Out of the numerous projects that Marvel has put out over the past several years, none of them have hit me quite like the Guardians of the Galaxy films. The first installment was a major surprise for me, as I had no frame of reference for the Guardians, and they were largely seen as more of an underground property within Marvel's catalog. I was blown away by how sharp and subversive the humor was, how well writer/director James Gunn balanced it with more dramatic story elements, and how it managed to stand apart from the rest of the MCU. I was a little nervous for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, as I wasn't sure if it would capture the same lightning-in-a-bottle that its predecessor did. However, I was also highly impressed by it, and loved how Gunn and company built off the world and characters this time around. Despite loving the first two films, I couldn't help but be even more nervous for Vol. 3. The third film in a franchise can be a difficult one to pull off, and given that Marvel's track record as of late has been rather hit or miss, I couldn't help but be worried that this film might be a let-down. On top of that, this is the final chapter in the GOTG trilogy, and I was a bit concerned that James Gunn wouldn't be able to stick the landing. Thankfully, I had nothing to worry about with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, as it acts as a wonderful send-off for the series, is impressively crafted, and ends up being the best MCU entry in many years.
Picking up some time after the events of both Vol. 2 and The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, The Guardians have made their headquarters on Knowhere. They are adjusting to their new lives, but their new normal is disrupted when a warrior named Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) attacks their base. He is trying to retrieve Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) to deliver him to the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). However, Rocket is put in critical condition during the attack, leading the Guardians to band together to save his life, and protect the galaxy from the High Evolutionary.
If there is any one thing that could be said about James Gunn, it is that he knows a thing or two about making a superhero movie. Between the Guardians films, 2021's The Suicide Squad and the Peacemaker limited series, he has proven himself able to effectively merge his hyperactive brand of filmmaking with comic book properties. With each of those efforts, he has created things that stand out in their respective franchises, and are arguably the best entries in them. With Vol. 3, it feels like Gunn's sensibilities as a filmmaker are coming across clearer than before. At a time where the MCU is producing movies that feel manufactured and samey, it is so refreshing to see a comic book film that feels original and like it was made by an actual filmmaker. Gunn is such a perfect match for the Guardians, and this film feels like he is giving it his all and ending the trilogy exactly on his own terms. Gunn is able to inject some of the traditional comic book tropes and arcs with his quirky, twisted humor, and is also able to find the heart in the story and the characters.
In Vol. 3, we get to see Rocket Raccoon's backstory, which involves him and several other animals being experimented on by the High Evolutionary. These moments are some of the darkest in the trilogy, and allow Gunn to mix horror and drama in a stunning way. These scenes are upsetting, and might be a bit too much for some viewers, but they are also quite compelling. Rocket's backstory is handled so well by Gunn and company, and is woven into the rest of the film perfectly. It is told exclusively through flashbacks, but it never takes away from the rest of the film. On the contrary, it strengthens it, allowing the film to have more emotional weight, and keeps the momentum of the film going.
The film never lets up, and while it is two and a half hours, it certainly doesn't feel it. From the very beginning, I was hooked, and there's not really any dead space at any point in the film. It helps that the film feels so grand in scope, and that it is visually spectacular. Most of the recent MCU output has been so bland in terms of its visuals, so it is fantastic to see a film as vibrant and inventive as this one. The color and lighting in certain scenes is so eye-catching, and makes perfect sense within the world of the film. The production design is amazing, as the different worlds that we see throughout the film feel so distinct from one another, and are so nicely detailed. Furthermore, the design of the creatures and extraterrestrial characters is quite great, and the fact that many of them were achieved through practical effects and prosthetics is quite impressive. Even the CGI creatures are quite solid, and this has some of the better visual effects in any MCU movie to date. I also must say that the action sequences are quite solid as well, with a particular fight scene set to No Sleep Till Brooklyn by Beastie Boys being a major standout. Obviously, it is still early in the year to be talking Oscar chances, but I sincerely hope this film makes a strong showing in the technical categories. I definitely think it has some of the best make-up and set design of the year so far, and the film as a whole is an excellent spectacle.
If there is one thing I feel James Gunn doesn't get enough credit for, it's how well he works with actors. He consistently gets great performances from the actors in his movies, and this film is no different. I haven't been overly impressed with any of Chris Pratt's other recent work, but it's clear that Peter Quill is a role he was born to play. Pratt gets the chance to play with the grief and sadness of the character this time around, and he does a pretty decent job with it. We still get plenty of the bravado we've come to expect from him, but he actually does quite well in the film's more dramatic moments. Dave Bautista is great as always as Drax the Destroyer, and once again gets some of the film's funniest moments. But it is the moments where Bautista gets to be gentler that really stood out to me. I won't spoil anything, but there are a couple of moments near the end that he absolutely nails, and are among some of his best moments as Drax. I have really enjoyed seeing Karen Gillan get more and more to do as Nebula, and this film is her biggest showcase yet. She plays the coldness of the character so well, and this is easily her best turn in the role.
I was also impressed by Pom Klementieff as Mantis, who has quickly become one of my favorite characters in the entire trilogy. She is so dialed into the specifics of the character, and you can't help but feel for her at times. On top of that, she's also so good in the film's comedic moments, and gives one of the all-around best performances in the whole film. I was quite stunned by Chukwudi Iwuji as the High Evolutionary, and I would argue that he is among the best MCU villains of all time. Iwuji gives a commanding performance that you can't help but be drawn to whenever he is on screen. He is intimidating and forceful in a way that took me by surprise. It is rare that we get a great villain in any MCU film, so it's so thrilling to see a villain like the High Evolutionary, and even more so when he's played the way that Iwuji plays him. I also must say that Zoe Saldaña is great as Gamora, especially since she is playing a different version of the character. She so specifically embodies the differences between this version of Gamora and the one from the previous films, and it is fun to see her play her as tougher and more aggressive. I'll admit that I was worried about how the film would broach her character given that they were inheriting the changes in her character from other MCU films. Thankfully, the film makes the best of them, and Saldaña rolls with them nicely.
The voice performances are also great. Vin Diesel is solid as always as Groot, and Maria Bakalova does a great job as Cosmo, a spacedog who has joined the Guardians. However, the most impressive voice performances come from Bradley Cooper as Rocket Raccoon, and the other animals that we meet in the flashback sequences. Cooper's work as Rocket has always been one of my favorite things about the Guardians movies, and this film puts him center stage. He gets a lot to work with this time around, and he runs with it. All of the voice actors that play the other animals from Rocket's backstory are great, but I was particularly impressed by Linda Cardellini's performance. Cardellini voices Lylla, an otter that the High Evolutionary has been experimenting on. She has a calming presence that is so needed for the character, and although she is only in a few scenes, she makes a huge impression.
Of course, one of the best aspects of any of the Guardians movies is the soundtrack, and this film continues that trend. James Gunn is so good at finding the right song to fit certain moments, and the way that he syncs certain songs to what we're seeing on screen is so great. I love how this film continues the evolution of music from the previous film, and consists mainly of songs from the 90s and 00s. There are so many great needledrops in this film, including an acoustic version of Radiohead's Creep that plays during the film's opening credit sequence. The film's score is also solid, with John Murphy taking the reins from Tyler Bates (who composed the first two films) and making it his own. The music is such an integral part of the film, and is undoubtedly one of the most iconic things about the trilogy as a whole.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is such a perfect ending to the Guardians trilogy, and is one of the most well-crafted blockbusters in recent memory. It goes to show how amazing Marvel films can be when they let filmmakers make the movie that they want to make, and it is hands down one of the most fully-realized films in the MCU. I was so invested in this film from start to finish, and it's hard to remember the last time I saw a film that made me feel the way this film made me feel. I smiled, laughed, and got emotional so many times throughout the film, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I left the theater. I'm a little sad that this is the last Guardians movie, but at least it ends on James Gunn's own terms, and it is such a fitting send-off for the trilogy. The Guardians movies are undoubtedly the peak of the MCU, and I don't see anything beating them any time soon. The future of the MCU may be a bit dicey, but I am so glad that the Guardians of the Galaxy movies exist, and they will forever be among some of my favorite comic book movies of all-time.