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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3 ★★★★



Director: James Gunn

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Sean Gunn, Will Poulter, Sylvester Stallone and Chukwudi Iwuji 

Release: May 3rd 2023

No one likes goodbyes. No one is ever ready for it, and yet that is where audiences find themselves with Marvel’s thirty-second film in their grand episodic franchise.

As someone who adored the first Guardians film yet found herself indifferent to its sequel (and trust me, I know I’m in the minority with that opinion), Vol.3 is a marked improvement. Vol.2 had its heart in the right place with moments of genuine sincerity, but there’s something that felt unfulfilling in how it hurdled towards that honest reflection, lost amongst a bloated plot (and subplots) and jokes that failed to hit the punchline. This time around (as if lessons were learned), Vol.3 – the second film of Phase 5 – feels narratively tighter, refined and meticulous in its breezy 2-hour and 30-minute runtime.

To be fair, the world changed since the Guardians’ last full-screen outing in 2017. While the space rogues traversed across the galaxy fighting Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Infinity War and Endgame, respectively (alongside their brief appearance in Thor: Love and Thunder), Gunn was dismissed from Disney and Marvel in 2018. Despite the profuse apologies for offensive tweets that had resurfaced at the height of Trumpism and fevered right-wing selective outrage, the news of his dismissal was enough to temporarily alter its course in the franchise, and if rumours were to be believed, Taika Waititi was earmarked to be Gunn’s successor. Gunn’s second chance (a thematic resonance in Vol.3) was forged at the beleaguered DC, revitalising their fortunes with The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker TV Series. In 2019, a year after the scandal, Disney re-hired him to usher in the Guardians’ next chapter. Gunn kept himself busy, taking the opportunity to also direct The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special with Kevin Bacon before departing once again to eventually succeed in the role as co-Chairman and CEO of DC Studios.

If there’s a point to the context, then it’s this: time presents itself as a healer. We learn from our mistakes to a hopeful point of reflection and become better people. It’s hard not to see the parallels between Gunn’s fall and rise within the industry. It’s baked and coded into Vol. 3’s DNA, shaped and moulded to the point of maturity and growth. This fact is not solely reserved for the director but aimed at our beloved heroes of Peter ‘Star-Lord’ Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel), Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Kraglin (Sean Gunn) – characters that Gunn dearly loves and adores. Vol. 3 is a different kind of Marvel adventure, one that has Gunn’s total ownership without interference. The result is something incredibly triumphant for characters who have brought us so much fun and joy to the galaxy.

When the film begins, we find our favourite band of intergalactic misfits on Knowhere. Still mourning the loss of Gamora, Quill is far from the ‘dance-off bro’ energy emitted from the 2014 film. Alcohol has become his solitary comfort, with Radiohead’s acoustic version of Creep summing up the mood for Knowhere’s inhabitants. That sombre peace is interrupted by the appearance of Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), ordered by his mother, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), to orchestrate a revenge attack against the Guardians. The act leaves Rocket seriously injured, and in a battle to save their friend’s life, the gang embarks on an epic adventure that unlocks Rocket’s origin story.

If anyone expects “more of the same” as established from Gunn’s first two Guardians films, then your assumption would be mistaken. Nothing quite prepares you for the emotional journey Vol.3 embarks on. The familiar needle drops of Gunn’s carefully curated playlist is subdued, mostly absent of the familiar, upbeat happiness that has come to define the previous two films. The mood is further enhanced by the unresolved conflict between Star-Lord and Ravenger-clan Gamora (Quill’s Gamora died in Infinity War and was replaced by her alternate from a different timeline). These elements set the stage for Gunn’s script to inflict a darker turn of events.

Recent phases of the MCU found ways to inject an empathetic point of view with its villains (e.g. Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger), the brilliance of Chukwudi Iwuji’s performance as The High Evolutionary comes from how much he’s not granted such luxury. For a character who sees himself with God-like entitlement and capitalist ideals, his hybrid experimentations on animals in his pursuit of “perfection” and a perfect society are riddled with cruelty. There’s nothing subtle about Gunn’s writing and direction here, drawing parallels between corporate control, where everyone is viewed as intellectual property, to a commentary on child migrants with kids locked in cages –  a national outrage at the height of Trump’s Presidential reign. And nothing is more chilling than Iwuji’s delivery of “there is no God, that’s why I stepped in.”

There’s a lot to encompass with The High Evolutionary (including his Robocop-esque garb), but the beauty behind Vol.3 is how he becomes a worthy adversary to the Guardians, especially for Rocket as the man who engineered his presence and continues to torment the young raccoon. It opens the doors to genuine jeopardy and increased stakes, one where you’re constantly wondering if any of our favourite misfits would survive the mission. But for a group of characters broken by fear, grief, trauma and abuse, they’re all given their moment to shine. They each confront their imperfections and flaws and thanks to Gunn’s script, explores their evolution with a loving candour in restoring our faith and compassion in humanity and what it finally means to grow up.

If anything, Vol.3 is a reminder of how great Rocket is and why he is the best Guardian. Taking centre stage, he is the heart and soul of the story, finding love and companionship through tragedy in the new additions in Lylla (Linda Cardellini), Teefs (Asim Chaudhry) and Floor (Mikaela Hoover). While it would be easy to question the abundance of characters on-screen, it never loses sight of its intention by ensuring Rocket’s journey comes full circle.

But it wouldn’t be a Guardians film if it didn’t know how to have fun! The dynamic between Drax and Mantis remains a comedic highlight. Its lush and colourful production design and cinematography are some of the best in the series. The action is beautifully staged (including an impressive corridor fight), and while its soundtrack doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessors, its use of Florence + the Machine is enough to surpass any doubt.

Emotional with plenty of heart, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3 is hands down the best film in the trilogy and belongs at the elevated heights as a top-tier MCU film. It may be a fond farewell to the Guardians as we know it, but at least it goes out with a sentimental bang. Gonna miss those a-holes.

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