What’s your favorite Marvel movie? For me, it’s 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn’s first foray into blockbuster superhero filmmaking. A film no one expected to work, with characters no one really knew or cared about, which ended up being so beautiful, exciting, and vibrant, it made those characters into instant fan favorites and set the then-indie filmmaker on a path that would lead him to the very top of the superhero mountain.
The original Guardians is a film that feels complete and cohesive in basically every single way. You laugh, you cry, you get goosebumps at how well the story comes together. And while Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was a solid (albeit inferior) sequel, Gunn has reached those Guardians 1 heights again with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. He’s created a movie as audacious and surprising as the first one, but in newer, more confident and mature ways. Like the original it simultaneously makes you laugh, makes you cry, and makes you cheer. Did I mention crying? Because yeah, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 pulls no punches. This time, all bets are off.
That gravitas and context are part of what sets Guardians 3 apart from most other superhero films. Most movie fans know that Gunn, who wrote and directed the film, has since left Marvel to become co-president of DC Films. He didn’t know that when he wrote or directed it, but it’s the reality of our world. That fact—and more importantly, that Vol. 3 is clearly set up as the finale of a trilogy—gives the movie a unique sense of possibility. Anything can happen. Anyone can live, die, show up to cameo, you name it. So as you watch it, you truly feel the stakes and heart of these characters in ways that other superhero movies can’t touch. The movie feels like their last ride. Gunn’s too, and he never holds back for a second.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 picks up after the events of not just the first two Guardians and the last two Avengers movies, but also the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. It pays to have seen the special so you aren’t shocked when the film begins and the Guardians are now living on Knowhere with the knowledge that Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) are siblings. It’s not essential, but it helps.
After a very purposeful, melancholy opening set to an acoustic version of Radiohead’s “Creep”—a stark contrast to the hugely energetic openings of the last two films—a new character, Adam Warlock, zips into the Guardians’ lives. He’s played by Will Poulter and Warlock’s seemingly random attack on the Guardians leaves them in shambles. This is especially true for Rocket (Bradley Cooper), who is badly injured. His friends find out that to fix him, they need to go on a very dangerous mission.
And that’s the rest of the movie, simple and direct: save Rocket. Within that framework, though, Gunn gives audiences some of his most vivid world-building yet. From the ooey-gooey on the outside, bright and luscious on the inside Orgoscope, to the very familiar, but also very creepy Counter-Earth, each place the Guardians go on this adventure to save Rocket is more beautiful and weirder than the next. Plus, each is populated with increasingly cool, inventive, and awesome creatures. Seriously, this movie has some of the best, wildest, and most original creatures that the MCU has seen to date.
As Star-Lord (Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Klementieff), Groot (Vin Diesel), and Nebula (Karen Gillan) go on this journey—and are eventually joined by the Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) from the past who never lived with these Guardians—another story unfolds simultaneously. It’s Rocket’s origin story, which not only explains where he came from and his crucial role in the MCU as a whole, but introduces more of Gunn’s heartwarming and unique characters. In this case, it’s three hybrids—Lylla, Fllor, and Teefs which, like Rocket, are part of a much grander plan by the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). Their role in helping us understand Rocket is incredibly beautiful and leads to some of the film’s most memorable, poignant moments. As for that High Evolutionary, he may be Marvel’s most evil villain yet. Not only because he—as opposed to, say, Thanos—has zero sympathy for anyone or anything, he also unleashes his evil schemes on animals and children. He’s a truly vile character and Iwuji is a revelation in the role.
With Rocket’s story, as well as with the main Guardians’ story, Gunn occasionally really goes dark. As we said, this is the last movie as far as we know, so you constantly feel like every single person could go at any moment. Within that context, there are scenes where Gunn does and shows things that can be very upsetting and emotional. More so than probably most other Marvel movies, this one is not for younger kids. But if you can handle a little heartbreak, odds are you will cry—or at least get choked up—numerous times during Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, for both happy and sad reasons. And there’s lots of sadness here, all of which is earned because the characters are so well-developed.
But the movie isn’t all sad and dark. That’s balanced with Gunn’s beautiful visuals and some of the best action and humor in the entire franchise. Drax’s jokes are killer, the chemistry between all the characters has only gotten sharper and more interesting, and one action scene in particular, near the end of the movie—and set to Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”—is absolutely jaw-dropping. It’s one of the film’s many, many moments that will make you want to applaud in your seat.
That’s also because Gunn crafts every single aspect of this movie to work towards an actual ending to his story. So the movie touches upon, or wraps up, basically every dangling storyline from all the previous Guardians stories. The Peter and Gamora thing, Rocket’s origins, Drax’s family, the Ravagers, heck, even Kevin Bacon. It all comes together beautifully and, in a few cases, with an unforgettable swagger and excitement. There’s also one payoff that’s so subtly implicit and meta, you may not get it on a first watch. But when you realize what Gunn did, you’ll smile, and love the movie even more.
And really that’s how I feel about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 as a whole. The more I think about it, the more I remember little moments or jokes, the more I love it. So many complex themes are touched upon. Each one of the actors in the film gives a franchise-best performance that really cuts to the heart of what they’re all about. And though a few of the newer characters, like Adam Warlock and Cosmo (Maria Bakalova) are a tiny bit underbaked, their roles are still crucial in a way that adds to the movie.
So indeed, as much as I love it, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is not a completely flawless piece of filmmaking. It does lean heavily into the fact you already know and hopefully love these characters and this world. If you don’t? You will not like it that much. But if you do and if, say, the first Guardians is your favorite Marvel movie or close to it, there’s little doubt you will fall head over heels for this. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is what the Marvel Cinematic Universe is all about. This is as good as Marvel movies get, and is one of its best films yet.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 opens May 5.
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