Principal Cast : Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Will Poulter, Sean Gunn, Chukwudi Iwuji, Linda Cardellini, Nathan Fillion, Sylvester Stallone, Elizabeth Debicki, Michael Rosenbaum, Maria Bakalova, Gregg Henry.
Synopsis: Still reeling from the loss of Gamora, Peter Quill rallies his team to defend the universe and one of their own – a mission that could mean the end of the Guardians if not successful.
The third of director James Gunn’s MCU Guardians Of The Galaxy films, and the final one to feature the original roster in the team, Volume 3 boasts their trademark wit, heartfelt emotion and a compelling sense of closure. While the Marvel freight train rolls on, this concluding chapter in one of the studio’s best trilogies puts a full stop on the end of this brand of quirky adventures of our favourite spacefaring adventurers, completing long-running arcs of established characters as well as introducing some fun new ones – notably, Cosmo the Space Dog – and while they might pop up in other films from time to time, it’s moving to see them feature together for one final jaunt. It is, however, quite an uneven turn from the reliable Gunn, who left Marvel for DC between Volume 2 and this one, becoming the new head of DC Films in the interim, meaning Volume 3 is likely the last time he’ll be handling characters under Kevin Feige. Gunn was forced to pick up story threads involving the death of Gamora back in Avengers: Infinity War, her time-displaced twin, and the dissolution of the character’s relationship with Pratt’s earnest yet bumbling Peter Quill, and its this aspect of the end product that doesn’t quite feel as intuitive as everything else the writer-director has touched.
After he’s nearly killed by minions of megalomaniacal scientist the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), Rocket Racoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) flashes back to his early life as a subject of experimentation alongside a trio of other animals, morphed into intelligent beings who recognise their tortured environment. Recognising that the information held by the High Evolutionary is the only way to save their friend, the Guardians, led by Peter Quill (Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Groot (Vin Diesel) and a displaced Gamora (Zoe Saldana) race to the villain’s lair on a mercy dash, only to find their way hobbled by the powerful Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) and the Ravagers, led by Stakar (Sylvester Stallone).
Guardians Volume 3 is a story of two distinct halves. The first, and by far the least interesting, is the continued romantic undertones of the Quill-Gamora story arc that blossomed in the first two films. Gunn, narratively hobbled by the gut-punch death of Gamora in Infinity War before an alternative timeline version was unceremoniously dumped back in our world by the Russo Bros at the end of Endgame, struggles to maintain the bubbling heat between the two characters despite game performances by both Pratt and Saldana, the latter of whom is far too good for this film and this franchise, by this point. Having the carefully constructed romantic tension of the original two films thusly kneecapped by the Russo’s cavalier fanservice scribblings in their climactic Infinity War/Endgame knockout, it would have served Volume 3 a lot better had Gamora simply not been here at all, and the character had stayed dead at the bottom of the cliff in Vormir as a sacrifice of Thanos. This would have made a far more emotional and natural conclusion to our team’s story. Instead, Gunn was forced to deal with a “new’ Gamora who has no history with his team, and who hates Quill, making Pratt’s character have to work doubly hard to provide the spark to incite this plot. Sadly, not even Gunn’s most astute screenwriting skills can manifest the same electricity between the pair as he had going in the first two films.
By contrast the film’s second half, and arguably one of the strongest character beats in the entire MCU save perhaps Steve Rogers or Thanos, is the backstory work granted to Rocket, voiced by Bradley Cooper. Rocket’s history is hitherto unknown within the MCU, although it is alluded to in the previous films, and the way Gunn unwraps the character’s tortured birth and shattering journey to be a part of the Guardians is one that will choke up even the hardest cynic of this ongoing property. Naturally, Rocket’s history is tied deeply into that of the High Evolutionary, a cruel and somewhat insane scientist with incredible power who is hunting Rocket down for his unique brain. The emotional weight of Rocket’s growth from a tragi-comedic character into one of outright catharsis is some of Gunn’s strongest writing to-date (in my opinion) and as he struggles to overcome the torturous life he has as a youngling in the High Evolutionary’s cages, it legitimately brought a tear to my eye. We’re introduced to three new characters; a wheelchair-bound Walrus named Teef (Asim Chaudry), a cybernetically enhanced rabbit named Floor (Mikaela Hoover) and the beautiful and heartfelt hybrid otter Lylla (Linda Cardellini), all of whom band together with Rocket to form a quartet of love amidst the anguish of their incarceration, and despite some twee moments of Gunn’s comedic irony, there’s a lot of weight behind this aspect of the film’s emotional heft.
Less balanced but still enjoyable is the ubiquitous sparring of the remaining Guardians, notably the bickering between Mantis, Drax and Nebula, all of whom have less growth here than in previous films, but all of whom are eminently serviceable. Karen Gillan is a blast as Nebula, while Bautista’s Drax is utilised brilliantly despite never really doing much beyond brute strength attacks and nonsensical literal quips. Will Poulter plays a gold-hued Adam Warlock, one of the super-strong Sovereigns designed by the High Evolutionary, while Sean Gunn parlays his minor supporting turn as Kraglin into a complete replacement to Michael Rooker’s much missed Yondu with terrific effect, and even Nathan Fillion takes on Gunn’s skewed approach to the material with a wonderfully fun role as head of the High Evolutionary’s security forces. Less complimentary things I could say about Volume 3 involve poor Chukwudi Iwuji’s High Evolutionary, a high-pitched screamer of an antagonist who might seem important, but when you stop and think really is just a “villain of the week” archetype, and not a very good one at that. Iwuji’s performance is piercing and annoying in mostly bad ways, but he’s merely giving his best as directed by Gunn – I would argue that the High Evolutionary is a natural fit for the Guardians universe and the arc of our characters, sure, but the way he was written is just ghastly. Everyone has a moment or two to shine, the film moves at a crackling pace, and despite a somewhat unwieldy ensemble approach is faithful to the tone and execution of the previous two films.
Volume 3 does what any great trilogy-ending film has to do. It pays off some well-earned story arcs, gives our characters a great closing send-off, and feels like a natural completion to an ongoing story started all the way back in Volume 1. There’s a lot of callbacks to gags and references of the other films, and the wider MCU as a whole, and Gunn goes for broke with cameos and in-jokes aplenty for the fans. Hell, he even tenuously sets up the next iteration of the Guardians team for the studio, laying the groundwork for the next director to tackle this space madness, with several of our main characters flying off into the sunset (or is that cosmic nebulae?) for the final time. Gunn’s writing is good-to-great in most aspects, but uneven and insufficient in others (Quill/Gamora), making this film feel far less cohesive than anything else the director has done, and that includes his Suicide Squad and Peacemaker projects. The film trades heavily on our affection for these characters and arguably plays up their strengths more than downplaying any weaknesses, and watching Volume 3 is a little like sitting on your favourite couch with your slippers on; comfortable and almost imperceptibly worn in, despite sitting on some crumbs. I really wanted to adore Volume 3 but I didn’t. It’s a strong conclusion for any trilogy, and makes things worthwhile with a load of laughs, tears and comic-book violence, but you get the sense that both Gunn and this cast have done as much with this team as they can.