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Oh my Stan Lee, the Marvel Studios slump seemed eternal.
Considering all those uneven contributions of late, I admit a degree of trepidation about the third space opera set to grace us all. The first sequel, along with those “I Am Groot” shorts and a holiday special on Disney+ inspired no confidence in the film trilogy’s grand outro.
I should never have doubted. Writer-director James Gunn, now co-chair of the enemy DC Studios, ends his Marvel tenure on a remarkable high note. Clean writing, balanced characters, emotionally bruising and oh so very, very pretty – “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is not only a great sequel but a top 10 MCU flick.
Mad love for a story that gets right to the point. Within 10 minutes, the stage is set. Peter Quill or Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) drunkenly drowns in grief over the death of Gamora (Zoe Saldana). Meanwhile, the rest of the crew are setting up shop on Knowhere, the head of an enormous ancient being.
Just then, they encounter a new foe who lands several solid hits before fleeing. Unfortunately, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is badly wounded, but any attempt to go near him will trigger a dead man’s switch in his heart. The fast-talking raccoon has always hidden his origin, but the truth comes out eventually.
The Guardians must race against the clock to find the truth about Rocket’s past in order to save his life. This ultimately leads them to a brutal mad scientist, the High Evolutionary (“Peacekeeper’s” Chukwudi Iwuji) – a top-tier despicable villain here – and a host of other colorful villains and allies, including a Gamora from another timeline. And if you thought Rocket’s injured state would decrease his presence, nope. We go into his past, discovering how he became the fuzzy tech genius we know and love.
From the first “Guardians,” Gunn had a clear visual aesthetic in mind. The 2014 debut established a color guide that continues across various superhero films specific to Marvel and beyond. “Vol. 3” cranks that eye candy up to 11 with costuming that dips into hippie-era Beatles and classic sci-fi pulp. The CG settings, along with assorted spaceship and creature design, live up to that $250 million budget.
Younger viewers be warned: previous “Guardians” entries played fast and loose with adult jokes and choice innuendo. “Vol. 3,” however, feels far more adult in terms of tone and violence. Let’s address the latter first. Little red blood appears, but plenty of alien critters lose limbs and splines. Slimy innards everywhere are acceptable because they aren’t simulations of human dismemberment.
As for the tone, Rocket’s backstory is so, so gut wrenching. Take the PG-13 rating seriously, not merely because of the MCU’s first F-bomb but the emotional pull of the story.
Will there be future “Guardians” films? Maybe. “Vol. 3” provides a clear end to this team’s story, and at least two cast members have publicly said they will not return. But there’s more story to tell, or at least more room for the remaining and new Guardians to appear across other MCU projects.
Whatever happens next, it likely won’t have the same characters, the same edge, the same style. From popular music peppering all three films to the humor, these films pair in ways others don’t. That doesn’t necessarily mean the others don’t work. Think of the “Captain America” trilogy, with two insanely good entries and another fun but aesthetically quite different one.
But these films, even that lackluster “Vol. 2,” work so well together. Drax’s (Dave Bautista) inability to understand metaphors and bloated ego coupled with raw strength and love for his friends. Groot’s (voiced by Vin Diesel) many stages of growth and brilliant use of only three words, though occasionally breaking that linguistic restriction for a tear-jerking win. Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who always seems to land on her head, so attuned to others’ emotions while remaining so childlike, even as she wails on foes.
Nebula (Karen Gillan) transforming from the villainous daughter of Thanos to a curmudgeonly hero. Her sister Gamora, original and time variant, so stubborn and stoic, yet committed to those around her. Of course, Peter and his love of classic Earth pop culture and a good heist. And Rocket, a raccoon continually mistaken for a hedgehog, gopher or rabbit, so quick to verbally attack but equally vulnerable, especially in “Vol. 3.”
This team works so well together across three films, a couple “Avengers” ones and even that meh holiday special. They will be missed, but they go out strong in a film that makes every second of its 150-minute runtime work so well. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is writing perfection and visual splendor that define blockbuster cinema for the big screen.
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