In the geeky corners of movie fandom, one hears legend of the odd-numbered Star Trek curse. It is said that the odd-numbered films in the series cannot hold a candle to the weaker even-numbered counterparts. With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3, director James Gunn subverts that space-opera curse. He delivers as strong an odd-numbered entry in his MCU trilogy as his original. This leaves the ill-conceived Volume 2 as the dark mark on his time with Marvel. From the missteps in that second entry, and perhaps upon reflection of his sojourn from the studio, Gunn has improved on nearly every aspect of the predecessor to conclude with a film that is emotionally resonant, dynamically exciting, and visually repugnant (in a good way).
A failed attempt to abduct Rocket Raccoon (voiced again by Bradley Cooper) leaves him mortally wounded. The rest of the Guardians must race to find a way to save their friend. This journey reunites Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) with the variant Gamora (Zoe Saldana) that left him after Endgame. Aiding them are regulars Nebula (Karen Gillan), Drax (Dave Bautista), Groot (Vin Diesel), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Meanwhile, Cosmo the Space Dog (Maria Bakalova) and Kraglin (Sean Gunn) stay behind to lead the Guardians’ base Knowhere. Through flashbacks, the audience sees Rocket’s backstory at the hands of the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a maniacal perfectionist with a God complex.
Unlike the previous entries, the story here is straightforward. Gunn wisely chooses to focus the attention on the core group of Guardians through a plot that mostly keeps them from separating. What makes any team-up work is the camaraderie and banter between the members. By these means, Gunn could trim the fat and let his cast play off one another. Each character is awarded growth and dimension that had been lacking in previous installments. Bautista especially can transform Drax from the doofus that has appeared before into something more than simply a caricature. Given the actor’s vocal displeasure at the handling of Drax in the past, this improvement is even more fulfilling. With the exception of Will Poulter’s new addition Adam Warlock, nothing about the team or actors’ performances seem forced.
The other joy of a team of heroes working together is the potential for dynamic action beats, and Gunn again capitalizes on that choice. In particular, a single-shot hallway fight that calls back to Netflix’s Daredevil series is among the best fight scenes not just in the Guardians trilogy but the MCU as a whole. We finally get a sense that this group of ragtag a-holes is a team rather than a collective of loosely like-minded individuals.
However, as exciting as the action is, nothing present here meets the originality of the original. This is one of the film’s few disappointments, as the shock of Groot clearing a squad of henchmen or the visual awe of the Nova Core skynet in the first film leaves a lasting impression. To be clear, the action is excellently shot, but because it is more generic, it feels like a letdown.
Instead, the visuals that will stick with the audience after the credits roll will be far less pleasant. Gunn displays his signature fascination with fleshy…things throughout the film. Particularly an organic space station may leave some audiences repulsed. However, the cruelty the High Evolutionary displays in gruesome, gory detail will certainly do more for animal rights activism than PETA ever could. Sid from Toy Story’s grotesque creations walked so the High Evolutionary’s animal test subjects could run. It’s uncomfortable to watch and look at but also serves as some of the film’s most poignant scenes. To perfectly thread a strong ecological message through a comic book movie takes both guts and skill. Gunn has demonstrated that he has both.
Ultimately, Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3 is a strong film. Gunn takes the vastness of space to craft an intimate portrayal of found family. The single-minded plot allows the characters to breathe and grow in ways that the overstuffed Volume 2 didn’t. This, in turn, allows several of the cast to give franchise best performances, particularly Bautista. Gunn’s script is emotional, and he allows the humor to come naturally this time. Though the action lacks the originality displayed in past entries, what is on display here is thrilling and fun. The cast and director have been explicit that this is the final ride for this particular line-up, and if so, fans are awarded a fitting end to Gunn’s trilogy.