James Gunn's time in the MCU has come to an end (for now), but his last obligation was closing out the trilogy that really put him on the map. Guardians of the Galaxy is a good time — I've never understood the hype touting it as one of the MCU's very best — while Vol. 2 has the trilogy's best soundtrack but gets worse on every rewatch. That left Vol. 3 with a fortunate situation where it couldn't get much worse, but they still had to stick the landing. Vol. 3 does that, if not by cutting a few too many corners and taking the easy way out more times than it doesn't, but mostly survives its misses due to the cast, script, and visuals.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 review
Picking up after the Holiday Special, the Guardians are on Knowhere, adjusting to their new life. While almost all of the Guardians seem to be finding their purpose here, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is still heartbroken over Gamora (Zoe Saldaña). He handles it about as well as a college kid handles their first breakup, getting drunk all the time and being dragged out of the bar.
But the self-pity party ends when threats from Rocket's (Bradley Cooper) past resurface — namely, Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), who you may remember was teased at the end of Vol. 2 when the Sovereign create him. Adam is sent by the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) to retrieve Rocket — a creature of his own creation. This leads to the team assembling once again and embarking on one more journey to protect their friend.
“Did it look cool?” is a question asked by various characters throughout Vol. 3 — and yes, the film did in fact look cool. One thing about Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy films is that every planet that's visited has a distinct look and aesthetic that leans into the sci-fi of it all while not overdoing it. In Vol. 3, for example, there's a planet/ship that the Guardians infiltrate that looks like a closeup of skin and hair up close. There's a shininess and slimy texture that looks out of a David Lynch film (ditto for the creatures on the “Reverse Earth” or whatever it's called).
The action sequences are also really well shot by DP Henry Braham. He's a frequent collaborator of Gunn, but his work here is great because the camera actually moves around with some panache. There were some long takes, such as a hallway fight late in the film that looks badass, but it's just refreshing to have action scenes that aren't chopped up into pieces or actually let you focus on the choreography for more than a millisecond. So many of the MCU films feature such stagnant camera work. Hats off to Braham.
It could be argued that the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise features the best ensemble in the MCU. More so than ever, the cast stands out in Vol. 3. You may wonder how they could get better after a decade in the MCU, but someone like Dave Bautista has really stepped up his game throughout the course of this trilogy and the Guardians' other appearances. He's the best WWE star turned actor, but his comedic timing has really improved lately. While his bits became redundant in the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Infinity War, Vol. 3 sees him find different bits or jokes for each time he pops up. Maybe that's due to the writing, but even so, Bautista's delivery of his punchlines has improved drastically over the last few years.
Mantis (Pom Klementieff) is another standout in Vol. 3. Her relationship with all of the Guardians, especially Drax (Bautista), has evolved over her appearances since Vol. 2, but Klementieff is given so much room to work and be genuinely funny and endearing and not just the butt of jokes. The “fish out of water” bit grew tired, but she's now more confident than ever and the film is better for it. Karen Gillan — who plays Nebula — also falls in a similar category as her character's shell has been broken over the past few films. Vol. 3 Nebula is a far cry from the overly self-serious Nebula seen in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and once again, it works.
Chris Pratt was supposed to be Hollywood's next leading man, but that's not exactly how things shook out. He's at his best with Gunn — perhaps he should jump ship to DC — because he doesn't have to be the bland straight-arrow protagonist the Jurassic World films attempted to make him. His evolution throughout this trilogy is clear as day, and Vol. 3 reminds you why people actually believed in him as the next big thing after Guardians of the Galaxy (and thank goodness he isn't doing the Mario voice). His relentless chase of Gamora, only to realize that this isn't the Gamora he fell in love with, is great due to the chemistry that Pratt and Saldaña have. It's easy to forget Saldaña's versatility given the fact that her two most prominent roles see her covered in body paint, but she's great in Vol. 3 as a pre-Guardians of the Galaxy Gamora who's rougher around the edges than the one in Infinity War.
The biggest misstep is the character of Adam Warlock. He's introduced as a badass — beating up the entire Guardians team on Knowhere without saying more than a handful of words — but the glimmer wears off soon after as in true MCU Phase 4 fashion, he disappears for huge chunks of time.
The aura is also damaged by the fact that Vol. 3 heavily leans into the fact that Adam is basically a baby. It's true — he's new to the world, and he's discovering things like animals and morality and what “tell him we mean business” means, but when you introduce him as such a cool villain only to essentially take it back, it feels underwhelming.
It's almost as jarring as the switch between “Suplex City” Brock Lesnar, who was an absolute world-beater, to “Cowboy” Brock, who's like a teddy bear in comparison. I love the latter, but he's not nearly as intimidating as he once was. But he also took a long period off in between those periods, so the adjustment wasn't as jarring.
Don't get me wrong, I love me some Will Poulter — his performance is Dopesick was great — but he can only do so much when he's given one-liners. I know Adam Warlock isn't necessarily a villain, but the MCU has had a recurring theme in recent years of redeemable villains. Why can't he just be a cool villain, even if it's for one movie?
Vol. 3 is also Rocket's movie in essence. A lot of the runtime is devoted to his backstory with the High Evolutionary, but there are too many flashbacks that disrupt the rhythm set by the present-day events of the film. The stop-start momentum occasionally kills it despite them being vital to the film. Perhaps they didn't need to hit you over the head so many times with their very blatant message about evolution (whether it's human, technological, etc.) and we could've shaved 10-15 off of this film.
The film also takes the easy way out of almost every situation. In a story that's, in essence, the “end of an era,” you expect bigger stakes. Not that the whole team had to die or anything, but the ending is so safe and even the post-credits scene shows that despite Gunn leaving, the Guardians may still remain. I tend to enjoy the MCU films with characters I know more than others, but even I am a little disappointed at how toothless the film ultimately is.
Last mini-rant — how do you delegate Bruce Springsteen to the end credits? The soundtrack of Vol. 3 as a whole is by far the weakest of the trilogy — the needle drops often felt forced because Disney paid for them to be in there — and “Badlands” by The Boss is just shoehorned in at the end. Did Disney pay for the rights and then Gunn realized he didn't have a place for it in the film? “Badlands” aside, the rest of the song selections are underwhelming and felt phoned in.
Should you see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3?
There's no doubt any longer that the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy, especially after Vol. 3, is the best MCU trilogy. It's not flawless — many of the big swings are misses — but the team is so charming, and the script is genuinely funny. (I haven't given an MCU film more than a chuckle outside of the ice cream song in Multiverse of Madness.) That's enough to compensate for the fact that Vol. 3 is otherwise bloated and averse to risk-taking. It's a neat bookend to the MCU's best ensemble and regardless of what the future holds, I'm glad Disney rehired Gunn to see this out.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 will be released on May 5.