Before the release of this new Guardians of the Galaxy installment, I felt like Marvel had zombified me. Since the studio’s massive saga-ender Avengers: Endgame, I have continued going to the theater to see each new entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. None of these films have moved me in any sort of way. I simply show up, sit numb in the dirty theater seat, and then leave the film without any strong emotions whatsoever. Even Spider-Man: No Way Home, a film many enjoyed, left me strikingly cold. I simply no longer care about this multi-franchise empire.
However, something about James Gunn’s take on the Guardians works on me in a different way. Where Marvel’s phase four (are we on four? five?) felt like a series of films introducing or re-introducing characters without a meaningful sense of where any of them are going, the Guardians of the Galaxy films have clearly-defined (and relatively more finite) arcs. One can digest a Guardians movie on its own terms, without connecting it to any larger cosmic story of universe-ending threat, and still get an enjoyable experience. Something like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, on the other hand, comes across as a movie that is only enjoyable if one has bought into the next major arc of this cinematic universe.
Quantumania is one of my least favorite Marvel films, but I don’t begrudge anyone who enjoys the endlessly stacking nature of this universe, where characters are revealed for the sake of the next movie (or the next six movies). After all, this is what made the first phase of the MCU so exciting to fans, in that it led to an Avengers film that many Marvel fans had been dreaming of. I’m just not bought in; not anymore, at least.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is one of my favorite Marvel films, in that it builds directly from my favorite MCU entry, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. For reasons I cannot fully explain, Gunn has succeeded in burrowing the character of a talking raccoon into my heart. Guardians 2 ends with a shot of Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) shedding a tear. He is standing alongside the other Guardians, his friends. A stubborn character, Rocket has consistently closed himself off emotionally from his friends, but the tear signifies that he has finally found a comfortable place within this found family that cares about him and whom he cares for.
Guardians 3 is Rocket’s story, and it illustrates why he ends the second film so moved by the fact that he has accepted the friendship of others. Many have spoken of how this third film is much darker than other Marvel films — that it earns its PG-13 rating and really is not meant for young children. These voices are mostly right that the bleak subject matter, presented in flashbacks depicting Rocket’s upbringing, would be a rough sit for parents and children.
But the darkness of this origin services this character’s arc well. Some have said these sequences are emotionally manipulative (if a content warning is useful: there are depictions of abuse against CGI animals), and I understand the opinion. However, I think Gunn balances the darkness with the overall light tone of the Guardians IP well, and I think both are integral to following Rocket’s story (the most interesting and complex story of any Guardians character, as far as I’m concerned).
The plot of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 revolves around the villain who subjects this bleak abuse. The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) wants to create sentient life, to be the god of a second Earth populated by intelligent animals. Rocket was one of the Evolutionary’s early test subjects, and when Rocket gets critically injured, the Guardians must seek out the Evolutionary in order to save the raccoon’s life.
This MacGuffin ultimately sidelines Rocket for a large portion of the runtime, but that the entire plot is in service of him and his relationships to loved ones speaks to Gunn’s priorities here. Less important is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the de facto leader of the Guardians whose background is explored in more depth in the previous film. Most of his character work here involves trying to rekindle a romance with a character who doesn’t remember anything about him, a subplot that feels lacking.
The choice to center the film around Rocket also deflates one of the film’s final and most important plot beats, in which multiple characters make grand-standing announcements about their future (and thus, the future of the Guardians). It comes off as a rushed attempt to wrap a bow on this trilogy.
That said, the film’s story is relatively grounded and has stable stakes. The first two acts are engaging through both their flashy set pieces and the linear motivations of the characters. As is the case with all three Guardians films (and most Marvel movies, to be frank), the third act drags and contains the least visually engaging action sequences. But beat for beat, this is the most entertaining Marvel film in years.
In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Dave Bautista’s hyper-literal, brutish Drax advises Peter Quill that there are two types of people. There are those who dance, and those who do not. The Guardians trilogy is ultimately about these misfit characters learning to dance (which makes a late scene in the third film an apt moment). It is an obvious metaphor for a rather straightforward message about finding the light spots in the dark, something which is always easier when you don’t go at it alone.
This may not be the most revelatory of themes, but it is a theme that Gunn has built up across these three films and which provide more emotion and heart than most other Marvel films. And it doesn’t hurt that the aesthetic of these films are more vibrant and confident than any of the post-Endgame MCU outings. The shot selections and art direction of these Guardians films have improved with each installment.
No matter which way this MCU ship turns as it continues through its multiverse era, this trilogy of films will be able to stand on its own. Given what the big studio franchise has become in the wake of Marvel’s success, this is a pleasant and welcome surprise.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3: B
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)