James Gunn sends off the Guardians (and the MCU as a whole) with a closing chapter that’s as emotional as it is overstuffed.
A lot’s happened since we last saw the Guardians of the Galaxy (well, besides their brief cameo in Thor: Love and Thunder). Writer/director James Gunn was fired from Marvel in 2018 after some problematic tweets joking about pedophilia were unearthed, in one of the few instances of a successful cancellation from the right wing. Of course, it didn’t last long, considering how thin the ground was for said cancellation in the first place; and in the interim, he swanned off to DC, made the fantastic The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker, and eventually found himself sharing the throne of a newly-revamped DC movie universe.
But before he leaves the MCU entirely, he’s got to send off the beloved gang of misfits that established him as one of the few auteurs still allowed in the superhero space. And Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 does just that, with a strange, downbeat, oddly endearing final chapter that, for better or worse, at least feels like a James Gunn project.
Rather than the zippy, spirited introductions of the first two, Volume 3 sees our heroes in particularly downbeat spirits. Instead of sprightly pop rock, Gunn pipes in an acoustic cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” as we check in with the Guardians, now the stewards of the ancient Celestial space station known as Knowhere. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), in particular, has seen happier days; he spends his time drinking away the hours and pining after Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), who died at Thanos’ hands. Sure, thanks to the timeline-hopping of Avengers: Endgame, there’s a spare Gamora from another timeline hopping around the galaxy. But she doesn’t remember their romance, and would rather have nothing to do with him.
But fate reunites them after a sneak attack by gilded Sovereign superbeing Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) leaves Rocket (Bradley Cooper) mortally wounded, and the modifications that made him the super-smart rodent he is today are preventing them from healing him. So Quill, Drax (Dave Bautista), Groot (Vin Diesel), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Nebula (Karen Gillan) head off on a quest to find his creators and save his life. Along the way, they’ll bump into alt-Gamora, whom Quill still wants to believe feels something for him, and will lay on his dopey charm to prove it.
That’s the loose structure upon which the film rests, as Quill and the gang hop from one wacky locale to another — an organically-grown space station with eyeball security cameras, an alternate Earth populated by anthropomorphic animals — tracking the breadcrumbs to Rocket’s salvation. Through piecemeal flashbacks, we also witness Rocket’s heartbreaking origin as one of many tortured lab rats who finds himself among his first-found family of adorably mutilated pets. It’s heartstring-tugging stuff, even as its inclusion threatens to derail the film’s breathless pace; still, it’s easily the most effective and emotional work Marvel’s done since, well, Guardians 2. (PETA almost certainly owes Gunn a nice, fat check.)
But it also struggles to fit into a final chapter that feels like it has to stuff in so many other elements: Quill’s attempts to recapture Gamora’s heart, Drax and Mantis’ charming double act (honed so well in last year’s cute holiday special), side characters like Laika the Talking Dog (Maria Bakalova) and Guardians B-team member Kraglin (Gunn’s brother Sean Gunn), etc. Poulter’s pouting, dimwitted Warlock feels like he should be the focus of his own film, but as is, he’s relegated to the sidelines. Chukwudi Iwuji wails and gnashes teeth with aplomb as the villainous High Evolutionary, who, like another purple Marvel baddie we know, will raze the universe to the ground in order to build a more perfect one. It’s all pretty one-dimensional, though, more Ronan the Accuser than Ego the Living Planet.
It’s all so much to take in, but that maximalism can sometimes feel like Gunn’s greatest weapon. Whether it’s his wall-to-wall playlist of eclectic hits (this time expanded from the ’70s to more contemporary fare like The Beastie Boys, The Flaming Lips, and Florence and the Machine; Peter’s upgraded to a Zune, after all) or his trippy, bright visuals, there’s always something pretty to look at. One late-film melee in a corridor gives all the Guardians their moments to strut their stuff, and it’s anarchic and inventive enough to shake up the doldrums of a lot of one-take wonders we’ve seen of late.
The Gunn humor is still here, too, with its curious mix of sitcom banter, Troma-level grotesquely, and po-faced earnestness. It often works, like moments where Nebula struggles to figure out how an Earth car door functions, or Drax’s continued attempts to figure out metaphor. But after a while, it starts to clash with the more reverent tone of the rest of the picture, and the final act gets squishy and sappy in a way that doesn’t quite work the same way the others did.
Still, for those (like me) who’ve been disillusioned with Marvel post-Endgame, with its endless parade of factory-stamped superhero flicks with shoddy effects and murky visuals, settling back into the cozy, yacht-rock-stuffed world of James Gunn is a welcome respite. The cast, warmed up over a decade of ensemble-building and smart, clever scripts, have magnetic chemistry; the effects feel refined rather than rushed; no one feels like they’re plopped in front of a viewscreen; you can see what’s happening.
Volume 3 feels like an emotional goodbye to this weird, charming corner of the Marvel universe, and to the era of Marvel that charmed even critics in its heyday. Who knows whether the franchise can recapture that kind of giddy energy or visual competence in the future; I’m honestly doubtful. But we can at least coast through one last Marvel film that, for all its faults, feels made with intention and skill and singular purpose. It’s not perfect, but we may not see its like again.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 clicks on some eclectic tunes and trips the light fantastic in theaters May 5th.