It’s been almost a decade since the first Guardians of the Galaxy film debuted, and a lot has changed since then — both for viewers and for the characters. While we’ve watched Chris Pratt become a movie star and the MCU take chances on more colorful characters in the wake of Guardians’ success, these space-traveling heroes have run the emotional gamut: Pratt’s Star-Lord killed his biological father and lost his surrogate one; Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) died and was replaced by a younger version of herself; Groot (Vin Diesel) has lived an entirely new life cycle as a baby, willful teenager, and now buff young man since his near-death at the end of the first film; Drax (Dave Bautista) has pivoted from seeking revenge for his lost wife and daughter to being an important emotional pillar of his found family; Nebula (Karen Gillan) has built a purpose for herself as a supportive teammate rather than her despotic father’s custom-built weapon; and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) has learned that empathy is more about meeting people where they are than forcibly changing their mind.
That leaves Rocket (Bradley Cooper), who finally takes center stage in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 for an emotional arc of his own. The previous films have only hinted at how an average raccoon became such a loud-mouthed pilot and skilled engineer, but now we are treated to flashbacks that show how he was a weapon experiment at the hands of an intergalactic geneticist called the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) who is trying to engineer the perfect species for a perfect society. Though Rocket was only meant as a test subject on the way to that greater plan, the little guy’s cleverness surpassed even his creator, who will stop at nothing to get him back after so many years apart. Rocket, meanwhile, wants to ensure that no other innocent animals or children have to suffer the same horrors that he did.
(Note: These origin flashbacks are probably the most lively that CGI animals have ever looked; Disney’s 2019 The Lion King remake pales in comparison. That could be a double-edged sword for younger viewers, though. Proceed with caution if you plan on bringing kids who might blanch at seeing pain inflicted on cute animal characters.)
In standing against the High Evolutionary’s exclusionary eugenics and celebrating the unique humanity of every misfit and outcast, GotG 3 comes closer to being an X-Men movie than any other MCU installment to date, and that’s a high compliment. It’s always nice when superhero movies remember that they’re supposed to be about saving lives rather than taking them, and GotG 3 often plays like a celebration of life — even for animals that can’t talk or fly spaceships. Unfortunately, sometimes this morality feels inconsistent. In one early scene of banter, Star-Lord chides Drax for even considering killing people to accomplish their mission; later, in the film’s centerpiece action sequence (which is indeed awesome), the heroes drop one body after another. Sure, those are “bad guys,” but either stand behind your principles or don’t espouse them so proudly.
This might not be the last time we see the Guardians on screen, but it is the last time we’ll see them directed by James Gunn now that he’s moved into a more powerful role at rival superhero studio DC Films. In addition to turning formerly C-list Marvel characters like Drax the Destroyer into global icons, Gunn is one of the few filmmakers who were able to imprint his own distinct style and tastes into this massive franchise that can too often feel (especially lately) a bit impersonal. That personal touch includes the rockin’ mixtape soundtracks, the trippy cosmic flourishes, even Star-Lord’s upbringing in Missouri…all of which, rest assured, come into play in this finale to Gunn’s sci-fi trilogy.
But the new movie also introduces a few new elements into the mix. Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) finally arrives after he was first teased at the end of 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. He comes off like a mix of the Zack Snyder/Henry Cavill Superman (an overwhelmingly powerful ubermensch who blasts across the screen and beats everyone else to a pulp) and Kid Miracleman (whose overwhelming power is fused to an adolescent naivete). Originally created by Marvel masterminds Stan Lee and Jack Kirby but most notably characterized by Jim Starlin, Adam Warlock is the reason we have Infinity Stones in the first place. He used to run around with the Soul Stone on his forehead, and the other five eventually followed.
Arriving as he does into a post-Infinity Saga MCU, Poulter’s Adam still has an unexplained gem on his forehead but ends up feeling a little rudderless. His boyish innocence and try-hard quips are a far cry from the brooding, existentialist cosmic wanderer of Starlin’s comics, and though it’s fine for adaptations to riff on their source material, it doesn’t seem like Gunn or producers knew exactly what they wanted from their version of the character. Adam is stuck grasping for screen time in the margins of bigger emotional arcs for characters we’ve known much longer, playing both antagonist and potential future hero from one scene to the next as if they were trying to squeeze the Rock’s Fast Five arc into 15 minutes.
More successful is Iwuji’s debut as the High Evolutionary, the intergalactic geneticist who originally experimented on Rocket to change him from a normal raccoon to the wise-cracking pilot and engineer we recognize. While so many Marvel villains are defined by their relatable motivation, the High Evolutionary is a straight-up megalomaniac willing to do anything to achieve his aims. Unlike Jonathan Majors’ Kang in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Iwuji isn’t burdened by the daunting task of having to be the MCU’s main villain for the next decade. Instead, the Shakespearean actor focuses all his energy on showing us a character who refuses to recognize the futility of his own worldview and keeps raging through failure after failure in pursuit of an impossible goal.
What GotG 3 shares with Quantumania is a clear influence from Rick & Morty in its use of non-human alien characters with gibberish names. However, that kind of spacey wackiness plays better in the mini-franchise already known for out-there adventures rather than the one known for down-to-earth heists. Perhaps due to Gunn’s mounting responsibilities, GotG 3 does lack some of the visual flair of the preceding films. There’s a lot of walking-and-talking, and the main group of characters walk towards the viewer in slow-motion enough times that you can’t help but get a little tired of it. Though nothing quite matches the sequence from GotG 2 where Yondu (Michael Rooker) massacred an entire mutinous spaceship crew with his handy red needle, the aforementioned battle scene does have to be seen.
GotG 3 definitely marks the end of an era, though viewers shouldn’t necessarily expect a repeat of beats from 2019’s similarly climactic Avengers: Endgame. The MCU has been stumbling a bit since it bid goodbye to Captain America and Iron Man, and by reuniting us with characters we’ve known and loved for years, GotG 3 marks a welcome pivot from a recent run of unimpressive experiments and disappointing debuts. It’ll be a long time, if ever, before we feel this kind of emotional payoff from this franchise again.