Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 is the third and (hopefully) final installment of James Gunn’s wild and colourful Guardians saga, and the first Marvel movie I can remember seeing since Endgame (I’ve seen other Marvel movies since then, of course, but this is the first one I can actually remember). The titular Guardians have come a long way since we last saw them properly in Vol. 2 (their standout appearances in the final two Avengers and recent Thor movie notwithstanding) – Peter Quill is still reeling from the loss of Gamora, Rocket Raccoon has settled into something of a leadership role, Nebula is officially one of the gang, and Groot looks like a WWE wrestler with cardboard boxes taped to him (it’s a quaint look that probably serves as a callback to the rubber-suited aliens of classic sci-fi). Everyone is a little calmer, a little wearier, and a little more mature (a little). The plot kicks off with the sudden appearance of superpowered golden boy Adam Warlock, whose destructive attempt to kidnap Rocket at the behest of an old adversary results in him dealing a near-fatal injury to everyone’s favourite anthropomorphic trash panda. Unable to operate on Rocket due to a mysterious kill switch installed in his heart by whoever created him, the Guardians waste no time in setting out to retrieve the deactivation code and save their friend’s life.
Be forewarned – spoilers abound in plenteousness.
First, it’s good to be back in the company of all these characters after a grueling six-year hiatus, during which time Gunn was famously fired by Disney, hired by DC, and then re-hired by Disney when they clued in just who it was they were losing to the competition. Though I should be angrier that my favourite modern science fiction film series was nearly derailed to appease four whole people on Twitter, I can’t complain too much because Disney’s actions inadvertently gave us 2020’s The Suicide Squad, which my enthusiasm for has yet to wane. At any rate, Gunn has finally delivered his promised finale to the best Marvel trilogy to date and closed the book on his wonderfully diverse cast of sci-fi misfits, and lemme tell ya, I stand impressed.
It’s not every director that can make me tear up over a talking raccoon and a humanoid tree, after all.
Like Gunn’s Suicide Squad re-quel, this is a packed film with a large ensemble cast that somehow never feels overstuffed. Whereas the first two Guardians films focused on Quill’s journey and parental issues, Vol. 3 is firmly Rocket’s show, delving into his past and shedding some light on why he’s been a little cantankerous up until now. Through a series of rather grim flashbacks, we learn he was the product of horrific genetic experimentation at the hands of the High Evolutionary, an irredeemably evil scientist with a sophisticated air, a bloated Messiah complex, and a few loose screws rattling around his brain. The sole sources of light in Rocket’s traumatic early years were the friendships he forged with his fellow caged test subjects – Lylla, a maternal otter with cybernetic arms; Teefs, a small walrus who might have been fused with a Tonka truck; and Floor, a bunny rabbit who has no business being that cute, considering she looks like she was designed by Jigaw. It’s a credit both to Gunn and the effects team that they were somehow able to make these furry little abominations adorable, because they’re the genetic equivalent of Sid’s mutant toys from Toy Story. Because they’re baby Rocket’s only friends and make multiple promises to one another to escape their grimy cages and live happily ever after in the sky, we know we’re in for a rough ride.
Damn you, James Gunn. Damn you to hell.
Gunn’s greatest strength as a writer is his ability to take the strangest and most outlandish weirdos from the most obscure comic books you’ve never heard of and make them both relatable and endearing (remember – one of the best characters is a literal tree). The Guardians certainly captured the hearts of audiences back in 2014 for their quirkiness and larger-than-life personalities, but what surprised me most about their 2023 reappearance was how far they’ve developed since we first met them. Peter Quill has thankfully moved past his cocky man-child stage and is a little more grown up (losing the woman you love and almost destroying half the universe will do that to you), as are Rocket and Nebula, who had the benefit of surviving Thanos’ snap in whatever Avengers movie that was and finding some personal stability. Drax has mellowed significantly and become something of a middle-aged dad, Mantis is a little more self-assured, and even Kraglin has come into his own as a character. While there are no characters I dislike in these films, my heart truly belongs to Rocket and Nebula – of all the Guardians (who are all broken and emotionally scarred in their own ways), they’ve had the most to overcome and have easily progressed the farthest, setting aside their more violent and self-destructive inclinations and achieving some level of catharsis. For me, they’re the obvious standouts, and it was touching to see how deeply they’ve bonded through their shared losses and experiences. On that note, I liked how the film establishes more of a rapport between Nebula and Quill as well, with another character even pointing out that she currently embodies everything he once loved about Gamora. As someone who was never a fan of the unearned Quill/Gamora romantic pairing in Vol. 2, I appreciated that Gunn didn’t force their relationship here, instead highlighting the more natural (and largely platonic) chemistry between Quill and Nebula. I also appreciated how the temporally-resurrected Gamora is treated as an entirely new character – Gunn could have easily reintroduced her with all the same personality traits, history, and growth from the first two films, but instead honours her death by setting her apart from the others and giving her a clean slate. Since entering this timeline, she has been on her own path, one that does not involve any of the Guardians her alternate self once knew (some of whom are still mourning the version of her they lost). The film doesn’t shy away from the inherent awkwardness everyone experiences by having a Gamora in the mix who isn’t their Gamora, and the film brings a nice bit of closure to her relationship with Quill by having them acknowledge what was lost before letting each other go (I also thought it was nice how the film establishes that this Gamora has found belonging and a surrogate family of her own with Sylvester Stallone’s group of Ravagers).
As a science fiction writer myself (one whose debut novel, Into the Known Universe, is being released through FriesenPress in January 2024 – woot woot), I’m drawn to these characters because they’re exactly the sorts of characters that I strive to write in my own stories. Even though most of them aren’t human (or even humanoid, for that matter), there is a great deal of humanity in them that makes them appealing, even when they’re snapping at each other. It’s clear by Vol. 3 that they have all grown to genuinely care for one another and set aside their personal histories (I mean, mostly). Though they still undoubtedly bicker, they bicker in the way old friends do who have come to accept one another’s annoyances and idiosyncrasies as a part of the social package (which is different from the more caustic barbs that were exchanged throughout the entirety of Vol. 2, which got old pretty quick). When one of the most powerful scenes in the film involves your hero weeping and sharing a hug with a talking raccoon and a tree-man, you know you’ve truly succeeded in bringing your characters to life. I honestly love these characters, and it’s clear that James Gunn loves them too.
At least, it sure seems that way, because he includes enough slow-mo shots of them walking to rival a Zack Snyder movie.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t devote at least one paragraph to the High Evolutionary, brought to life with seething sadism by Chukwudi Iwuji. Marvel has a poor track record when it comes to its villains – besides Thanos, Loki, and perhaps Ego, few have really stood out as anything more than a garden variety villain-of-the-week. However, between Gunn’s writing and Iwuji’s performance, the High Evolutionary is certainly one of the most memorable baddies to grace this franchise, caught in an endless loop of creating new life forms (usually savagely) and later destroying them with equal savagery for failing to live up to his impossibly perfect standards. General rule of thumb: if you want to generate instant antipathy towards your villain, show them murdering children or – if you really, really want to drive the point home – torturing and mutilating small animals. All the High Evolutionary’s experiments are helpless animals (and children too, we later find out – though thankfully we never see any of them being harmed), and the casual disregard he has for their pain and suffering in the pursuit of creating the ‘perfect’ life form is absolutely chilling (fortunately, Gunn doesn’t depict any of this too graphically). His ultimate Achilles Heel is Rocket, whom he both abhors for being a filthy abomination and stands in awe of for turning out to be his most accomplished work. Unlike his other genetic creations, Rocket evolved into something the High Evolutionary neither anticipated nor understands, and the knowledge that something ‘inferior’ has surpassed him in knowledge and ability practically drives him into insanity. As far as villains go, it’s an effective direction and a breath of fresh air, difficult as his actions are to witness (though at this point, anything is better than villains with boilerplate revenge or conquest schemes).
The only character who gets sidelined in all the action is Adam Warlock, who pops in and out of the story so infrequently that I actually kept forgetting he existed. That being said, I actually kind of liked his portrayal as an overpowered dummy who is far too naïve to be malicious – I just wish we could have seen more of him.
Besides the characters and their arcs, what I appreciated most about GOTGV3 was the story’s smaller scale. Despite the team being called the Guardians of the Galaxy, their goal this time around is saving the life of one of their own, which lends the film a sense of intimacy even the first two lacked. It had a very Star Trek feel to it, harkening back to something like The Search for Spock – they’re not out to save the universe, they’re out to preserve their own little corner of it and everyone they love who occupies it. I’ve long since grown tired of the cataclysmic threats and Armageddon-esque third acts characteristic of these sorts of blockbuster movies, having come to favour the smaller but no less serious stakes that stem from more personal conflicts (one of the things I loved most about The Suicide Squad was the film’s respect for collateral damage and the threat posed to a single Central American island).
If I had a complaint, it’s that I really wish these films had a unique score of their own instead of relying on musical cues from the Avengers movies – considering Gunn invests so much time and energy in curating great soundtracks (which this time around includes the Beastie Boys, Radiohead, Springsteen, and Heart), I can’t help but feel that a score akin to Star Wars would really make these films stand out, at least atmospherically.
Though hardly perfect (but what films are?), Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 is an emotional, well-executed swansong for this series and a heartfelt sendoff for both its characters and Gunn, who has officially converted to DC. Though it saddens me to think that we’ll likely never see this team again, it warms my heart to know that we’ve left them in a good place.
No caption required.
Anyway, if you loved the Guardians of the Galaxy films as much as I did and are hungry for more sci-fi adventure fun, why not check out my book next January? It’s called Into the Known Universe: A Cosmic Love Story, Kinda, and it’s being released through FriesenPress in early 2024. It doesn’t include a talking raccoon or a tree, but it has other characters in it that really pop!
End shameless plug.
P.S. – I did have a chuckle at the mid-credits scene, which depicts Rocket and a new team of Guardians preparing to defend a small village from a stampede of ravenous creatures. After two hours of hammering in how barbaric animal cruelty is and showing our characters making concerted efforts to save animals from destruction, the mid-credits scene inexplicably has them preparing to mow down some different animals. I think the irony might have been lost on the creative team.
P.P.S – did I mention I have a book coming out?