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NOC Review: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’ is James Gunn’s Marvel Magnum Opus

(L-R): Pom Klementieff as Mantis, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord, Dave Bautista as Drax, Karen Gillan as Nebula in Marvel Studios' Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2022 MARVEL.

What an incredible journey it has been for the galaxy’s favorite a-holes! But all good things must come to an end, be it an Infinity Saga or a cosmic journey about a dysfunctional family of losers who band together to win each other (and the audience) over.

And Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 represents the end of the journey that filmmaker James Gunn and the whole cast of galactic misfits started back in 2014. So how does it end for our heroes? In the most visually stunning and emotional way imaginable.

This will serve as a point of contention for most, but I found Vol. 3 to be the best entry in a series that has been, dare I say it, consistently stellar. From the moment we first met these characters, they have been inherently seen through the lens of Gunn, and little else. And that has proven most beneficial, not just for the individual films themselves, but also to the MCU as a whole, offering a tone and dialogue that only Gunn is capable of achieving, and a sense of identity in the filmmaking not seen in the average MCU film. Thus it’s only fitting that Gunn sees the franchise through to the end. And as such, he is able to mature the narrative in a way that feels earned because we know and love these characters as much as he does (though perhaps arguably he loves them more?) The result is a chapter that is a lot more somber and yet, also more hopeful, than the previous installments that came before it.

Pom Klementieff as Mantis, Dave Bautista as Drax, and Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord, and Karen Gillan as Nebula in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

The storyline, for this one is actually a lot more personal and smaller scale than something that you’d find in your typical comic book fare. While, the first two installments dealt with protecting the galaxy from utter destruction, this one is simply about a family trying to protect one of its own from a sudden death. The action begins with our introduction of Adam Warlock, and an attack on Knowhere. The ambush critically injures one of the Guardians, and the rest of the movie spends the full runtime with the crew, desperately racing against time to save them. The quest to do this weaves in several flashbacks about the High Evolutionary, Rocket’s origins, and the ultimate dance off face off at the end.

It may sound simple, but that actually makes the movie a lot better. We’ve seen a million and a half “protect-the-galaxy-from-utter-destruction” movies and Gunn knows this. So by scaling back on the physical stakes and playing up the emotional stakes, Gunn is able to tell a story that feels refreshing, yet poignant, but no less urgent. And that’s because of the fine work he’s done connecting us with these characters the past nine years. We know these characters inside and out, and we’ve watched them grow and evolve (no pun intended). So in essence the tragedy the Guardians are feeling is akin to our own. And that’s the brilliant part of why we’re so invested in this story, and why it feels so personal.

(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.

*Starting now, I’ll be going into deeper spoilers for the movie so if you want to be surprised, stop reading and come back after you’ve seen Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.*

The emotion — the big beating heart of this movie — is exactly why it’s the best of the three films. Vol. 3 is the payoff to the personal journeys each and every single one of these characters has been on. So to track the evolution of one character from the first movie to the third, and see how far they’ve come, makes Vol. 3 all the more touching. For instance, seeing Nebula’s incredibly protective nature over Rocket is not something that comes out of nowhere. She went from an uncaring, unflinching killing machine with Thanos-trauma, and without a true family, to the most competent member of a different family she actually truly cares about. We see her smile and laugh now. And the five years she spent with Rocket while everyone else was snapped out of existence were crucial because they were all each other had. So for her to defend Rocket’s life against her own (pseudo-) sister makes a great deal of sense and creates so much emotion that we, the audience, will understand even if 2014 Gamora won’t.

And ultimately it’s little moments like this that define the movie and endear us to it so strongly. In some ways a microcosm of why we fell in love with these characters and Gunn’s filmmaking throughout this trilogy to begin with. And while I used Nebula as an example, Gunn doesn’t shortchange any single one of his ensemble. And that’s also something rare and incredible when it comes to franchise filmmaking. Gunn has crafted a movie where every single character has a pronounced arc that pays tribute to what came before, while also ensuring growth throughout this two-hour installment as well. For instance, Nebula finds herself questioning Drax’s purpose in the group, and learning that characters have more to offer even if they’re not the smartest. Mantis has to find the strength in herself to not be defined by the demands of others. Star-Lord has to not only get past his grief of losing Gamora, but also learns it’s time for him to gain the courage to confront his own origins, just as Rocket does throughout this film. Gamora goes on a journey with these characters where she learns what it’s like to be a true family, but without rehashing her beats from the first film. Even Kraglin and Cosmo the Dog get fun and heartfelt arcs in this film.

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

And in addition to the growth, every single one of them also gets an exciting action moment to truly make them shine on the screen as well. All of this comes together to create a symphony of well balanced, well written storytelling and character development we haven’t seen in most blockbuster movies these days. Even the first two movies, while well written and still terrific, with fantastic moments of character growth, were admittedly primarily centered around Star-Lord. This movie truly feels like it’s centered on the Guardians collectively. And given it’s the final call for these characters, it’s necessary.

The ensemble realizes this and has upped their game as well, delivering some of the finest performances we’ve ever seen them give as these characters in any of the six films we’ve seen them in. Chris Pratt continues to do terrific work as Peter Quill, showcasing the range between charm, grief, and action hero that initially attracted us to him in Vol 1. Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan are also spectacular, with the latter exhibiting a more balanced performance with more humor and heart than we’ve ever seen in her performance as Nebula in past installments. And wonderfully so, Gunn has given much more screentime and purpose to Bautista’s Drax and Klementeiff’s Mantis than he has in the previous two films. They’re hilarious! But also badass! There’s a notable scene where Drax single handedly holds down Adam Warlock formidably for several minutes, along with a tender scene showcasing the paternal side of himself that we haven’t had a chance to experience until now. Mantis has several incredible moments, showcasing the true power that exists both through her empathic abilities, as well as her internal strength. And Bautista and Klementieff absolutely shine in these moments. Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel’s vocal work is also amazing, with Cooper providing a touching, tortured, layered performance.

Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

Newcomers to the franchise are also wonderful. Admittedly, Maria Bakalova’s Cosmo and Will Poulter’s Warlock are great additions, but get the least amount to do in this movie. We get to see Cosmo do some crazy things with her telekinetic abilities. And we do get to see how powerful and useful a character like Warlock could be as a part of the MCU. But admittedly their arcs are muted in favor of the larger team’s. And that’s okay, since this is their final movie, and their franchise overall. Of the newcomers, however, it’s Chukwudi Iwuji’s High Evolutionary that steals the show. Iwuji performance is absolutely dastardly. There’s nothing redeeming about this monster, and that’s the point. We’re given a stellar Shakespearean-level performance, but Gunn makes it clear he’s a straight up chaotic evil we are supposed to root against. And it’s been a while since we’ve seen this level of nefarious in any comic book movie. And the level of menace we get from him ultimately allows us to root for the Guardians to beat his ass down, leading to several cheer-worthy moments in the film’s climax.

Speaking of which, the action in this installment is the best we’ve seen in the franchise. The highlight being a climactic, cinematic “single take” scene of the Guardians battling their way across an army of mutant hybrids set to Beastie Boys. Now I know a lot has been written of John Wick Chapter 4′s action. And with good cause. But for my money, this specific scene, focusing on what each of the Guardians brings to the table in a battle ranks as my favorite action sequence of the year. There’s a really cool scene as well of Star-Lord and Groot battling against many of the High Evolutionary’s men upon a ship evacuating from an exploding planet. And the terrific introduction of Warlock as well.

(L-R): Will Poulter as Adam Warlock and Elizabeth Debicki as Ayesha in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo by Jessica Miglio. © 2023 MARVEL.

Now the action beats are more sporadic than your average comic book movie, and with good cause. Gunn’s first priority is ensuring the characters end up right where they need to be. And as such, much of the movie is rooted in intriguing drama, character exploration, and relationships. Learning all about Rocket’s origins, hard as it may seem, is incredibly rewarding, as it fleshes out one of the best characters in the MCU end-to-end. The entire situation also amps up the emotional impact for this movie, with several scenes that will absolutely tug at your heartstrings; particularly scenes involving Rocket’s first family. The very difference but also the similarities between both of his families is something the film touches on and it is so incredibly moving. As I said the little moments of these characters feeling loss, going through rough times, but persisting and expressing their love for one another is something so positive and hopeful that you can’t help but feel so good when the final frame of this movie fades to black.

From a visual standpoint, this movie is so incredibly gorgeous to look at. Gunn’s imagery has become more and more admirable with every single project he’s done. From 2021’s The Suicide Squad to now Volume 3, not a single frame in this movie is wasted. Everything is a work of art. From the unique aesthetics of an organic corporate planet, to basic shots of the heroes just staring into the void of a gorgeous technicolor space, the cinematography in this one is out-of-this-world. It’s never boring, and neither are Gunn’s aesthetic ideas. The costume design for the space suits, and even the High Evolutionary’s costume, as well as the production design and make up effects of Counter-Earth (a planet just like Earth but inhabited by animal-hybrids) and its citizens are just so impressive. I really love the use of practical makeup effects to create the different species we get throughout this film; including Iwuji’s High Evolutionary prosthetics. On the whole it’s probably the most gorgeous looking installment in the franchise, and it’s thanks to these brilliant ideas from Gunn.

Lylla (voiced by Linda Cardellini) in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

If there is one complaint about the movie that I have, it’s that the ending feels a bit rushed. While nothing feels unearned — everything is perfectly executed — I still feel like I could have used a bit more time in the final act to extend certain plot points a bit further. I think people complain about runtimes a lot, but five to 10 extra minutes of character motive would have been great here. I mean if we get 45 minutes of pointlessness in John Wick Chapter 4 why cant we get 10 minutes here to make the emotional gut punch even deeper? But that’s a nitpick that honestly doesn’t affect my score much

I mean how could something like that affect me, when the terrific story, emotions, characters, and action are complimented by such a wonderful soundtrack? Once again, in addition to being a master filmmaker, Gunn proves himself to be an expert at facilitating well executed needle drops. Vol. 3′s soundtrack goes beyond the Mo Town hits of the first film, and makes the transition to more modern classics which work equally as well in the terrific situations playing out on screen. They’re joyous, but as always, define both the characters of Quill and Rocket so beautifully. The music has, and always will be, central to telling the story of these characters and endearing them to us. And the soundtrack for this installment is no different.

(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.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is arguably the best film James Gunn has ever crafted for Marvel Studios; and that includes the legendary first installment that’s often cited as one of the best comic book films ever made. Vol. 3 is an absolute feast for the eyes, the ears, and the heart. The ensemble gives their best performances in these roles. And as we send off these characters into the forever, that beautiful sky, we can’t help but get weepy eyed saying goodbye to, perhaps, the most fleshed out, interesting, and relatable ensemble of superheroes put to screen. I know I’ll be missing these a-holes a great deal.

Overall Score: A

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 hits theaters this Friday, May 5!

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