Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 Review: A Rushed, Uneven, Sporadically Emotional End To The Trilogy

James Gunn's first two "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies are real standouts in the ubiquitous Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most MCU movies tend to blend together into one big, gray blob; it's an occasionally entertaining blob, but a blob all the same. More often than not, the MCU feels less like it's helmed by executives and committees rather than actual filmmakers. But Gunn's "Guardians" movies seem like the work of a singular director; someone who puts actual heart and soul into these digital-heavy, explosion-ridden extravaganzas. In Gunn's hands, the mostly unknown Guardians of the Galaxy became wonderful, vibrant characters; characters we actually cared about. Loading his films up with genuine stabs at emotion and killer pop soundtracks resulted in two pretty damn good movies; movies that are far superior to the majority of the MCU mishmash. 

And now here comes Gunn's final trip of the MCU merry-go-round, at least for now. The filmmaker has moved on to Warner Bros. and DC, but not before closing out his "Guardians" trilogy. It wasn't a smooth ride to get here — Gunn was fired from Marvel and Disney in 2018 after the director's old, offensive tweets resurfaced. When that happened, there was talk that someone else would come in to helm the third "Guardians" film using Gunn's script — a prospect that didn't seem ideal to, well, anyone. The franchise's cast, loyal to Gunn, balked at the idea, and so did fans. Eventually, Disney came to its senses and brought Gunn back into the director's chair. 

"Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" wants to be the grand finale of Gunn's trilogy. Will there be other "Guardians" movies after this? Knowing Disney and Marvel, the answer is probably yes. But this is definitely Gunn's final "Guardians" movie and is said to be the last film featuring this specific Guardians team. As such, Gunn packs in as many big, emotional swings as he can. He wants to send us off smiling, and he wants us to have fun in the process, while also engaging in a little pathos. Unfortunately, while many of the emotional beats are admittedly sweet and even sporadically charming, the film as a whole is rushed and surprisingly bland, with a shifting, unsuccessful tone that jumps from silly to sad at the drop of a hat and then back again. You're libel to get whiplash. 

Rebelling against god

The Guardians are in a not-so-great place when we catch up with them. They're living on their home base Knowhere — which is not a planet, but actually the giant head of a dead god — and the team isn't what it used to be. Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), is a drunken mess, pining over his lost love Gamora (Zoe Saldaña). The Gamora that Quill knew and loved was killed by her father Thanos, but another Gamora from an alternate timeline is still alive and kicking. But since she's a different person she has no memory of Quill or being part of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Meanwhile, raccoon gunslinger Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) seems to be in his own brooding funk.

And then all hell breaks loose. A golden superman named Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) suddenly swoops into Knowhere, looking for Rocket and causing serious destruction. The Guardians try to fight him but find themselves easily overpowered. In the process, Rocket is badly injured, and the only way to save his life is for the Guardians to go on a new mission. (Side note: one of the film's frequent flaws is that it shows the characters getting badly, even nearly fatally injured ... only to have them instantly heal themselves with super space technology. But in true lazy plot device fashion, that tech doesn't work on poor Rocket.) Along the way, they pick up nu-Gamora, who continually has to remind Quill that she's not the same Gamora he knew and loved. And while all that's happening, a comatose Rocket dreams of his traumatic past.

We learn that Rocket became Rocket as a result of horrible experiments overseen by a mad scientist known as the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). This villainous character has built himself a Counter-Earth and plans to fill it with creatures of his own creation. He's playing god, in other words. There's something deeper and more fascinating here; the idea of Rocket, and his fellow experiments, rebelling against their creator — as if they were, in a way, fighting back against god. An unloving, cruel god who made them only to suffer. The High Evolutionary takes things a step further, ominously intoning, "There is no god, that's why I stepped in!" This is dark, interesting stuff! But Gunn can't linger on it for too long — he's trying to make a brightly colored blockbuster, not a Paul Schrader-esque reflection on god not answering us. Still, these faint glimmers keep "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" at least somewhat interesting. But not quite interesting enough.

Breakneck speed

Gunn and company rush through the film at a nearly breakneck speed. Like almost all superhero movies, this one is too damn long — but I'll confess you likely won't notice the bloated runtime simply because "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" almost never slows down. This is something akin to a magic trick, as if Gunn is rushing through everything to keep us from stopping and pondering it all. Because if you look too closely, you begin to notice the flaws in the design.

The filmmaker manages some genuinely touching, sweet moments, especially near the end. But they feel unearned. Yes, we've spent three movies with these characters, and therefore we should be emotionally invested in them. But as a film on its own, "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" feels very much like a footnote; a quick summary of what happened to these characters you spent a few movies with. It's the film equivalent of someone saying "Oh, by the way, this happened ..."

Still, there are highlights. The film's brightly colored pop sensibilities keep it from looking like every other gray superhero flick, and Gunn stages an admittedly fun one-take action sequence, with the camera flipping and flying and tumbling around a long corridor as our heroes engage in a huge battle. And the cast is mostly up to the task of carrying the film — Pom Klementieff's Mantis is quite funny, and Chukwudi Iwuji is genuinely scary and loathsome as the demented High Evolutionary. But there are simply too many characters here, and while they all get their own mini-arcs, most of them feel hollow. Nothing here comes across as organic; it's merely happening. And Will Poulter's Adam Warlock, set up to be a big bad, might as well not be in the movie at all — he's an afterthought. 

Once more with feeling

Am I being too hard on this movie? I don't think so. I also think I'm just completely burned out on superhero flicks. "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" arrives at a time when talk of superhero fatigue is at an all-time high. Recent titles like "Black Adam," "Shazam! Fury of the Gods," and "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania" have all underperformed at the box office. Box office is not a sign of quality, mind you — but this certainly seems to suggest that comic book movies, once a sure thing, are starting to lose their charm on the general public. We've been oversaturated with these movies for over a decade now. They overcrowd the cinematic landscape, and more often than not, they all feel the same.

And that, perhaps, is the real fatal flaw of "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3." Gunn's first two movies felt different. They stood out from the pack and had their own unique personality. But "Vol. 3" feels like more of the same. I'm not suggesting Gunn and company are phoning it in this time around, but it certainly feels like the magic has faded. Whatever alchemy the filmmaker worked to make the first two "Guardians" movies memorable has evaporated into the ether. The film's tagline is "Once More With Feeling," but the feeling is gone. If this really is the end of the series it comes at not a moment too soon. 

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10