Now this is more like it.
Following a mediocre year for Marvel movies, and the recent, disappointing Antman & The Wasp: Quantumania, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is Marvel finally back on top form. With the brightest spectacle, spirit and storytelling you’ve seen since Endgame, this latest outing reminds you why you ever cared about Marvel movies in the first place.
It’s been six long years since we’ve spent time with this particular band of misfits, where their appearances since Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 have been some of the highlights in the Infinity War saga – and certainly the brightest moment in Thor: Love & Thunder. Following on from their wholesome Holiday Special, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 picks up with the team on Knowhere, the gargantuan, severed head of a celestial being.
With all the Christmas decorations tidied away since the Holiday Special (some of the most heartwarming, bright and festive we’ve seen in any Christmas media) it feels like the team have fully settled down here and are somewhat friendly with the locals. To note, while the Holiday special is referenced in this – and a thoroughly enjoyable romp – it’s not a required watch before heading in.
The story kicks in after a short time catching up with our heroes (anti-heroes? Bit of both) and once the pace gears up, it doesn’t come back down. This film continues the theme of loss from recent Marvel entries, sans perhaps Ant-Man. The core story here is the origin of Rocket Raccoon, the subject of, until now, untold horrors at the hands of The High Evolutionary. Chukwudi Iwuji plays this role superbly. He’s intelligent and highly-strung but with a real passion for what he feels is his purpose: to create the ultimate evolutionary specimen. While the character may not be the typical megalomaniac we have come to expect from the MCU, with Thanos and, more recently, Kang the Conqueror, his own despicable motives are set out perfectly as he explains in no uncertain terms: “I’m not trying to conquer the universe. I’m perfecting it.”
Despite the constant barrage of emotional moments in Rocket’s backstory, this also lends it more than its fair share of heart and soul. Fortunately, it balances this with the Guardians’ trademark levity. Thor 4 sorely lacked heart, and levity was glaringly absent from The Multiverse of Madness and Wakanda Forever. While these were all serviceable MCU entries, they never pulled themselves out of “average” territory. Frankly, they were all embarrassed even by the 44-minute Holiday Special. Not that it was ever in doubt, but this really makes us lament the fact that director James Gunn is moving from Marvel to his exclusive role at DC. It’s safe to say his swansong for Marvel is Gunn’s most beautifully, thoughtfully-constructed and fully realised entry to the series.
As expected with the Guardians, we’re whisked to a range of beautifully bizarre environments, from a floating laboratory made of organic matter to a kind of Planet of Dr. Moreaux, where all manner of anthropomorphic animals are living in the High Evolutionary’s “zootopian” society. Both The Guardians’ comics and, surprisingly, the 2021 videogame excelled at showcasing these unique environments and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is no different, thanks to some spectacular work by the effects teams. As an Ant-Man fan, it’s hard to say this, but with VFX this good, Guardians 3 steps on its tiny cousin, having clearly taken the lion’s share of the VFX budget for both films.
With series-best performances from the whole cast, Gunn neatly carves out individual moments between each of them, letting the legacy of his storytelling play out in full. While the story flits between the horrors of Rocket’s past and the peril of his present, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 may not have the same carefree whimsy of the first, nor the multiple-world-ending stakes of the second, but it’s a triumphant, heartfelt send-off for the team that will stay with you beyond the doors of the cinema. The exceptional effects really lean into the comics for inspiration and make the whole effort feel more believable.
Hopefully, the success of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 signals that the MCU is moving out of the post-Endgame doldrums and heralds a new, more positive return to form for the universe. With The Marvels showing early promise from its recent trailer, we’ll have to wait until November to find out.