relationship with the film’s villain, the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji, using his Shakespearean acting background to excellent imposing effect), who wants to create a new, higher evolved master race. As with most Marvel villains, he doesn’t really think he’s bad, merely misunderstood.
Rocket’s story, which also involves numerous other adorable animal characters that should gladden the heart of toy manufacturers, forms the heart of the film, which really swings for the fences in its efforts to combine pathos, irreverent humor, and lots and lots of action into its ambitious mix. Writer-director James Gunn — whose getting fired after Vol. 2 over some controversial tweets, only to be rehired thanks in large part to the campaigning of the loyal cast members, would make a compelling drama in itself — doesn’t fully succeed in tying all these threads together into a coherent whole. And the storyline is too complicated by far, with so many things going on at so many different times and places that multiple viewings are practically necessary to keep it all straight (not that Disney has a problem with that). And since the film aims to bring the trilogy to a close, rest assured that there are so many cameo appearances from past and subsidiary characters that the shoot must have felt like a high school reunion.
Nonetheless, this edition largely succeeds like the other ones, thanks to the chemistry of the main ensemble, who have grown into their characters with relaxed ease. The interplay among them is frequently delightful, especially between the mind-controlling Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and the big doofus Drax (Dave Bautista), who come across like alien versions of Laurel and Hardy. Karen Gillan’s Nebula is more acerbic than ever, and Vin Diesel’s Groot has grown up to be a much bigger tree, although his vocabulary hasn’t improved very much. And Kraglin, played by Sean Gunn (the director’s brother), well, he’s still there.
Among the many antagonists on hand is Adam Warlock, the artificial being created to destroy the Guardians, who clearly has mommy issues with the villainess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki, who looks even more striking in gold face paint). Will Poulter plays the role with an enjoyable mixture of physical menace and baby-like befuddlement, but he ultimately fails to make a lasting impression.
This installment really ups the ante in terms of practical and make-up effects, as well as in world-building, including the Counter-Earth, which resembles a ‘50s-era suburb populated by bizarre humanoid creatures of which Rod Serling would have approved. When Quill and his fellow Guardians land there, it results in some of the more surreal moments in any Marvel film as well as some hilarious throwaway gags — including one in which Nebula’s inability to open a car door prompts Quill to utter the first “Fuck” heard in the MCU. (But only one, since that precious PG-13 rating mustn’t be endangered).
It’s but one of many comic moments that have become a particular trademark of the Guardians series, some of which are so stupidly silly that you feel like a kid laughing at them. I’m still chuckling at the ridiculous exchange among the Guardians over which buttons to press on their spacesuits to properly communicate with each other, with Quill’s confusion resulting in everyone overhearing his pathetic attempt to win back Gamora. (Don’t you hate when that happens?)
The film’s wildly imaginative visuals are another plus, with the proceedings feeling so bizarrely trippy at times it’s as if Gunn is aiming to create a midnight cult classic rather than a blockbuster superhero film. His distinctively anarchic style is on full display here, which makes you wonder how he’s going to tone it down when he tackles such iconic characters less suitable for irreverent humor as Superman.
The action sequences are also stunners, especially an epic climactic battle accompanied by the propulsive Beastie Boys classic “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” a typical example of the filmmaker’s uncanny knack for providing fantastic playlists. This one is no exception, straying from the first two installments’ nostalgic ‘70s-era soundtracks to encompass several decades worth of terrific cuts and featuring artists including Alice Cooper, Spacehog, The Flaming Lips, The The and The Replacements. It’s no wonder the Guardians love to dance.