Guardians of the Galaxy have long been the under-appreciated Marvel gang of underdogs (now including an actual dog in Cosmo, played by Oscar nominee Maria Bakalova), that, against all odds, have formed a surprising trilogy of films that can all be put amongst the enduring enterprises very best. The three films are simple, emotional, and dynamic in ways that are becoming increasingly rare in the MCU – largely off the back of filmmaker James Gunn’s writing and directing style – but a great portion of credit should be given to their strong ensembles and creative art and production designs.
It’s been 6 years since the last stand-alone Guardians adventure, with Gunn being immensely busy in the interim. He has switched allegiances from Marvel to DC, first with his own The Suicide Squad (2021) film alongside a John Cena TV show, and now operating as the franchise’s own Kevin Feige overlord, beginning with his own Superhero rebirth story set for 2025.
What allows this new instalment, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 (2023), to thrive is its basic retrieval mission with crystal clear stakes, a divergence not just from recent Marvel plots, but from most third entries in franchises. When Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) crashes through Knowhere in a failed attempt to kidnap Rocket (Bradley Cooper) for mysterious reasons, resulting in significant injuries, the remaining Guardians must go back through his past in order to save their friend’s life. Where Volume 2 (2017) narrowed its focus to Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt, who is at his best here) backstory with his family, Volume 3 smartly focuses on the origins of Rocket Racoon. Cooper’s Rocket has always been the hipster pick for best performance in the MCU, and he is given an interesting role here as the tech genius Racoon is shown mostly in flashback for the film’s runtime, slowly becoming the grizzled vet we know today. Volume 2 excelled in the tertiary moments between Rocket and Michael Rooker’s Yondu, a formula Volume 3 follows similarly in this flashback origin structure.
Music has always been a heavy focus of the Guardians story from the 80s Yacht Rock focus of the first two films (with Peter’s beloved cassette player), to the introduction of the Zune player in Volume 3, allowing the film to have a distinct 90s flavour. Opening with a wonderful sequence on Knowhere with an acoustic version of Radiohead’s Creep, we see Rocket (Bradley Cooper) singing and moving amongst the ragtag community they have cultivated. It is clear that Rocket is now as closely attached to this Earth music as Peter, a connection that has slowly been growing across the three films. Volume 3 is scattered with outstanding music cues from The Flaming Lips, Beastie Boys, and Florence + the Machine, which surprisingly feels more cohesive to the film’s style than the built-in nostalgia of the 80s music that is so integral to the Guardian’s story.
The ensemble has grown to accommodate a few welcome faces, including Will Poulter and Chukwudi Iwuji as Adam Warlock and The High Evolutionary respectively. Poulter’s charming wide eyed emergence into the world as a young celestial is a wonderful inclusion, especially the two hander scenes between Adam and Ayesha (Elizebeth Debiki), which are the comedic highpoint of the film. Debiki’s devolution from a pompous ruler at the beginning of Volume 2 to a desperate lackey to a maniacal boss here showcases the actress’s comedic chops, breathing new life into a character that was previously given little time.
Iwuji does his best 90s action villain impression as twisted experimental scientist The High Evolutionary – the whole movie has a great ongoing Face/Off (1997) bit – that heightens his scenes, making him more enjoyable than recent Marvel villains. The film’s villain storyline closely resembles the arc of X-Men 2 (2003), with Rocket in the Wolverine role and The High Evolutionary in the role of Brian Cox’s William Stryker, the man responsible for his claws through unethical experimentations. With this close resemblance, an audience is able to settle into a familiar story, allowing the emotional stakes to become the focus instead of a convoluted plot that derails too many comic stories.
Where Volume 3 exceeds well above the previous two films is the wildly inventive world-building and production designs. The warm interiors of Knowhere feel like a home to these characters, which garners emotional weight when it gets put in jeopardy. Guardians has always been about its misfit community with Knowhere at its heart, so it is never a chore the film cuts back to the misadventures of the crew on board while the Guardians are away on a mission. But the inclusion of new locations in Volume 3, like the 80s Star Trek-styled organic security hub Orgosphere or Stepford Wives (1972) tinged Counter-Earth, feels wholly unique in the MCU. Gunn’s Guardians trilogy consistently breathes new life into the wider MCU establishment, with Volume 3 coming at a time they need a major kickstart.
Although the Guardians were integral to the plot of the later Avengers films, it is remarkable how cohesive this trilogy of films is when viewed together. Comparatively, the Jon Watts Spider-Man trilogy and Peyton Reed Ant-Man trilogy are tonally jarring when viewed as a collective story, instead being pulled and twisted into the larger MCU puzzle set.
The very best filmmakers to operate within this larger Superhero space have been those that have been able to wrestle with the large enterprise while maintaining their own sensibilities. Ryan Coogler was able to bring his political and empathic filmmaking chops from Fruitvale Station (2013) into his Black Panther films, while Gunn has been able to weave a satisfying and hilarious adventure romp that never lacks bite, qualities that made him such a compelling emerging filmmaker.
Gunn has a penchant for having his characters plainly express their feelings about any situation, which is a creative quirk that takes a while to settle into but can often lead to moments of immense emotionality. Much like Aaron Sorkin’s or Quentin Tarantino’s distinct writing style, Gunn trusts his audience to move to the rhythms of his character’s dialogue to an emotionally satisfying conclusion, accepting the occasional off-notes on the journey.
In spite of its long runtime and simple retrieval plotting, Volume 3 excels through the strong emotional connection that has been made with this world and its characters. Gunn has perfected his emotionally candid dialogue style, with an ensemble of quality performances, highlighted by Cooper, to create the most satisfying Marvel film in years.
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 is in theatres now.