Released: 5 May 2023
Director: James Gunn
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $250 million
Stars: Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper/Sean Gunn, Chukwudi Iwuji, Zoe Saldaña, Karen Gillan, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, and Will Poulter
Still reeling from the death of Gamora (Saldaña) and the subsequent return of a past version of her, the Guardians of the Galaxy are attacked by superpowered bounty hunter Adam Warlock (Poulter). With Rocket (Cooper/Gunn) critically injured, Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Pratt) leads the Guardians in discovering their friend’s horrifying origins, which brings them into direct conflict with the deranged High Evolutionary (Iwuji).
Although they’re one of Marvel’s more obscure properties and have undergone numerous changes over the years, the Guardians of the Galaxy turned out to be a massive financial success when they made their live-action debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014). To capitalise on this, and to promote the team as being as integral to the MCU as the Avengers, the cast and crew returned for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (ibid, 2017), which proved to be an even bigger financial success than the first film despite being met with mixed reviews. Despite having had plans for a trilogy right from the start, director James Gunn seemed to flip-flop on whether he’d return for a third movie; however, after completing a script and entering pre-production, his involvement was placed in serious jeopardy when he was fired after a series of offensive tweets made the headlines. Gunn publicly apologised for the tweets and fans and cast members rushed to his defense, and he was eventually brought back to helm the project later that year. However, much had changed in those few months; stars Dave Bautista and Zoe Saldaña expressed a desire to retire from their roles and Gunn was later named as the creative force behind a reboot of the rival DC Comics cinematic universe, not to mention Gunn’s displeasure at Gamora’s unexpected death in Avengers: Infinity War (Russo and Russo, 2018). Still, he worked around these issues and was even allowed to film a short, holiday-themed passion project surrounding these characters and craft an emotional finale for the franchise. While visual effects naturally played a large part in the third film, Gunn also strived to include more practical effects to bring the surreal locations and creatures to life; though he was largely kept in the dark about the character until shooting began, Will Poulter was cast as Adam Warlock to kick-start further explorations of the character in later MCU films, while Chukwudi Iwuji was cast as the High Evolutionary, beating out fellow cosmic villain Annihulus to create the MCU’s cruelest villain to date. As of this writing, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 has made nearly $344 million at the box office and been met with positive reviews; critics lauded the film as the best MCU movie in recent memory for its emotional and visually imaginative presentation, though it was also criticised for its depiction of animal cruelty and for its surprisingly brutal tone.
As much as I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy (and I really did; it’s surprising how well it works as this bizarre, sci-fi/action romp, especially as it introduces a whole team of characters and explores a side of the MCU that’s so divorced from some of its more grounded action), it took me a few views to appreciate Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I was expecting bigger and better, only to find it was a more character-driven film that explored the dysfunctional family dynamic of the titular team; once I realised this, subsequent viewings allowed me to appreciate it more, especially the growth of the complex love/hate relationship between Gamora and her semi-psychotic, cyborg sister, Nebula (Gillan). Fate saw the Guardians of the Galaxy play a pivotal role in Avengers: Infinity War, one that actually ended up dooming half the life in all the universe for five years or so, but Avengers: Endgame (Russo and Russo, 2018) ended with the suggestion that the team would find new life searching the galaxy for a time-displaced Gamora alongside Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth). Unfortunately, this “Asgardians of the Galaxy” team didn’t really come to pass beyond a brief inclusion in Thor: Love & Thunder (Waititi, 2022); I do feel like there’s a bigger story to tell there with those characters, however, and hope that we get some kind of animated short or interlude that explored the adventures they got up to between films. Instead, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 picks up not long after the end of their Christmas special; the team operates out of Knowhere, the severed head of a Celestial that houses an entire community under their protection, and they’re still trying to wrap their heads around the fact that the Gamora they knew is dead, yet another version of her is still out there in the galaxy. This is particularly difficult for Quill, who has turned to alcohol and depression not just because he’s lost the love of his life, but because of a deep-rooted feeling of abandonment and pain as everyone he’s ever known and cared about has died. His surrogate family, the Guardians of the Galaxy, are on hand to care for him and support him, but they’re individually too maladjusted to properly communicate their feelings too him.
Drax the Destroyer (Bautista) is far too literally a thick-headed, living tree Groot (Diesel) is far too simplistic, and abrasive Rocket much too aggressive. Nebula, however, offers a surprising amount of support, caring for him in a way we’ve never seen before since she’s now come to regard the Guardians as her family and truly cares about them, even if her traumatic past makes it difficult for her to express emotions beyond violence. Quill takes some solace in his empathetic half-sister Mantis (Pom Klementieff), but her naïve optimism and observation that Quill has family waiting for him on Earth also do little to ease his pain. Luckily for Quill, the team is attacked by Adam Warlock, the child-like superhuman champion of the golden-skinned Sovereign; I say “luckily” as this brings the team together to fend off Warlock’s attack and defend Knowhere, a task they struggle to accomplish given his power, resulting in Rocket being critically injured. Faced with the stark reality that his self-professed best friend may die, an enraged Quill refuses to accept this and resolves to seek out Orgocorp, a highly advanced scientific research centre, in order to deactivate the kill switch attached to Rocket’s heart and keeping them from helping him. This sees them crossing paths with Gamora since Nebula arranges for Gamora and her Ravager allies to help the team infiltrate Orgocorp. This again forces Quill to be faced with the harsh truth that this Gamora isn’t the one he knew and loved; even Drax points out that she’s “dead to them” since this Gamora never hooked up with the team and has none of the memories or attachments to them. While this is a pretty simple prospect, even for the otherwise simple-minded Star-Lord, the film spends a lot of time reinforcing that he and the others don’t really understand what’s going on with Gamora; often, they talk about how she “doesn’t remember” them and Quill futilely tries to jog memories that just aren’t there and takes every opportunity to tell anyone within earshot about their complicated history, needlessly hammering home that this isn’t the same Gamora from the previous Guardians films. I understand it in a way; a big part of the film is Quill having to come to terms with death and loss, but it starts to get a little grating when he constantly harps on about it to everyone in earshot. This Gamora is much more cold-hearted and harsh compared to her counterpart; she has more in common with how Nebula used to be and there’s an interesting reframing of their narrative here as Nebula states that Gamora was “always like this” and Gamora is shown to have this dark, violent side to her that casts as more of an anti-hero. She begrudgingly helps the Guardians at Orgocorp but despairs of their ineptitude, constant bickering, and Quill’s insistence that he knows anything about her. She softens towards them over the course of the film after seeing how hard they fight to help Rocket and protect others, but nevertheless remains her own distinct character, separate from them, and it’s a testament to the film that it doesn’t just repeat the same will they/won’t they character between her and Quill from the first film.
As for the rest of the team, Drax is mostly relegated to being the comic relief and mindless muscle of the group; his stoic demeanour allows him to process Gamora’s loss in a more productive way than Quill, but it’s clear that he misses her in his own way, too. He continues to have an attachment to Mantis and the film does explore how, despite her objections to the contrary, she uses her empathic abilities to manipulate him in ways that he’s not aware of. For example, she defends Drax’s infantile nature to Nebula, who lashes out at both of them for their incompetence, and he seems genuinely upset to learn that Mantis thinks he’s stupid (even though she loves him regardless) so she simply has him forget hearing that. despite Nebula’s anger at the two for endangering the group on countless occasions, Mantis and Drax prove their quality in the final act of the film where Mantis is able to tame the ravenous Abilisks and Drax is able to calm and communicate to the children held in the High Evolutionary’s ship since he not only unexpectedly speaks their language but also is a natural father. This theme of underestimating those around you is a prominent one in the film; even Kraglin (Sean Gunn) embodies this since he continues to struggle with mastering Yondu Udonta’s (Michael Rooker) arrow and proves invaluable in aiding the rescue effort at the end of the film, but it’s most prominently seen in Adam Warlock’s character arc. Having been born prematurely, Warlock is little more than a child in a man’s body; he’s been created as a perfect being, a living weapon to enact the will of his mother, the Sovereign High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki). While my knowledge of Warlock is somewhat limited, I was surprised to see him characterised as a childlike fool, but he undergoes a surprising journey in the film; he feels regret after incinerating space creature Blurp’s owner after a misunderstanding and adopts the cute little critter, then briefly abandons his crusade against the Guardians in an unsuccessful attempt to save his mother when the High Evolutionary callously obliterates her along with his “Counter-Earth”, and becomes an unexpected ally of the team by the film’s conclusion since his former enemies make efforts to save his life rather than leaving him to perish.
For me, the High Evolutionary ends up being easily the most reprehensible villain in all of the MCU so far. While he still doesn’t get a huge amount of screen time or backstory and the exact nature of his gravity-based powers is a little vague, this is a villain who has absolutely no redeeming qualities; we’re given no reason to sympathise with him or to understand his perception of the galaxy, and this is perfectly acceptable given his heinous actions! The High Evolutionary is a maniacal despot obsessed with “perfection”; he sees the flaws in life and God’s plan and uses his superior intellect and scientific acumen to step in to correct these flaws. His ultimate goal isn’t conquest or destruction, it’s to create the “perfect” society, which has led to him being regarded as a God by many of his creations, like the Sovereign. However, while the Sovereign are basically the embodiment of beauty and perfection, the High Evolutionary is never satisfied and the majority of his experiments are geared towards creating anthropomorphic beings and semi-cybernetic monstrosities! These live out normal lives on an exact replica of Earth, yet while he was able to suppress their natural animalistic urges and craft a society that’s a mirror of ours, he wasn’t able to create a utopia, so he habitually exterminates his creations like a child bored of a toy. While this ritualistic genocide and the High Evolutionary’s unstable, erratic God complex are bad enough, what makes him so irredeemable and reprehensible compared to other MCU villains are his callous experiments on animals. Animal cruelty is at the forefront of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 as Rocket, near death, experiences a series of flashbacks to his time as one of High Evolutionary’s test subjects. A strangely curious raccoon, he was subjected to horrific procedures that grafted mechanical parts to his body and increased his intelligence and awareness, all under the pretence that he and his fellow prototype anthropomorphs would have a place in the “new world”. However, when Rocket’s intelligence exceeded the High Evolutionary’s for a split second, the madman ordered Rocket dissected and the execution of his friends, leading to the terrified and heartbroken creature to enact a daring escape that left him traumatised and the High Evolutionary gruesomely disfigured.
Like the last two Guardians of the Galaxy movies, music plays an important role in this film, both diegetically and non- diegetically; Quill is almost irrationally protective of the Zune gifted to him by his father-figure, Yondu, which Rocket borrows without asking to find solace in the songs contained within it. Almost all of the film’s action and fight scenes are accompanied by music tracks, as is James Gunn’s signature at the point, but they weren’t as memorable for me and seemed to be a little more random rather than sticking to one era or genre of music. However, the film is very much a culmination of the character arcs began in the first one; there’s always been a question hanging over Quill about why he never returned to Earth when he clearly has the means to do so, and it’s always come down to fear disguised as lust for adventure in space. Earth is where his mother died and he has no desire to return there, especially as his memory of that day is skewed to paint his grandfather, Jason (Gregg Henry), as having pushed him away, when the reality was they were all grieving their loss. Drax, whose life was upended when his family was killed, quickly found a new purpose with his surrogate family and struggles with the idea that the team parts ways by the finale, only to rediscover his true calling not as a destroyer, but a father. Even Mantis unexpectedly decides to forge her own path after years of just doing what she’s told, Nebula grows from this unyielding, murderous assassin into a caring (if blunt) matriarch whose priorities now extend to all of Knowhere, and the film’s events eventually lead Quill to realise that this Gamora is forging her own path with the Ravagers.
However, while Rocket spends most of this film at death’s door on an operating table, this is Rocket’s film through and through. The team is united in going to any lengths, even infiltrating the notoriously heavily guarded headquarters of Orgocorp, challenging the might of the immensely powerful High Evolutionary, and killing anyone who gets in their way, to help their friend even if it costs them their own lives. We’re treated to some incredibly emotional flashbacks that show Rocket’s time as a simple test subject, one of many of the High Evolutionary’s efforts to increase the intelligence of animals and anthropomorphise them into the “perfect” society. Rocket shares his cage with three other sentiment animals, each one horrifically mutilated by cybernetic enhancements: otter Lylla (Linda Cardellini), who Rocket becomes particularly attached to, simple minded walrus Teefs (Asim Chaudhry), and hyperactive rabbit Floor (Mikaela Hoover). Despite their gruesome appearances and the traumatic experiments they’ve been subjected to, the four are generally in good spirits; they genuinely believe that the High Evolutionary is improving them and that they’ll have a place in his new world, and Rocket impresses of them all with his unprecedented ingenuity and aptitude for mechanics that allows the High Evolutionary to perfect his technology. In their dank, cramped cage, the four dream of having a home under the sky, of flying away together and being free, and it’s absolutely devastating when the High Evolutionary violently chastises Rocket for having the gall to outthink him…even though his goal is for his creations to have independent thoughts! Insulted and enraged, he cruelly rejects Rocket and his friends and orders them to be killed, forcing Rocket to affect a daring escape using a cobbled-together key card. Sadly, the High Evolutionary anticipated this and personally shoots Lylla in cold blood right before Rocket’s eyes, driving him into an animalistic rage that leaves the High Evolutionary’s face gruesomely mangled, his friends dead in the chaos, and Rocket a deeply traumatised and embittered abomination of science. It really is an abolsutely harrowing backstory, one that was hinted at in the first film but really paints the High Evolutionary as a despicable villain, an egotistical hypocrite who simply toys with animals for his own sense of gratification and it’s extremely satisfying to see the Guardians come together to beat the piss out of him in the finale.
Indeed, there are some stunning cosmic scenes in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3; some really fun practical and special effects help to bring an even more bizarre flavour to the MCU (though I did feel like the scene at Orgocorp dragged on a bit too long), especially when they visit Counter-Earth and encounter all these weird anthropomorphic creatures. At first, I thought that safeguarding this world against the High Evolutionary’s reprisals would be the focus of the finale and the driving force behind galvanising the team but, no…the High Evolutionary just destroys the planet on a whim, murdered its countless misshapen inhabitants, and prepares to populate a new world with his latest creations. However, despite having rejected Rocket in the past, he’s come to see that Rocket is the only one of his creations that showed true, independent ingenuity rather than following pre-programmed patterns, so he becomes obsessed with reacquiring the specimen, to the point where even his loyal followers turn against him and he’s forced to kill them without a second thought to get what he wants. To counter the High Evolutionary’s cybernetic army and immense ship, the Guardians call in Kraglin to bring Knowhere to them for a massive final showdown, once that sees all of the Guardians lay waste to an entire corridor of the High Evolutionary’s soldiers before attacking the main man himself. As mentioned, it was deeply satisfying to see him take a beating and be left for dead, literally unmasked and a quivering, deposed wreck on the floor, though it did somewhat diminish his threat since he was previously seen as nigh-untouchable. With the High Evolutionary’s ship going down in flames, Rocket begs his friends to help save not just the children but the innocent animals held captive in his cages, a campaign that appears to leave Quill dead in the frozen vacuum of space! Luckily for him, Warlock comes to his aid, but I feel this should’ve happened before Quill’s body froze solid and was disturbingly bloated as he’s clearly dead or would be left severely injured from exposure. Instead, he survives…in fact, everyone does, which I was really surprised by; there’s a moment where it seems like Nebula might die piloting the High Evolutionary’s ship, Drax is almost killed in the Orgocorp battle, Groot is left a severed head by Warlock, and obviously Rocket’s life hangs in the balance throughout the entire film but, surprisingly, they all survive by the film’s end. However, they’re not left unchanged; Quill finally returns to Earth, Drax and Nebula pledge themselves to safeguarding Knowhere, Mantis goes off on a journey of self-discovery, and Rocket, Groot, Kraglin, Warlock, and one of the children they rescue form a new Guardians of the Galaxy team after bidding a heartfelt farewell to each other to bring their story to a definitive (if open-ended) close.
There was definitely a sense of foreboding heading into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3; knowing that many of the actors and even the director were openly stating that they were done with the MCU and seeing the way the trailers were purposely produced to suggest that one of more of the titular characters would meet their end in the film, I was extremely taken aback to find that they all survived to the end, and were better for it after their adventures together. As disturbing as it is to endure the horrendous treatment Rocket and his fellow animals suffer at the hands of the High Evolutionary, it gave the film an emotional weight that’s often missing from MCU movies and really presented the High Evolutionary as an absolutely despicable person with no redeeming qualities. He was a maniacal character, obsessed with perfection but ruled by a cruel, vindictive childishness that saw him callously disregard everything, even his own creations, if they don’t immediately meet his expectations. This was a fantastic counter for the dysfunctional Guardians to throw themselves up against and unite to oppose; they’re all flawed, both collectively and individually, but still strive to do the right thing and protect people, even their enemies or horrifying abominations of science and torture. As is always the case with these films, the core conceit revolved around the family dynamic of the team; they’re really struggling with the whole Gamora situation and willingly risk their lives to help Rocket, who’s tragic backstory perfectly juxtaposes with the present-day action. While I would’ve liked to see a bit more involvement from Adam warlock beyond yelling and being a strange, overpowered man-child, it’s clear that he’s being setup for bigger things going forward and I think there’s a definite sense that we’ll see these characters again in some way, shape, or form later down the line. Phase Four of the MCU was a little hit and miss but Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a terrific return to form; funny, action-paced, and filled with emotion that’ll have even the most soulless detractor teary-eyed, this was a fantastic swansong for the team and tied up their stories in a very fulfilling and moving way.
Did you enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3? Were you surprised that it included the debut of the MCU’s first f-bomb? What did you think to Adam Warlock’s portrayal, and would you have liked to see more of him? Did you enjoy the focus on Rocket’s backstory and were you moved by his traumatic origins? Were you surprised that the team made it out alive? What did you think to the new depiction of Gamora? Where do you see the team going from here? I’d love to know your opinion on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, so go ahead and leave your thoughts below or on my social media, and be sure to check out my other Guardians of the Galaxy content.
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