Since Avengers: Endgame – arguably the last great Marvel movie to be created – the cinematic universe of Kevin Feige‘s box office-conquering superheroes has been creatively rocky. Sure, they’re still bringing in considerable bank, but the audience enthusiasm has seriously waned in the wake of too many cooks in the kitchen, and their served dishes proving underwhelming in taste and presentation; the most recent offering – Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania – leaving a sour, lingering taste.
Thank the creative heavens above then that James Gunn understands both his assignment and that changing the expectations of Marvel narratives is a welcome trajectory. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a movie with emotional stakes, the likes of which haven’t been evoked since Thanos snapped his fingers and erased half of the heroes we had always assumed were safe fodder within their own movies.
In a genre that so many still think is for, for lack of a better collective term, children, Gunn is acutely aware that maturity resonates throughout, and that it’s the older audiences that are actually the demographic that benefit from the changing nature of stories that thrive on spectacle but succeed on their human interaction. The director has already proven his worth in framing what were essentially B-grade side characters initially as comedic and physical forces to be reckoned with in both Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel – and then on a larger, more violently chaotic level in opposing DC studio actioner The Suicide Squad – and it only made sense that he would be summoned once more (with feeling) for the final outing of these particular Guardians for Volume 3.
As is the case with the majority of Marvel movies, plot specifics will be kept to a minimum, and though this third outing does operate with the mentality that audiences have seen the previous two films, are aware of certain actions that took place throughout Infinity War and Endgame, and have maybe seen the Holiday Special, it doesn’t require an extensive dive into the fodder of fiction that has so far made up the MCU. What’s most important to know is that Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is no longer the Gamora that was so beloved by her fellow Guardians – especially Chris Pratt‘s Peter Quill – as the “original” iteration perished and an alternate timeline version has taken her place. She likes her cohorts well enough, but the lived-in experiences of her altering version are not shared and she’d much rather wreak havoc as a crime-minded Ravager.
Gamora’s challenging relationship with Peter and the other Guardians – Nebula (Karen Gillan), her sister, Drax (Dave Bautista, once again a comedic delight as the literal straight-shooter), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Kraglin (Sean Gunn), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) – allows Gunn’s script to indulge in certain conflict throughout, but they’re all afforded their own arc; the film truly leaning into the nature of what it is to be a rounded ensemble picture.
As they all seem to search for their own purpose, it’s Rocket’s history and state of being that ultimately drives Volume 3. Rocket’s brutal history has been mentioned in the previous films, and Gunn has stated how much he has wanted to tell the character’s story in a more definitive nature since the original. Tell it he does, and how. Again, straying from specifics, Rocket’s background as to how he was created is the darkest the MCU have ventured in terms of their violent nature and raw emotionality. Young children – the audience that so many parents believe the Marvel films are aimed at – shouldn’t be subjected to much of the play here (the film’s M rating referring to “Intense scenes of violence” should be noted), and if you take issue with cruelty inflicted towards animals – and who doesn’t? – you best be on guard.
And it’s with the expansion of Rocket’s backstory – here presented in flashbacks intercut throughout the movie – that we are introduced to The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), the most sinister and effective villain the MCU has utilised since the aforementioned Thanos. There’s a genuine terror and unpredictability to his nature, something that finally scares us an audience regarding the safety of our heroes. It’s rare that we believe our main characters will meet their doom in action films such as these – we all knew Thor and Ant-Man were making it out of their stories alive, right? – so it’s a further testament to Gunn that he inject such a potentially divisive temperament into his storytelling.
Of course, not every element of Volume 3 is successfully balanced. Whilst Iwuji’s performance is a force of nature, it’s Will Poulter‘s Warlock that has been specifically hyped as the villain to be reckoned with, and though he makes an impact here, it’s not quite as one may expect. Warlock has a more comedic mentality, one that works in the context of the story and the creation of his character – and in tone with how he’s portrayed in the comic source material – but he’s perhaps a casualty of a story that clearly wants to build further worlds regarding his character. That being said, Poulter is a gifted comedic actor and he’s a delight when he’s on screen here.
One of the strongest individual character trilogies within the MCU, Guardians of the Galaxy so spectacularly defied expectation during their inception release period and, in true fashion fitting for their characters (and Gunn’s), emerged victorious. The odds so often against them, there’s a beautiful irony in that it’s been the more “reliable, staple” characters that have fumbled in moving their stories forward, whilst the outcasts have maintained cohesion and consistency. Whilst Gunn’s moving to spearhead DC is a loss for Marvel, they’ll always have this Galaxy to reference how they got things so right. A course that needed correcting, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a healthy reminder of why we became so invested in these films in the first place.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is now screening in Australian theatres.