Get ready, bring your Kleenex, and send a fond farewell to Marvel’s infamous bunch of a-holes. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is the final movie from writer/director James Gunn, who took over DC Studios just months ago. But not only that, with stars Dave Bautista and Zoe Saldana already confirming their Marvel exits, there’s a somber tone that permeates this already dark story, which centers on the tortured origin of one of its most popular badass characters, Rocket…don’t call him Raccoon.
That sadness is meaningful, though, because it serves as a reminder of the impact these misfit Marvel characters have had on us since the first movie in 2014. Remember then? When few outside of us Marvel die-hards knew anything about this team? And we all wondered whether too big of a gamble was being taken on this movie with no recognizable heroes and an unproven blockbuster director? It’s ironic that GOTG3 arrives at a time now when Marvel Studios needs it to be a savior, so to speak, following some of its worst reviews and box office for Ant-Man 3.
The story is a bit messy, though. Gunn has a lot of story he wants to tell and he tells every bit of it. It centers on Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper and others this time), who is badly injured by the debuting Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a cosmic powerhouse sent to retrieve him for the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a mad scientist whose specialty is creating animal hybrids, in order to engineer the perfect being for a perfect society. Rocket was one of his earliest, most successful experiments, but the experience for Rocket was anything but pleasant. In order to save Rocket’s life, the team, led by a lovelorn Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), must defeat High Evolutionary and his mutated minions.
There’s a lot more going on than that, though, and Gunn has trouble coalescing it, especially in the first hour. Repeated flashbacks take us to Rocket’s past and his connection with similar animal captives, with the Amblin-esque tone tinged with heartbreak over the pain these creatures are enduring and the dreams they’ll never see fulfilled. Of course, the team is going through various personal issues that keep them from being a wholly effective unit. Star-Lord is still love sick over the death of Gamora (Zoe Saldana); the situation made worse by the presence of an alternate version who barely knows his name. Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Drax (Dave Bautista) continue to playfully spar, while Nebula (Karen Gillan) is navigating her own feelings about Gamora while coming to grips with the family she never knew she needed. Along with the return of the golden-skinned Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) and the presence of Adam Warlock, a character fans have been clamoring for since MCU day one, it’s a lot for Gunn to juggle.
To be fair, Gunn isn’t totally successful in getting it all to work. The introduction of Adam Warlock is especially clunky, and the film could’ve worked just as well without him. Poulter plays him as he should, like a blank slate that is being filled by every experience, both good and bad. The High Evolutionary, a pompous windbag who makes Kang seem like a mute by comparison, isn’t the most compelling bad guy, either. He’s certainly someone you want to see get his rear end kicked by a talking raccoon with a big gun, but High Evolutionary won’t be on anyone’s list of the best Marvel villains.
The action rocks in every possible way, though, as does the incredible production design and visual effects. Those who saw the terrific Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special will recognize the team’s new home on Knowhere, a mish-mash of alien cultures that gives Gunn the chance to max out on bizarre creations. It’s here that we also get some seriously fun hijinks between talking Russian dog Cosmo (voiced by Maria Bakalova) and Kraglin (Sean Gunn) that demands a Disney+ spinoff of some kind. We’re also introduced to Counter-Earth, an artificial 1950s suburb that could’ve been ripped out of Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling…except populated by animal/alien hybrids living ordinary, dull lives. In true Gunn pushing-the-envelope fashion, he goes out with a bang and Marvel’s first official “F-bomb” during a silly car door joke sequence. It’s to the film’s credit that you barely notice it, coming at such a perfect moment of frustration that you can totally understand why Star-Lord said it.
Gunn, who might be the master of the needle drop for his perfect soundtracks, is at the top of his game here. You know how good he is at finding just the right song, that nostalgic earworm, to make an action scene that much better? Well, tuned to a story meant to grab at the heartstrings and he’s doubly effective. His use of songs from Radiohead, Earth Wind & Fire, , Rainbow, and The Beastie Boys creates a beautiful goodbye anthem, one in which the underdogs are fighting one last fight.
And that feeling of things coming to an end is what ultimately grips you. Despite the film being a bit haphazard in places, there comes a moment in the final act when you realize that things are winding down. It hits you right in the chest that this is going to be the last time you’ll see the Guardians of the Galaxy as they are now. You’ll laugh that much more when Drax does something ridiculous stupid and Mantis, ever his loyal companion, rides shotgun with him. You’ll weep that much more when Rocket faces his demons with Groot, and the family he found for himself, right by his side. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is probably best when taken as a whole with the rest of the franchise. They are, by leaps and bounds, the truest team in all of Marvel. This ragtag group of outsiders came together and became more than teammates and more than friends, saving a galaxy that never gave a damn about any of them. We can’t stand the idea of seeing them apart, but we also can’t imagine what the MCU would’ve been like without them.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 opens in theaters on May 5th.
Trav’s Tip: Be sure to stick around through the credits for two extra scenes, both worth waiting around for.