Movie ReviewsJosh Reviews Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3

Josh Reviews Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3

Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3 is a magnificent film, fun and funny and thrilling and heartbreaking.  I don’t think I could have asked for a better conclusion to writer/director James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy and his association (at least for now) with Marvel (as Mr. Gunn is heading up the DC film and TV projects for Warner Bros. Discovery for the foreseeable future).

As the film opens, we see that the Guardians have found a fine home for themselves in Knowhere (the head of a dead Celestial that we first saw as a thriving alien marketplace in the first Guardians of the Galaxy film, and that had become the Guardians’ HQ in the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special — which you should definitely watch before seeing this film, by the way).  But all is not well, and Peter Quill has spiraled into depression after the death of Gamora in Avengers: Infinity War.  That she has returned to life, albeit from an earlier point in the timeline in which she doesn’t even know Peter, let alone love him, makes it even more painful.  But Peter must try to snap out of his funk when Rocket is grievously injured, and the team discovers that a kill switch encoded into his body by the entity that had originally created him prevents their medical technology from healing his injuries.  So the team must dig into the tragic past that Rocket has always kept hidden in a desperate attempt to find the override code to the booby-trap within Rocket’s body and try to save his life.  This brings them into conflict with the High Evolutionary, who is obsessed with creating the perfect form of life, by any means necessary…

It’s been quite some time since 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2.  The whole mess in which James Gunn was briefly fired by Disney — which resulted in Mr. Gunn’s heading to DC/Warner Brothers to make the second (and terrific!) The Suicide Squad film, and then the (amazing!) Peacemaker show — has meant it was a much longer than usual wait for this sequel.  Ending a trilogy satisfactorily is always a hard task — and I was afraid that the extra time away would make it even harder to recapture the magic of the first two Guardians films.  I’m so glad that Mr. Gunn was able to so skillfully overcome these challenges.  (And what a blessing it is that Mr. Gunn was able to return and complete his trilogy, when for a while there it looked like we’d be robbed of a proper ending to this story.)

One of Mr. Gunn’s great skills — so brilliantly on display in the first Guardians of the Galaxy film — was his ability to take these bizarre and strange characters and concepts (A talking raccoon?  A walking tree?) and make them not only interesting and fun, but to craft them in such a way that we would fall in love with them.  Mr. Gunn has only deepened our connection with these characters over the subsequent films (I still can’t quite believe how moved I was by Yondu’s fate at the end of Vol. 2), and he gets even deeper in this third and final film.  Some tough stuff goes down in this film, and it is wrenching and heartbreaking.  There’s a scene between Rocket and three absolutely insane-looking animal-mechanical-hybrid creatures that had me in tears, and even in the moment a part of my brain was applauding Mr. Gunn and his team for making me care so deeply about these crazy characters.  And those were new characters introduced in this movie!!  I’m not even talking about the main Guardians characters, each of whom is put through the wringer in this film, and each of whom is developed into an even richer and more nuanced character than they’d already been.  It’s an incredible achievement.

I know many fans haven’t been wild about Marvel’s recent movies.  Frankly, I don’t agree with that opinion.  Thor: Love and Thunder was a disappointment, but other than that, I’ve loved most of the Phase 4 films.  Shang-Chi was amazing; I’m a staunch defender of The Eternals; Spider-Man: No Way Home was a masterpiece; Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was a heck of a lot of fun; Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was the best movie I can imagine their possibly making following the horribly tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman; and while I had a few complaints about Ant Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, I thought it was a terrific adventure that beautifully set the stage for the next phase of the MCU.  So I’m not down on the recent MCU films!!  I really hope Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3 gets the love that it deserves.  This is an incredible film.

I’m going to dive in more deeply now, so please beware SPOILERS moving forward.

James Gunn has a lot of skills; his ability to create characters who are broken and flawed and very human (even if they’re aliens or superheroes or whatever) is one of his most impressive abilities, and it’s on brilliant display here.  This film gives every Guardians character a chance to shine.

We start with Peter Quill in a rough place.  This makes sense, following the tragic events of Infinity War and Endgame.  I’m glad to see this wasn’t glossed over, even though those events didn’t happen in an actual Guardians film.  Chris Pratt immediately reminds us how great he is at this character.  He’s able to portray Peter’s depression in a way that feels real but also allows us to have tremendous empathy for him.  We’re rooting for this character to find his way, and it’s a pleasure to watch Star Lord regain his mojo.  Mr. Gunn is careful not to make that too easy a path for Peter, and I was intrigued and impressed that we don’t get the sense that Peter is all the way healed at the end of the film.  But we do have hope that he’s on his way.

It’s painful to know that the Gamora we all knew is dead and gone.  Mr. Gunn makes the bold choice not to find a way to undo that development from the Avengers films.  Instead, he leans into this new reality of an all-new Gamora.  He’s written a terrific role for Zoe Saldaña, and she really sinks her teeth into portraying this very different Gamora.  I loved her arc in the film, and the way she slowly sees the value of the family that the Guardians have formed.  Frankly, my only real complaint with this entire film is the ending of Gamora’s story — I was bummed that, not only do Peter and Gamora not reunite as a couple, but that Gamora does not choose to stay with the Guardians.  In the decade since the original Guardians film, and in the years since Gamora’s death in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, I’ve been really hoping for a happy ending for Peter and Gamora.  With this film seeming to mark the end of James Gunn’s time with Marvel and guiding these characters, and possibly the last time we’ll see many of these characters on-screen (as many of the actors have publicly stated they won’t continue in these roles without Mr. Gunn’s involvement), I really wanted a happy ending for Peter and Gamora.  But I respect Mr. Gunn’s choice that that would not be realistic for what would or could happen for these characters.  I’ll also comment that I have very mixed feelings about the final shot of Gamora in the film, in which we see her reunite with the Ravagers and see that they seem to have as close a bond as the Guardians do.  On the one hand, I love the idea that the Ravagers are as close a family unit, in their own way, as the Guardians are, and that Gamora could have as happy a future with them as she could have with the Guardians.  On the other hand, it’s hard for me to accept that because I am so invested in the Guardians… and also because that shot seems to me to sort of undermine Gamora’s whole journey in the film.  If she understood that the Ravagers were a family, why would it be so surprising to learn that the same was the case for the Guardians?  This is the only off-note in the film for me.

Rocket Raccoon was an amazing creation right off the bat in the first Guardians film, beautifully brought to life by a combination of the physical performance of Sean Gunn, the vocal performance of Bradley Cooper, and some incredible CGI work.  I absolutely love Mr. Gunn’s decision to make Rocket the central focus of this third film.  There’s always a fear that, when a character has a mysterious origin, if you pull back the curtain and reveal that origin, it can’t help but be a disappointment.  Thankfully, that’s not the case here.  Mr. Gunn leaned heavily into an exploration of Rocket, devoting a large chunk of time to a series of flashbacks telling Rocket’s story, and it is deeply emotional.  It feels so perfect to finally get to know where Rocket came from, and how much that knowledge allows us to feel like we know and understand this character better than we ever have before.  “You were always the center of this story,” a character says to Rocket at one point in the film, and that feels exactly right.  Once again, bravo to James Gunn and his team for making us love this raccoon character so deeply.  (And I was delighted by the film’s revelations and how they allowed Rocket to embrace his full “Rocket Raccoon” name from the original comics!!)

Dave Bautista was phenomenal as Drax in the first Guardians, and he’s always been fun in the role, but in his recent appearances I’ve started to fear the character had lost his way, and become too much of the bombastic jerk, without the soul and pathos he had in the first film (in which we understood that his bluster was laced with sadness at the death of his family).  Mr. Gunn has beautifully (and very gently) recalibrated the character’s tone here, and Mr. Bautista rises to every moment.  We get a ton of wonderful comedy from Drax, based on his child-like obtuseness and bluntness.  (The couch scene in particular is terrific.)  But we also get back to the soul of the character.  When Mantis makes reference, late in the film, to his being a dad, it’s a beautiful and moving moment, and one of my favorite scenes in the film.

Karen Gillan’s Nebula started as a villain, and this film brings a beautiful closure to her arc as we see her as a true hero and a core member of the Guardians team.  I can’t believe how far this character has come!!  It’s so rewarding to watch.  Ms. Gillan is so soulful and noble as this brutalized but still heroic woman.  She also gets to kick ten tons of ass, which is a heck of a lot of fun to see.

Mantis was introduced in Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, and I love how central a character she’s become.  Pom Klementieff is so wonderful at embodying Mantis’ strange alien weirdness, and also her heart and soul.  As with Drax, Mantis is a very funny character, and the film gives her a lot of great comedic moments.  But we also get some very deep moments with the character.  We saw in the Holiday Special that she formed a terrific pairing with Drax, and I love that the film gave us a lot more of the two of them together.  By the time we get to their very sweet final scene together, it’s a beautiful culmination of their relationship.  (The Holiday Special revealed that Mantis was Peter’s half-brother.  I’d expected that to play a larger role in the story of this film.  It’s mentioned a few times, and it plays into the film’s final minutes, but I was surprised it wasn’t a bigger deal.)

I didn’t love the look of “swoll” Groot in the Holiday Special, but thankfully I felt the look worked much better here in this film and didn’t look so much like a man in a suit.  Groot gets a lot of great moments in the film.  I was shocked by his decapitation early in the film!!  I loved seeing one final new spin on the iconic shot of Groot and Rocket spinning and firing weapons, from the first Guardians film.

I loved that Kraglin (played by Sean Gunn, in addition to his performance work on-set as Groot) gets a mini-arc in this film, learning how to use Yondu’s weapon.  And I was thrilled that Mr. Gunn found a way to bring back Michael Rooker for a brief moment as Yondu!!

I loved that Cosmo (the Russian space-dog) had so much fun stuff to do in the film, and Maria Bakalova (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm) was terrific as her voice.

Chukwudi Iwuji (so great as Murn in Peacemaker) was terrific as the High Evolutionary.  I’ve always loved this villain from the comics, and I thought he made a terrific MCU movie villain!!  Mr. Iwuji brought a scary intensity to the character that worked very well.  I like that this guy has a very different motivation from most previous MCU villains.  I really liked his look.  The mechanical stuff going around his face was a nice nod to the mechanical mask the character wears in the comics, while still (wisely) allowing us to see Mr. Iwuji’s face.  (And I loved the late-in-the-film revelations about what was really going on with the character’s face!)

I’ve always loved Adam Warlock in the comics.  He’s one of Jim Starlin’s classic characters and he’s been hugely important in so many wonderful Marvel Comics stories, including the original Infinity Gauntlet mini-series.  (Mr. Starlin also created Thanos and Gamora.)  I was thrilled when Warlock’s cocoon was teased at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, and I’m glad the character was included here.  Mr. Gunn has made a lot of changes to Warlock from the comics.  Visually he looks great, and very much like his comic counterpart.  (Including the iconic jewel on his forehead.  In the comics that’s an Infinity stone.  I wish the film had explained what it was for this Warlock.)  But the adolescent version of this character was very much a new creation for the movie.  While I’d have loved to have seen a more traditional version of Warlock, I really enjoyed this version and thought he worked very well in the film.  Will Poulter (who, as a kid, played Eustace Scrubb in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) does strong work.  There’s lots of room for this character to grow and I hope we see more of him in the future.  (And I hope he’s paired up with his side-kick from the comics Pip the Troll, who we saw in the post-credits scene at the end of The Eternals!!)  I was intrigued by the way Mr. Gunn connected Warlock to the Sovereign from vol. 2, and I enjoyed seeing Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager) back as Ayesha, the golden High Priestess of the Sovereign and “mother” to Warlock.

I’m a forever fan of Nathan Fillion’s after Firefly (not to mention Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog), and I’m glad he’s finally entered the MCU.  He’s great fun as the buffoonish head of security for Orgocorp.  I just wish that Mr. Fillion was playing a character who was more important in the MCU, and who we could hope to see again!  This role feels to me like a bit of a waste of Mr. Fillion.

I loved seeing Sylvester Stallone and many others of the classic original Guardians of the Galaxy characters teased in vol. 2, and I was so happy to see Sly back here in vol. 3, in addition to Michael Rosenbaum (Lex Luthor on Smallville) as Martinez (the diamond-skinned dude).  Linda Cardellini (Lindsay Weir on Freaks and Geeks, and Laura Barton in the MCU) is wonderful as the voice of Lylla.  I smiled to see another brief cameo from Howard the Duck (again voiced by Seth Green), and I loved that they brought back Gregg Henry as Peter’s grandfather from the first Guardians film.  I’d always been bothered by how Peter’s grandfather treated him — which was of course the point — and I was so surprised but pleased that Mr. Gunn revisited that and brought some closure to that relationship.  That was wonderful.  Daniela Melchior (who was so terrific as Ratcatcher 2 in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad) is terrific in a small but important roles as Ura, a receptionist at Orgocorp.

Fans have lobbed some complaints at the visual effects in recent MCU films, but I don’t think anyone will find much to gripe about here.  The visuals in this film are gorgeous and delightfully strange and weird.  The organic Orgocorp HQ is a highlight.  I loved the look of the High Evolutionary’s HQ on Counter-Earth.  (And I can’t believe that Counter-Earth — this weird idea from the 1970’s Marvel comics — made it into the MCU!!!)  I loved the Guardians’ very cool-looking new ship.  (The shot of the ship landing on Counter-Earth looked particularly cool to me.)  There’s also an extraordinary single-take action sequence (when the Guardians storm the High Evolutionary’s ship late in the film) that blew me away.

Once again, Mr. Gunn has created a delightful soundtrack, filled with surprising and enjoyable needle-drops.  (I’ve never been a huge fan of the Beastie Boys’ No Sleep Till Brooklyn, but it is perfectly deployed here!)

The film’s final few moments are sweet and sad, and a satisfying goodbye to this team.  I was pretty happy with where each of the characters wound up (with the slight exception of Gamora, as discussed above).  Mostly, I was relieved that they all made it through the film alive!  I was expecting James Gunn to really break our hearts by killing off one or more of these characters.  I’m so glad he didn’t go that route.  Will we see any of these characters again?  Although some of the cast have made statements about being done with these characters (Dave Bautista in particular), I’m sure we’ll see some of them again.  (I was curious if we’d get a “… will return” line at the end of the credits, and I was pleased that we got a promise that Star Lord, at least, would return.)  But I expect that this is the last time we’ll see this full Guardians team assembled on-screen, and I am quite satisfied with this ending.

I loved the first mid-credits scene, in which we get a glimpse of a new Guardians team led by Rocket.  The final post-credits scene, with Peter and his grandfather, left me a little confused, as I didn’t quite follow what he and his grandfather were talking about.  That was a little underwhelming, though I smiled to see Peter’s new, very ordinary, life on Earth.

I applaud James Gunn and his team for crafting such an emotional and satisfying conclusion to this trilogy.  I can’t wait to watch it again.  I hope to see some of these characters again in future MCU adventures.  But as an ending for this trilogy and this group of characters, I’m happy.

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