‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’ Sends Its Glorious Misfits on a Grandiose Final Mission

The seasonal tradition of a new Marvel release is upon us again. For once in a long while, we are getting a title that doesn’t require you to scramble into catching up with the recent cache of TV shows and movies. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” only asks that you already have some affection for its band of galactic misfits, which have been the one franchise that truly stands on its own within the whole MCU. While studio guru Kevin Feige boasts of hiring top directors for various selections, it is James Gunn who has best translated his own voice into the wider demands of the box office behemoth. His 2014 “Guardians of the Galaxy” was both a big hit and major influence, setting trends superhero movies have been desperate to replicate ever since. What Gunn brings more than anything is heart. “Vol 3” may be oversized, yet it truly cares about its characters.

This is also Gunn’s big send-off to both this world and Marvel as a whole, as he prepares to initiate DC’s new phase as its co-CEO. Fittingly, “Vol 3” is a massive closure of loose ends. The Guardians are still based on the skull planet of Knowhere. While Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper) hums the acoustic version of Radiohead’s “Creep” during a melancholic walk, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) aka Starlord is in a drunken stupor. He’s agonizing over the loss of his great love Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), who was killed by Thanos but has returned from a past timeline with no memory of her days with the Guardians. Then gold-tanned Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) comes crashing into Knowhere with the aim of capturing Rocket. The grumpy, furry hero is seriously injured while the attack is repelled. It turns out he’s sought after by the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), his original creator. Peter and the rest of the gang, including Nebula (Karen Gillan), Drax (Dave Bautisa), Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Groot (Vin Diesel) race to save their friend and discover the heartbreaking truth of his origins.

In its manic yet lucid plot, there is almost a Punk spirit to the very attitude of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.” From the visuals to the comedy and soundtrack, the movie packs both grandeur and grit. Marvel is where Gunn as a director has been able to develop his aesthetic, beyond his early, rowdy comedies like the morbidly hilarious “Super.” With cinematographer Henry Braham, there is a continuance of the pop art spirit of the first two movies, but also more of the grainy edge from Gunn’s DC debut, “The Suicide Squad,” which Braham also lensed. It’s fitting for an entry that has the darkest, most emotive tone out of the “Guardians” trilogy. A running theme here is getting over the scars of the past and very real heartbreak. The arrival of the High Evolutionary reveals Rocket’s beginnings as a raccoon used for diabolical experiments led by the tyrant, who seeks to make a new world cleansed of the current one’s ills. Now we get why the furry adventurer is such a grump and hides his feelings behind a snarling veneer, as first explored in “Vol. 2.” 

In the same spirit, Gunn makes surprising and refreshing decisions with this franchise’s key love story. We would expect Peter’s reunion with Gamora to be an easy case of making them a couple again. Instead, she truly has no memory of Peter and scoffs at the idea that her future self ever loved him. Now she rides around with the Ravagers, the galactic criminal gang that raised Peter under the wing of the late Yondu (Michael Rooker). Gone is the flirtatious banter of the first two movies. When Peter desperately tries to get Gamora to remember what they had, it’s rather tragic, like someone holding on to a faded past. Marvel movies don’t tend to inspire that kind of reflection, but that’s what makes Gunn’s approach so unique. By taking this world seriously without pretension, he brings out the essence of why comic book readers become so attached to their obsessions. Relationships are actually complicated in this screenplay, even between the dimwit Drax and goofy Mantis, who he clearly loves but won’t say it. She admits at one point that indeed, she finds him to be stupid, and we genuinely feel his pain.

“Vol. 3” is bloated and runs 2 hours and 30 minutes. Yet every moment is packed with something happening that is completely entertaining. Gunn is going for broke with a team creating some of this franchise’s biggest sights and moments. A massive filing edifice in space is actually a living membrane. The High Evolutionary’s world, Counter-Earth, is out of the “Twilight Zone” with suburban neighborhoods where everyone is a walking, talking animal creation. Action scenes wildly mix violence and comedy, always framed with rich colors. Gunn plays just a little with horror as well, using some shots as winks to “Aliens” to introduce slobbering menaces. Viewers sensitive to animal cruelty should be warned the flashbacks to Rocket’s origins can get truly heart-wrenching. Meanwhile none of the big climaxes feel, as they do in so many Marvel movies, as boring retreads to every other movie in the studio catalog. There’s genuine creativity at work when armed space guards are left without gravity or someone has to leap across one flaming ship into another.

Few superhero movies manage to combine genuine artistry with corporate demands. Gunn can and it’s evident in the soundtrack. His use of classic rock and pop hits in the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” became an influential staple other costumed movies have tried to copy with few successes. They never get that it’s not about finding a song that is fully on the nose. In “Vol. 3” selections like “Creep” or The Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize?” set real moods and an emotional environment. When the gang drives through Counter-Earth, watching it be as corrupt and violent as the real Earth, it is set to Alice Cooper’s “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” and becomes a gritty social statement when Nebula wonders, “this is the perfect society?” Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over” is used over a celebration scene that is pure, joyous ecstasy. Good movies know how to make the songs their own, giving them a whole new meaning even when you listen to them again outside of the theater. Here they also lend cohesiveness to a plot trying to pack a lot of resolutions.

There is so much going on in “Vol. 3” that other characters are relegated to the background more than they should. Nebula has grown from the acidic daughter of Thanos when we first met her and is now a firm member of the Guardians. Her more empathetic side shines and the story would have benefited from exploring it further. Groot does little more than the usual of being the big, tree-like member of the group who can crush things and stretch his limbs. Somehow there’s even room to include Cosmo, a Soviet space dog who lives on Knowhere. Overall it helps that the villain is narratively strong. The High Evolutionary may have the same ambitions as every other super villain, yet Chukwudi Iwuji gives him some real menace. He turns the character into an unsettling portrait of egomaniacal fanaticism and his connection to Rocket makes him extra unsavory. He thinks he is God, while his opponents are misfits who represent all the disorder the High Evolutionary despises. 

For longtime fans the final moments of “Vol. 3” may prove genuinely moving. These characters easily inspired their own fan base and much of it is probably owed to the feeling that Gunn genuinely loves them as well. The Guardians of the Galaxy lack the pristine sheen of Captain America or elitist touch of Tony Stark. They are the screw ups who would sit in the back of the class. That is also what makes them so much more heroic, funny and likable. Taking that into consideration, the messy style of the movie makes sense. It’s as chaotic as the characters deserve. Yet the ending actually makes you feel something. Now Gunn is moving on to DC and time will tell how he reshapes their brand. Hopefully he is allowed to carry on in the same spirit. “Guardians of the Galaxy” was the one Marvel title that could seriously be compared to “Star Wars.” Deep down we know it’s silly, but the characters and their adventures make us want to escape with them, laughing and enjoying some good songs along the way.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” releases May 5 in theaters nationwide.