James Gunn & Crew Return for a Highly Evolved Third Act


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. © 2023 MARVEL.

The Guardians of the Galaxy are back, though it’s no triumphant return. 

Now that a Zune with hundreds of songs serves as Peter “Star-Lord” Quill’s (Chris Pratt) music library, we can catch up with our intergalactic heroes in a montage set to Radiohead’s acoustic version of “Creep.” Since Avengers: Endgame, Peter has been on a downward spiral thanks to Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) death and subsequent multiversal return with no memories of their relationship. In his alcohol-fueled absence of leadership, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) has stepped up as they set up a home base on the skull-shaped planet of Knowhere. But when an attack leaves Rocket on the edge of death, Drax (Dave Bautista), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Groot (Vin Diesel) suit up for a rescue attempt. It’s a shot in the dark to begin with, but they soon realize another complexity: to save Rocket’s future, they must uncover the past he’s held close to his cyborg chest.

Baby Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) in Marvel Studios' Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

TAYLOR BLAKE: How many writer-directors love their characters as much as James Gunn? I can’t think of anyone else on par in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though Ryan Coogler’s affection for Wakanda is a close runner-up. The Guardians are a bunch of weirdos, but in Gunn’s rosy vision, they’re a wonderful bunch of weirdos who may be able to fight off their greatest foe yet: audience malaise. Vol. 3 features many classic MCU problems, but unlike almost everything since Endgame, the Guardians keep them in check. Too many characters? Sure, but only one or two. Too long? Yep, but only 10 minutes. A familiar villain? Yes, but also familiar to our heroes. Does the finale involve sky explosions? I’m the first to request a moratorium on that motif, but most of the runtime employs colorful, mid-century-inspired production design that appears to be partially practical. (One planet, for lack of a better description, looks like an oozing scab on the outside but a ’60s airport on the inside. Another is a Twilight Zone-adjacent Earth. Sorry Quantumania, but they look better than all that green screen!) It turns out when you lead with characters you care about it, it’s easier to minimize flaws and skip some altogether (e.g. meandering plotting).

Like Return of the Jedi, the Guardians’ third outing ranks last in their trilogy, but the first two were such highs that’s barely an insult. With the exception of Spider-man: No Way Home (and some of the uneven Black Panther: Wakanda Forever), this is the best a Marvel theatrical event has been in a long time. In part, this is thanks to another similarity with the sixth Star Wars episode. Starting at a low point for our characters creates an emotional hole the audience must climb out of, and opening with lyrics like “I wish I was special…but I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo” digs a pit as deep as the one Pratt fell into on Parks & Recreation. With alternate universe Gamora frozen in the past a lá carbonite Han Solo as well as literal descents into rancor-style trenches, their starting point is as gloomy as Jedi‘s. However, if you pull the audience out of that sarlacc pit, the end becomes a triumphant emotional payoff. Vol. 3 does just that, though it doesn’t wait till the end to have fun.

Pom Klementieff as Mantis, Dave Bautista as Drax, and Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord, and Karen Gillan as Nebula in Marvel Studios' Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

JIM TUDOR: Indeed- Spoiler Alert!– this is a fun movie. Although, anyone paying attention to the recent behind-the-scenes shuffling of superhero movies in general knows that James Gunn has drifted on to DC, tasked with revitalizing its struggling cinematic brand. Therefore, it’s no spoiler to say that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a melancholy goodbye of sorts. The shift into the ‘90s and even the 2000s of the trademark rock music needle drops accompany that corner-turn quite well. Going in knowing that this is quite likely the end of the road for these characters, at least for a while, helps us to brace for all manner of fates. This, though, is precisely where Vol. 3 might surprise such audience members.

I thoroughly agree that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is the finest film that Marvel Studios has brought forth since Spider-Man: No Way Home. (Wakanda Forever? Nah.) Prior to that, I’d shrug and say that I guess Guardians Vol. 2 was the finest. (On the Disney+ side, WandaVision is rather tremendous, delivering the most universal heartbreak yet in the MCU.) But Vol. 3 isn’t the movie I expected it to be.

Zoe Saldana as Gamora in Marvel Studios' Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

No, it’s better than that.  If the first is about Quill coming to terms his mother issues, and the second is about him resolving his father issues, it would make sense if Vol. 3 is his stepping up as a parental figure himself. (The lighthearted moment of him disciplining teenage Groot in Vol. 2 indicated such a broad trajectory). Instead, we get a story of “belongingness,” digging deeper into how and if these broken square pegs fit together. The comedy beats are up to snuff and the song placements are as pertinent as ever, if perhaps too obvious at times. (“Since You’ve Been Gone” by Rainbow has been kicking around in my head in a way that that song- which I previously could take or leave- never has).  

Gunn, following the steam-venting DC detour of the very R-rated The Suicide Squad, is back to firing on all of his mainstream cylinders. (Though this is a quite violent PG-13.) Although, let’s not get too hasty with that expectation.  While the filmmaker steers the ship home in a terrifically satisfying way, there are some astonishing aspects along the way. Let’s talk about the villain, The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). I’m familiar with this cosmic character from the comics, particularly Marvel’s 1988 all-annuals crossover “The Evolutionary War.” As an obsessive Marvel Comics kid, I happily marched in lockstep to buy all of these books as they came out. The heartbreak came when I actually read them. Frankly, despite all the company’s hype at the time, “The Evolutionary War” sucked.  It was, for me, an early moment of indicating that Marvel could go very wrong at times. The same disappointment could be applied to every incarnation of a Guardians of the Galaxy comic series until the early 2000s. (The series that supposedly made Kevin Feige a fan, and ultimately fueled the first film.)  

Chukwudi Iwuji as The High Evolutionary in Marvel Studios' Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2022 MARVEL.

So it only makes sense that James Gunn and company could and do course-correct The High Evolutionary into a truly evil, truly despicable villain. Now that’s evolution! The only lament from me is that this character has the chops (and clarity of plot) to be the MCU’s next big Thanos-level threat, but isn’t. Instead, we’re stuck with Kang the Conqueror- meaning, audiences are stuck with the whole clunky multiverse angle that, let’s face it, isn’t taking. And also, Marvel Studios suddenly has a huge Jonathan Majors problem on its hands.

But I digress… Before I hand the baton back to Taylor, I think it’s important to address something Max Foizey brought up in his ZekeFilm review of Vol. 3.  While Max’s take on the film is negative (he’s never been a fan of Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy), I very much agree with his point and warning that parents of young children need to think twice about taking the whole family to this one. I’ll leave the reasoning and recap details to Max’s review, but suffice to say, Vol. 3 does indeed feature a potentially rattling sequence that, as he says, could end up being the “Bambi’s mom” moment for this generation. I was taken aback that Marvel/Disney/what-have-you opted to retain such a moment as it’s set up and depicted. But for me, I see it as one of the most unrestrained fictional depictions of unbridled evil since Anton Chigurh roamed the West Texas landscape. Culturally, in our stories, we need such occasional unglamorous reminders of what true evil really looks like and feels like. I buy into the narrative that James Gunn himself has evolved as a person due to his humanizing work on the Guardians films. Therefore, I do not believe he’s set out to psychologically scar viewers but rather offer a rare dose of very harsh reality in this weirdest of contexts. Prepare to be affected by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.

(L-R): Dave Bautista as Drax and Pom Klementieff as Mantis in Marvel Studios' Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo by Jessica Miglio. © 2023 MARVEL.

TAYLOR BLAKE: The Guardians series has always pushed the limits of family-friendly in the MCU, both in violence and language. (Don’t forget that at one time the original was declared the deadliest movie ever made!) But for those of us old enough to process that, it means Guardians has real stakes to its plot and character arcs, which is why I’m apparently not too old to get misty-eyed at computer-generated animals holding an emotional tête-à-tête near the end. The franchise has always been deeply humanist, and Vol. 3 is the most conscious of an individual’s value yet. Guardians has always been rooted in fun, too, which is why, if memory serves, Vol. 3 features the most slow-motion struts in front of explosions yet. There’s a killer one-shot action sequence set to the Beastie Boys, Saldana seems to be having a killer time revisiting Gamora’s dark side, and Bautista and Klementieff make for a killer comedy duo. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a killer time—let’s call it a triumphant return after all.