4 out of 5 stars

During Marvel Studios’ rise to box office dominance in the 2010s, it’s fair to say Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) represented the first significant test of their creative wisdom. Iron Man (2008) may have been a financial risk because the character wasn’t yet as popular as Spider-Man or X-Men, but even comic-book nerds had little awareness of the Guardians, despite them having been around since 1969.

The decision to hire filmmaker James Gunn (Slither), then best-known for writing Scooby-Doo (2002) and the Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake, having only just directed a body horror called Slither (2006) and the dark superhero comedy Super (2010), was arguably Marvel’s biggest gamble. It paid off. Guardians remains one of the studio’s most popular additions, despite a shaky sequel in Vol.2 (2017). It helped that the original film was so separate from everything else happening in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), so if the project had backfired Marvel could claim it was only a bold experiment with an obscure bunch of characters, but instead Gunn’s twisted Star Wars became the template for everything in the “cosmic” realm of the MCU.

Having been delayed a number of years—partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, mostly due to Gunn being fired and rehired after distasteful tweets he made a long time ago came to light—Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3 finally arrives as arguably Marvel’s last chance to assure fans they’re not creatively bankrupt after a string of disappointments and underperforming films post-Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021). A fact not helped by testing audience’s appetite for superheroes with a litany of Disney+ shows.

Vol.3 also marks Gunn’s swansong from the Guardians franchise and the MCU at large, so he parts company with trilogy-capper that unreservedly his own. It feels like he was given the freedom to craft exactly the film he wanted to without much interference, as there’s plenty of unsettling ideas and rather shocking levels of darkness and gore in this instalment. Remember when McDonalds were angry Batman Returns (1992) featured a bleeding nose and a woman in a latex catsuit? How far we’ve come in terms of what feels family-friendly in 30 years.

The story is essentially split into two elements: a present-day race-against-time mission to save Rocket’s (Bradley Cooper) life after he’s injured during an attack by Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), who was sent to extract his brain to show fealty to his people’s creator The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji); and a breadcrumbed flashback to Rocket’s tragic origin as a baby racoon experimented on by the aforementioned High Evolutionary, who’s effectively the MCU’s version of Dr Moreau and is driven to create hybrid creatures who might transcend into perfect beings in order to populate a utopian world he’s closely modelled on Earth.

The flashbacks that are seemingly taking place inside Rocket’s mind as he inches closer to death provide the emotional core of Vol.3, and in some ways turns Rocket into the lead. As a commentary on the evils of animal testing and vivisection seen through a sci-fi prism, it’s genuinely harrowing material that may unsettle younger audiences, but it also does a sublime job creating a new villain it’s easy to hate and hope to see get his comeuppance. Chukwudi Iwuji (Peacemaker) gives an enthralling performance as the High Evolutionary, perhaps the cruellest Marvel supervillain, as every scene he’s in crackles with electricity.

The present-day story is rockier and goofier; the light to balance the darkness. It’s a straightforward story of the Guardians finding their way to the Orgoscope, the High Evolutionary’s nefarious company, in order to steal an override code for a kill-switch that’s been implanted inside Rocket’s body. But it’s complicated by all manner of setbacks and strange locations and wild characters, plus some complicated relationships and dynamics once Gamora (Zoe Saldana) joins the team and Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) keeps trying to resume a romance he enjoyed with her dead variant. (If you’ve forgotten the events of Avengers: Endgame, this Gamora is from a timeline where she wasn’t sacrificed for an Infinity Stone.)

I do have criticisms about Vol.3, and they’re mostly down to the length of the film and how much weirdness Gunn throws at the screen. It’s great to see a fertile imagination with a distinct aesthetic enjoy spending $250M to create bizarre visuals and odd creatures, no matter how distasteful some of them look, but it does grow a little wearying after a while. For every fantastic idea like an organic spaceship there’s a ridiculous one like a replica of Earth populated by alien chimeras. One senses a certain lack of control at times, almost as if the screenplay was a stream-of-consciousness outpouring of madness only marginally knocked into shape. But at least it didn’t have all it edges smoothed away by committee, so if you enjoy Gunn’s sensibilities they’re on full display throughout Vol.3, for better or worse.

Adam Warlock is another mild disappointment. His involvement is so loose it feels like Gunn setup this character at the end of Vol.2 for bigger things, but had a change of heart over where the story should go next but was forced to use him. Warlock is the inciting incident that gets the story moving by endangering Rocket’s life, but then he hangs around feeling tangential, is used as comic relief much of the time, and ends up feeling like a wasted opportunity. It’s a shame because this golden super-baby is brilliantly portrayed by Will Poulter, but his role could have been cut out to tighten things up more.

Vol.3 marks the end of the road for some of these characters, but the door isn’t closed on any of them returning in some capacity. There could easily be a Vol.4 with a slightly different line-up of quirky heroes, so it’ll be interesting to see if Marvel try and mimic Gunn’s signature style or bring a different perspective to the Guardians by transferring them to a different part of the galaxy that’s a little less freaky. Either way, it’s great to have a MCU movie that has a strong mix of humour, heart, thrills, and pathos, but also worrying this unique tone to the universe is now a thing of the past.


Cast & Crew

director: James Gunn.
writer: James Gunn (based on Marvel Comics).
starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel (voice), Bradley Cooper (voice), Sean Gunn, Chukwudi Iwuji, Will Poulter, Elizabeth Debicki, Maria Bakalova, Sylvester Stallone & Nathan Fillion.