Come and Get Your Love-ly Trilogy: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’ Ends on a High Note

by Warren Cantrell on May 5, 2023

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Solid Rock Fist Up]

In theaters May 5th

People are going to head to the theaters for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 expecting yet another mindless romp through comic book escapism, not at all ready for the emotional tidal wave that’s barreling towards them. Granted, this MCU series has always boasted more heart than its peers, but Vol. 3 takes it to a whole other level, ripping the guts out of viewers who aren’t remotely prepared for this. Cashing in the full measure of well-earned pathos that comes from investing in character over spectacle, this final chapter of the Guardians trilogy is maybe the best of the bunch, and proves that this genre is at its finest when focusing on its own story rather than the connected universe it (theoretically) must feed.    

Director James Gunn has made source music as much a character as any of his leads throughout this trilogy, and that’s no different in Vol. 3, which opens with Radiohead’s “Creep” (the acoustic version from the “My Iron Lung” EP…a great pull) as a framing device to catch the audience up on everything. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is still reeling from the loss of Gamora (Zoe Saldana), whose return from the dead in Avengers: Endgame didn’t lead to a romantic reunion between the two. Her absence has handicapped the Guardians of the Galaxy, who are effectively leaderless on the ship/plant Knowhere when the lab-grown super-being, Warlock (Will Poulter), catches up to them.

Warlock is fighting on behalf of a gold-skinned species (The Sovereign) that ran afoul of the Guardians in Vol. 2, and are trying to get their revenge while simultaneously doing the dirty work of an unethical bioengineer known as The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). The High Evolutionary created Rocket (Bradley Cooper) some years ago and wants him back, and Warlock’s attempts to see this through via a two-for-one revenge-favor combo nearly lead to Rocket’s demise. The modifications that the High Evolutionary made to Rocket hinder all attempts at medical aid, however, so it’s up to Quill and the rest of the Guardians to find the information needed to crack Rocket’s bio codes and save him.

It’s all pretty straightforward and is a welcome relief from the endless series of doomsday, universe-collapsing stakes that have defined the MCU in many of the most recent installments. The Guardians are really just trying to save their buddy throughout the course of Vol. 3, and while more collateral damage pops up to raise the stakes, at its core, this is a movie about friends trying to save their friends (in both the A and B-stories). Flashbacks to rocket’s past as the victim of genetic manipulation and testing drive this home (and then some), adding no shortage of iron to the movie’s emotional glove.

And good golly…does that glove ever connect. The greatest strength of this franchise is the consistency and connective tissue that binds it together, and once again, Gunn harvests rich drama, humor, and buy-in from the events of previous installments. This isn’t like an Iron Man movie, where one installment has Tony blowing up all of his suits, and the next shows him with a warehouse full of them, or a Captain America installment, where the lead is just a conduit for larger world building and back-door piloting for other, less-interesting characters. The Guardians series has always been about the journey of its characters first and foremost, and Vol. 3 saves the best for last. Rocket’s place as the primary focus of both the secondary and primary plots establishes an emotional and thematic framework for the trilogy writ large, and pays off not just the arc of his character over the course of half a dozen MCU appearances, but all of the Guardians up to this point.

It’s a clever feat, and one that works because Gunn is interested in just these characters and this world. This also allows Vol. 3 the time needed to close the emotional loop for each of the primary cast and even the secondaries, too: allowing series mainstays like Drax (Dave Bautista) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) to get similar closure as Kraglin (Sean Gunn) and even Cosmo the Spacedog (Maria Bakalova). Granted, none of the action scenes are reinventing the wheel, here (if you’ve seen one spinning-camera Quill and Groot shoot-out, you’ve seen them all), and somehow Pratt is getting less and less interesting throughout each installment, but the work of the rest of the cast and Rocket’s story more than make up for any of this.

Defined by the heart and character work that has made this one of the strongest pillars of the MCU, and supplemented by an origin story that is going to gut audiences the world over, Vol. 3 closes this franchise out on the highest of high notes. Scored to yet another banging soundtrack that is aging right along with the characters, and benefitting from a script and consistent direction that keeps its characters front and center, the Guardians finish their run just as they began it: on their own terms and utterly unconcerned with the adventures of others. It’s a lesson the MCU would be wise to learn from, even if all evidence hints otherwise. Like a space orphan trying to make a name for himself as “Star Lord,” one can dream big, though.  

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.


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