James Gunn and the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise always felt out of sync with the MCU. Despite featuring prominent characters with close ties to Thanos, the Guardians occupied a more violent and comedic corner of the franchise. Nevertheless, Gunn’s vision remains the only one to fully work within the MCU, as he could serve both MCU masters and tell unique stories within his framework. After a time away from Marvel (because of bad faith protests), Gunn concludes his trilogy with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. With the director off to the DC Universe, he delivers a thrilling ride. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 delivers the best action in the trilogy to date while also providing its most heartbreaking plot yet.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
(L-R): Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord, Dave Bautista as Drax, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Karen Gillan as Nebula, and Pom Klementieff as Mantis in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

A mysterious gold being, Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), tries to capture Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper) from Knowhere. In the process, he nearly kills him. The rest of the Guardians spring into action. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) must reunite with a variant of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to get the help Rocket needs. Meanwhile, Nebula (Karen Gillan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Drax (Dave Bautista) struggle to come together without Rocket to bind them. As the Guardians try to save their friend, an evil being known as The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) attempts to capture Rocket for “scientific” research.

Gunn brings some of his best storytelling impulses to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, allowing the cast to shine throughout. While “separating” rarely occurs, he creates smaller moments for pairs and trios to work through their baggage. To further pull out dramatic tension, we are treated to Rocket’s flashbacks. These are enlightening moments, showing the true villainy of the High Evolutionary. They also help us understand why Rocket is…well, Rocket. The number of ideas and storylines in Vol. 3 leaves it slightly bloated, but it’s quite fun.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Zoe Saldana as Gamora in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

Cooper stands out with his vocal performance (with an assist from Sean Gunn’s Mo-Cap). The two create a holistic performance that’s among the best in the MCU. Its physicality is nuanced, and Gunn’s VFX brings a level of realism unseen in this universe. Considering the story’s emotional weight and what it needs to accomplish, this was no easy task. Yet Rocket has never been better or made more sense. Rocket already bordered as the lead of this franchise, but Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 confirms he’s been the heartbeat all along.

Iwjui steps out of Gunn’s Peacemaker series and immediately proves to be the secret sauce of Vol. 3. He blows the Guardians off the screen in most sequences and quickly emerges as one of the most upsetting villains to date. Like Kang in Loki, he wants to achieve perfection. Yet at the same time, his methods are shockingly more violent and vile. While we heard tales of Thanos’ villainy but rarely saw it enacted. Even the characters acknowledge The High Evolutionary is a sociopath beyond anything they’ve ever seen.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
(L-R): Miriam Shor as Recorder Vim, Chukwudi Iwuji as The High Evolutionary, and Nico Santos as Recorder Theel in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo by Jessica Miglio. © 2023 MARVEL.

Iwuji makes The High Evolutionary every bit as menacing as one would expect and even more insidious than you can imagine. He spews hate through facts, and his complete disregard for free will is venomous. Gunn’s depiction and Iwjui’s performance make this a top-five villain in the MCU to date.

However, the tied background between the High Evolutionary and Rocket will push some to a place they are not ready to go. For Gunn, it’s a massive swing that makes a compelling political argument about the worth of a life. Yet it will be a harsh awakening for audiences unprepared for such atrocities. It’s admirable that a comic book movie so clearly pushes its perspective because very few of these ever depict a vision so clearly. Yet Gunn’s earned the right to end his trilogy on his terms.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
(L-R): Teefs (voiced by Asim Chaudry), Lylla (voiced by Linda Cardellini), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Fllor (voiced by Mikela Hoover) in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

Despite the number of visual effects on display, Gunn remains a wonderfully tactile filmmaker. Beyond Rocket, there are dozens of fully CG characters, but they actually look good (unlike Quantumania earlier this year). The makeup on The High Evolutionary, his acolytes, and the incredible number of creatures stun. It’s one of the strongest aspects of these films again, and the sheer number of complex characters created feels like a throwback to Rick Baker’s work on Men in Black. The cinematography takes a step forward, the color correction looks good, and the visuals are wonderful. The soundtrack might be the weakest in the trilogy to date, but framing the music as diegetic sound adds to its uniqueness.

The rest of the performances are remarkable, as usual. Pratt’s at his best in this franchise, while Bautista and Gillan stun with their emotional arcs. Klementieff delivers the most emotionally resonant performance from the main cast, and she becomes the much-needed empathy machine for the group. Newcomers to the series (on the big screen) include another hilarious vocal performance by Maria Bakalova and Poulter’s hilarious turn as a man-baby God. Linda Cardellini‘s vocal turn stuns as well.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Cosmo (voiced by Maria Bakalova) in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

For the MCU to have a three-film arc that features only high-quality entries is rare. Gunn puts Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 in elite company, making for some incredible moments. This one has some all-time scenes and action set pieces for the MCU, so it will not be forgotten anytime soon. Vol. 3 succeeds because it is the most intimate and emotional film. It’s an excellent farewell for Gunn, whose thought and love for these characters was apparent throughout their journey.

Alan’s Rating: 8/10

What do you think of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3? Let us know in the comments below! Watch Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 in theaters on May 3rd, 2023.

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