Written and directed by James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 brings the Cosmic Marvel opening arc to a close. In it, the Guardians are more than just a band of misfits. Instead, they’re running Knowhere as an HQ, have uniforms, and have expanded their found family with Nebula (Karen Gillan)and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) as solid members as well. But things aren’t easy on Knowehere. Quill (Chris Pratt) is fighting his grief and loneliness with booze. There is constant bickering. As if that wasn’t enough, one day a gold man comes flying through Knowhere and makes every member of the Guardians witness Rocket’s (Bradley Cooper) traumatic past.
While it would be easy to say that Quill has to rally to save his friend, there isn’t much rallying needed because there isn’t much convincing needed. Unlike the past films where saving someone is a discussion about the group’s best interests, here, Rocket is all that matters. And with that, Quill organizes a dangerous mission to find the key that will let the group save Rocket’s life. But as much as this film would have honestly made a better Vol. 2 than a closing chapter of the series, thanks to just how much we get to learn about Rocket, the way each piece to the story pushes toward the end of the Guardians as we know them allows for a finality we haven’t seen in recent trilogy outings in the MCU.
It has to be said first that Guardians of the Galaxy 3 captures Rocket Racoon in all of the ways that have made him a favorite character of mine across media. He is tough and surly and underneath all that, he’s damaged. He holds himself together with a quick wit and has walls between himself and those around him. Over the course of the trilogy and a couple of his other appearances, audiences have gotten to see him soften. While every character captures the found family element that makes this particular group of heroes resonate with audiences, Rocket has the most growth in understanding that he can love and deserves to be loved back.
In this film, Gunn doesn’t hold back in telling his story. The truth is, when Rocket’s story is told by highlighting his pain, it can move readers, audiences, and gamers. It’s happened time and time again and is one of my favorite parts of talking more with characters on the ship in the unconnected Guardians of the Galaxy game released by Square Enix. Rocket has so much inside his little body that it’s hard not to be moved by how he came to be.
In flashbacks, we witness Rocket’s origins in a lab all mangled and put back together. We got to see the friends he loved, the ones he lost, and how his survival caused a great amount of guilt. He is small but feels deeply. As much as his body was rebuilt in that lab, his time with the Guardians rebuilt his heart. When Gunn dives into the darkness of Rocket’s story and balances it with small pieces of joy in a dark cage, he shows his ability to tell a heartfelt story. Rocket’s experience is painful, and Bradley Cooper’s voice acting delivers that pain an vulnerability. If Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 does one thing perfectly it’s Rocket. His depth of emotion and the road he’s been on to make it the spot in his life where instead of fighting to save others, he’s being fought for.
This works particularly because Gunn immerses the audience in memories, showing us (and at a point the Guardians) what happened to Rocket in detail, instead of telling us in an exposition dump. Unfortunately, transitioning from the depth of these moments to the present day is sometimes choppy, partly in how the story cuts from one to another. However, none of that tonal yo-yo-ing negatively impacts the emotion from Rocket’s story. Instead, it made me want to spend more time there. This is Rocket’s film. Everyone else is truly just along for the ride, for better and worse.
The most shocking but welcomed choice made in Guardians of the Galaxy 3’s narrative is to keep Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) her own person. Sure, she is the Guardian’s Gamora but she doesn’t have the experience with them to shape her into who they knew. While I spent the first part of the film worried that she would be shoehorned back into the role of romantic interest (regardless of how much I actually like her and Quill together), Gunn didn’t do it. Instead, he allows Gamora to live for herself. Does she feel for the crew? Yes. Does she maintain a relationship with Nebula? Also yes. But she vitally gets to choose her own path. While part of that is surely due to writing her out of the MCU, the execution of this choice works.
As for the rest of the Guardian’s crew, the fact that the story needed to close stunts some elements of growth. While I wouldn’t call any of the characters bad, they do feel almost cut off at moments. Nebula and Mantis have full acceptance in the group in a familial way, and Drax (Dave Bautista) and Groot (Vin Diesel) have their moments, but ultimately the way the film ends makes it hard to think every ending had as much depth as others. But the way each one capped off has more to do with length and the Disney machine needing to move on from actors, and it’s moments like that where the pull to the MCU tonally hurts the film. When Gunn’s script pulled off course, it often felt like a hand would snap it back.
As for the new characters introduced in Guardians of the Galaxy 3, they don’t overpower the story of our main group. Instead, they accent the main story beats even if at times, they seem underused for how much they were marketed—which is really just Will Poulter as Adam Warlock. Adam isn’t bad, but he is just a punchline much of the time. Guardians of the Galaxy 3 has to walk the fine line between introducing new characters while ensuring to close the stories for existing ones, and in that vein, Gunn manages to use Adam Warlock enough to show audiences his power, while leaving him on the side instead of dominating the story.
Additionally, Chukwudi Iwuji as the story’s main antagonist is phenomenal. A narcissistic scientist and the cause of Rocket’s trauma, The High Evolutionary is a great villain. Consumed by his own needs to play god regardless of how he tries to dress it up, The High Evolutionary takes over any scene he enters. While his costuming makes him intimidating in ways, Iwuji’s performance makes it so that it keeps eyes focused on him at all times.
It can’t be a review of the MCU without discussing the visual effects. For Guardians of the Galaxy 3, there aren’t many moments that stand out like a sore eye in the middle of a forehead. Instead, Gunn and his production team lean into absurdity and camp in the right amount of doses that the practical winds up carrying more of the load than you expect from a cosmic marvel story. But, beyond that, the detailing given to rendering Rocket and the mountain of emotions and traumas he climbs out from under in the film is superb.
Every hair, every tear, and every moment of connection works, particularly in his memories with the other animals in his test group. Even then, there is a line between absurdity that finds its grounding in emotion. James Gunn does weird well, and what better to follow up a giant starfish kaiju than a giant biomechanical space station with disgusting flesh and blobs of fat holding together the station and its control panels?
The largest issue with Guardians of the Galaxy 3 is that it’s an emotional yo-yo, pushing you hard into investigating dark actions and deeds only to pull you out into lightness and humor. This isn’t to say the humor is bad. In fact, it’s some of Gunn’s best. However, the emotional punches, while they land, feel like they don’t have an impact that Gunn is capable of. When it pushes away the MCU cookie cutter and gets gross, weird, and shows its heart through bickering and fighting instead of platitudes of love fit for kitchen posters, it shines. When Gunn delves into Rocket and lets him take the focus of the story it works. But when it’s pulled back into story beats we’ve seen before, particularly in the film’s finale, it falls short. But even in its imperfection, in the parts that feel stuffed into something it’s not supposed to be, there is a charm and heart to it, and that’s to Rocket, his story, and ultimately the journey we’ve had with these characters.
Instead of holding the door open for waves of the future, it gets the chance to close the door on this specific chapter of the MCU. While some things that need to close out every arc interrupt Rocket’s fantastic story, I’m just thankful that James Gunn got to close out the characters and story he started without the weight of Marvel’s future crushing him. While I don’t agree with every choice in the film’s ending, it is an ending, and that’s far more than what a lot of trilogies in this machine we call the MCU have gotten.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 succeeds because it isn’t saddled with introducing the next six MCU movies to come after it. It isn’t about a cosmic threat that they need in the film in order to eventually jump into other properties. Guardians of the Galaxy 3 is its own story. It’s Rocket’s story, and that’s what makes it worth watching.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is playing in theaters nationwide now.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
If Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 does one thing perfectly, it’s that it isn’t saddled with introducing the next six MCU movies to come after it. It isn’t about a cosmic threat that they need to eventually jump into other properties to fight. Guardians of the Galaxy 3 is its own story. In fact, it’s Rocket’s story, and that’s what makes it worth watching.
Kate Sánchez is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of But Why Tho? A Geek Community. There, she coordinates film, television, anime, and manga coverage. Kate is also a freelance journalist writing features on video games, anime, and film. Her focus as a critic is championing animation and international films and television series for inclusion in awards cycles.