James Gunn delivers a satisfying send-off in the ’final’ Guardians chapter

Guardians of the Galaxy

Source: Marvel Studios

‘Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3’

Dir/scr: James Gunn. US. 2023. 150mins

At a time when comic-book films have become formulaic and interchangeable, James Gunn’s third instalment of Guardians Of The Galaxy feels refreshingly vivid and distinct – a rousing space adventure which is dedicated to delivering both gorgeous spectacle and an emotional wallop. As is customary for blockbuster sequels, Vol. 3 is darker than its predecessors, with the writer-director delving into racoon Rocket’s harrowing backstory while pitting his misfit comrades against a new nefarious villain. The tonal shift does not negate this series’ lighthearted touch, however — nor does the new film get bogged down in the same tedious overarching narrative juggle that has marred many recent Marvel pictures. For a story about the importance of letting go, this supposed final chapter in the Guardians saga proves to be a satisfying sendoff. 

It can’t resurrect the superhero genre on its own, but the ingenuity and depth of feeling in Vol. 3 are reminders of what’s been missing for too long

It has been six years since the release of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 ($864 million worldwide), and Disney no doubt hopes to hit comparable heights with this follow-up. The box-office disappointment of Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania (currently $475 million) and Shazam! Fury Of The Gods (currently $133 million) strongly suggests that superhero fatigue is real but this popular franchise, boosted by stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista, should overcome commercial concerns. 

Mourning the death of his beloved Gamora (Saldana), Peter (Pratt) and the rest of the Guardians are ambushed by Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a powerful being who is trying to capture Peter’s best friend Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), severely injuring him in the process. The Guardians’ only chance to save Rocket’s life will put them in the crosshairs of The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), the evil scientist who long ago genetically engineered the ordinary raccoon as part of a plan to “improve” society.  

As with the earlier Guardians films, Gunn (who now is helping steer DC’s superhero slate) views these characters as one big, messy family, their constant bickering belying the indomitable affection they have for each other. The filmmaker has never shied away from sentimentality in this franchise, and Vol. 3 has its share of tear-jerking moments as the Guardians risk their lives to help others — or, in a twist Peter doesn’t see coming, an alternate Gamora enters his orbit, although she does not share any memories with the Gamora who once loved him. 

The picture has little tie-in to the larger Marvel narrative, which is a relief, allowing Gunn to focus on Peter and his cohorts — including the gentle giant Drax (Bautista), the sensitive Mantis (Pom Klementieff), the fierce warrior Nebula (Karen Gillan) and the friendly Groot (Vin Diesel) — without having to worry about extraneous characters or plotlines. At two-and-a-half hours, Vol. 3 needs that extended runtime to further develop the individual Guardians and, crucially, craft extensive flashbacks that map out how Rocket was transformed from an animal into the sentient, wisecracking pilot we now know. It’s an ambitious undertaking on Gunn’s part — essentially, telling an origin story in the midst of this new adventure — but the risk pays off, resulting in a moving subplot which doubles as a commentary on animal testing, guilt and the need for connection. 

Gunn’s last film was 2021’s The Suicide Squad and like that picture, Vol. 3 possesses an epic sense of scale and visual imagination. Production designer Beth Mickle dreams up beautiful spaceship interiors and surreal interstellar bases that are settings for clever action sequences which don’t belabour the quips and slapstick. A wealth of strange creatures put in memorable appearances, and the effects work is often dazzling — a statement that could not be made about several recent sludgy-looking Marvel and DC pictures.  

But it is the human element that anchors Vol. 3, with the obvious warm rapport between cast members. If Pratt is a little too square-jawed as the grieving Peter, his scenes with Saldana, whose stoic Gamora quickly grows tired of Peter’s puppy-dog hope that she’ll somehow remember him, evolve from flirty quarrelling to mutual respect. Throughout, the Guardians’ life-or-death heroics are underscored by their love for one another, with even the steely Nebula eventually letting down her guard to show a little tenderness. 

After three films, the tight bond between the Guardians is easy to understand — which is why Iwuji’s volcanic performance as the monstrous High Evolutionary is all the more effective. This villain’s dispassionate cruelty stands in sharp opposition to our bighearted, lovably flawed heroes, who will stop at nothing to revive their dying friend Rocket. Superhero cinema has been on life-support itself for a while now; this deeply enjoyable film can’t resurrect the genre on its own, but the ingenuity and depth of feeling in Vol. 3 are reminders of what has been missing for too long.

Production company: Marvel Studios

Worldwide distribution: Disney

Producer: Kevin Feige

Cinematography: Henry Braham

Production design: Beth Mickle 

Editing: Fred Raskin, Greg D’Auria

Music: John Murphy

Main cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Will Poulter, Sean Gunn, Chukwudi Iwuji, Linda Cardellini, Nathan Fillion, Sylvester Stallone