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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 review: a satisfying conclusion to James Gunn’s MCU trilogy

'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3' Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) with a serious look on his face, while wearing a red and black costume.
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is an overstuffed, yet emotional sendoff to James Gunn's beloved trilogy dedicated to chosen families.”
  • Rocket's emotional origin story
  • A visual upgrade for the MCU
  • An improvement over Phase Five's first film
  • Overlong
  • Overstuffed
  • Unremarkable villain

The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase Four marked a creative turning point after the Infinity Saga’s epic conclusion. Phase Five introduced the Multiverse Saga, which provided hot-ticket directors with the opportunity to inject their own style into the expansive superhero franchise. Chloé Zhao’s Eternals and Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder hit a divisive note, while Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever earned praise for their respective approaches. Next, Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania put the saga into deep water with a dreadful first installment to Phase Five.

All eyes are on James Gunn and his ability to close out his tenure in the MCU with a bang in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, as he has more on the line than his franchise legacy. Comic book movie fans are also evaluating how he concludes this era of his career, as Gunn now co-heads DC Studios along with Peter Safran. He was never the type of filmmaker to play it safe, extending back to his Troma days.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a Gunn retrospective of sorts, compiling his squirmy body horror and winking sense of humor into an emotional package that aims to do right by the ragtag misfits that audiences came to know and love. He packs a lot into an ambitious 150-minute runtime, interweaving light and dark tones to mostly positive results. The Guardians still have their comedic bond intact in what is surely one of the gloomiest MCU entries yet.

Gunn’s third Guardians film isn’t his best franchise entry, but it’s a substantial step up from Phase Five’s unfortunate introduction. The MCU magic isn’t what it once was, but Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a solid conclusion to a rather consistent trilogy that sincerely wants only the best for its charming ensemble. This sequel is overlong, overstuffed, and tonally inconsistent, but it still rouses all of the pivotal feelings that any MCU viewer is looking for.

Rocket’s origin story

'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3' Baby Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) with a sad look on his face.
Marvel Studios Image used with permission by copyright holder

The opening Marvel logo makes it clear that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is focused on its titular group, rather than the ever-growing multiverse, as it replaces the flashing images contained within each letter with the Guardians themselves. Gunn opens on caged baby raccoons with petrified looks in their eyes, while an ominous hand reaches in to grab one of the cowering creatures with malice. This is the beginning of Rocket’s (Bradley Cooper) origins that gave the world the endearingly snarky genius. However, the memories to follow compose of the inescapable nightmares that Rocket could never break free from.

Fade into present-day Knowhere, where Rocket broods among an emotionally fractured superhero team to Radiohead’s Creep. A drunken Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), also called Star-Lord, mourns over his love, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), after her 2014 variant appears in the modern day without any memory of her fellow Guardians. Meanwhile, Drax (Dave Bautista), Groot (Vin Diesel), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Nebula (Karen Gillan) join forces to put the community back together. In flies the powerful Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), whose clash with the Guardians leaves Rocket in critical condition. The team will have to travel to the raccoon’s most painstaking memories to restore his health before it’s too late.

Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 | Turn It Up

The Guardians realize they know very little about Rocket, discovering that the cruel High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) created him. However, he refuses to allow Rocket his freedom, unleashing all of the tricks up his sleeve to capture his invention for his own villainous plans that risk countless lives.

Star-Lord was at the forefront of the two previous installments, and he’s still the glue that holds the group together in several ways. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 emphasizes how each member is an outsider of sorts, but that they each play an instrumental role in this chosen family. Gunn occasionally plays his MCU exit a bit too safe, still relying on a familiar third-act CGI light show and tempered stakes. Nevertheless, his affection for these characters is deeply felt, which translates into an overall enjoyable actioner.

Tugging on the heartstrings

'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3' Nebula (Karen Gillan), Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), and Drax (Dave Bautista) wearing black and red uniforms, walking along a metal ship hallway.
Marvel Studios Image used with permission by copyright holder

The first two installments of the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy had a zany sense of humor mixed with moments of heavy sentimentality, such as Star-Lord’s connection to family. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is all about the unresolved traumas that loomed beneath the surface of the two prior films, with Rocket’s origin story at the forefront. Nevertheless, other ensemble members face identity issues, weaving a common, unspoken thread that finally comes to a head. In the face of Rocket’s mortal danger, the Guardians’ banter remains mostly intact. Drax and Mantis’ shenanigans from The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special translate into this sequel, giving Bautista and Klementieff more breadth for their sincere interactions, which range from silly to moving.

The antagonist doesn’t fare quite as well. The High Evolutionary is a savage villain that earns every ounce of hatred from the audience through his reprehensible inhumanity, but he’s no more memorable than the typical MCU antagonist. Iwuji plays this character with an over-the-top performance that only further highlights the character’s hollow presence. Meanwhile, Poulter’s debut as the long-awaited Warlock is welcome, although it’s a very minor, underutilized role.

Nebula carries Star-Lord's limp body in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
Marvel Studios

Gunn approaches Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 as a farewell piece, rather than an open-ended prompt for another filmmaker to pick up the slack. As a result, there isn’t much attention paid to fresh supporting characters, antagonists, or worldbuilding. It’s refreshing to see the Guardians be the stars, rather than serving as a vehicle to ramp into the next chapter of the multiverse. Casual MCU moviegoers won’t connect with it on the same level as dedicated viewers, who committed the time to develop feelings for the team of misfits.

Marvel’s increase in production across its feature films and Disney+ series had diminishing returns, which also became apparent in the visuals that appeared on the screen. Fortunately, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 boasts cleaner CGI than many of its franchise predecessors, especially when it comes to bringing its furry creatures to life. Rocket’s backstory is particularly impactful thanks to wonderfully expressive creatures that communicate waves of emotion and empathy.

A solid final bow from James Gunn’s MCU run

Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 | New Trailer

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 won’t convert MCU non-believers, as it still embraces many of the long-running franchise’s tropes and storytelling techniques, for better and worse. Gunn’s farewell is aimed at fans who developed a bond with these characters since their introduction. It’s a step down from the first Guardians movie, although it’s an improvement on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The trilogy wrap-up is the solid installment that Phase Five needed after the muddled Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.

Gunn has a robust understanding of the superhero landscape, but most importantly, he knows that the oddball ensemble is his trilogy’s primary currency. There are plenty of CGI creatures and explosions, yet the action is ultimately the least compelling part of it all. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 concludes Gunn’s trilogy on a positive note, reminding us why we ever fell in love with this band of misfits, and giving us even more reasons to look back on their journey with fondness.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is now playing in theaters nationwide. For more info about the movie, please read Who dies at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Is there a post-credits scene in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3?

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Jeff Nelson
Jeff Nelson is a Los Angeles-based film critic and writer, with bylines at Showbiz Cheat Sheet, Screen Rant, and…
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