Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 was not the movie I expected it to be.
For one, it is much darker and somber in tone than the other two volumes in James Gunn’s trilogy. Sure, there are some laughs and humorous moments sprinkled throughout, but this film also has elements of horror and violence that are much more intense than what we’ve seen in the MCU so far. The story is less a lighthearted action/adventure romp and more an exploration of the trauma these characters have experienced in the past, with an emphasis on Rocket’s heartbreaking backstory.
To be honest, I’m still working through how I feel about this film. Unlike the first two Guardians films, I don’t know that I’ll be returning to see this one twice in theaters. Some of the subject matter hit me harder emotionally than I was prepared for, and I’ll probably wait till Disney+ for my second viewing. (A warning for animal lovers: there are definitely some scenes in this movie that will be very difficult to watch; I know I definitely had tears in my eyes at a few parts.)
Overall the writing maybe wasn’t as strong as in the other two Guardians films, and the plot doesn’t always feel as cohesive. It meanders a bit, and there are a lot of pieces in play. Yet setting all that aside, what James Gunn does provide is moments of genuine emotion that remind us why we fell so deeply in love with these characters in the first place. The galaxy may see them as broken misfits, but Gunn shows them as brave heroes and fighters. Yes, they have their character flaws, but doesn’t everyone? The Guardians are a tightly-bonded found family who care about each other and about the other people and creatures in the galaxy who feel rejected or helpless. And the MCU is better because the Guardians are in it.
The strongest part of this film – and its heart – is Rocket and the revelation of his backstory. While I don’t normally like to give spoilers, it is important to note that there are some pretty graphic scenes of animal abuse in this film. We already knew that Rocket was a technologically modified raccoon, but it’s horrifying to witness what all that meant. The villain – the High Evolutionary – created Rocket as part of his twisted experiments on both animals and people in his efforts to build a “perfect utopia.” He’s a bad guy – a really, really bad guy – and I can’t remember the last time a Marvel villain made me feel this angry. Rocket does get his moment of healing and triumph at the end of the film, which was good to see, but the journey to get there is very emotionally taxing.
Rocket’s not the only Guardian who is struggling in this film. Peter is still broken after losing Gamora and then getting her back, only to discover that alternate Gamora doesn’t have the same connection to him. Nebula is (maybe?) developing feelings for Peter, even though he is still very obviously in love with her sister.
We also get the introduction of famous MCU character Adam Warlock. He’s more brawn than brain, though I say that with affection because I enjoy his character (especially his animal sidekick) and hope to see him more in the MCU.
I’m going to go ahead and dive into some spoilers here, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, be warned!
As mentioned earlier, this film was more somber than I was prepared for, but I’m glad that Gunn decided not to kill off any of the Guardians. I think that would have been too much, and would have actually taken away from the emotional arc that Rocket experiences in this movie. (I don’t think the film needed Peter’s almost death at the end, where he’s saved by Adam Warlock.)
The film’s two heavy-hitting moments of tragedy (and the two parts where I cried) are the deaths of Rocket’s modified friends – Lylla, Floor, and Teefs – in the High Evolutionary’s lab, and then the moment where he is close to death and catches a glimpse of those friends again in the afterlife. (Darn you, Gunn; he’s the MCU director who has most consistently made me cry in this franchise.)
The acting was really good in this film, I thought, with all the performers bringing their A game. The special effects were very good too, with some definite wow moments (such as where the world Knowhere shows up to help in the final battle, and that hallway fight scene featuring all the Guardians at the end).
The film’s ending is bittersweet, with several of the Guardians parting ways. It was sad to see the band break up, as it were, but as the MCU is heading in new directions, I think it made sense, especially since some of the actors are ready to move on to other projects. The MCU can still pick up some of these characters and feature them in future projects, and the end credits sequence promised us that “The Legendary Star-Lord” will return.
Like I said before, I’m still trying to work out how I ultimately feel about this film, and I think that’s OK. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 was not a safe film; it took chances and creative risks, and I respect that. It’s a shame Gunn is departing the MCU, but I have every confidence he’s going to do great things in the DC cinematic universe.