Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
After posting some thoughts on the grossly over-exaggerated concept of “superhero fatigue”, it’s a nice feeling to be proven correct. This is of course in reference to James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023), which had a very strange kind of hype building around it before release. Namely, would Gunn be able to deliver a satisfying conclusion to his trilogy, and would the film silence the more negative voices among Marvel fans? The trilogy question is a big enough concern, as very few third films manage to wrap things up in a satisfying way. In this film’s case, there was the added pressure of proving Marvel Studios’ continued dominance of the genre. Happily, the finished film has done both, and it’s not hard to see why.
Still reeling from the events of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) also known as Starlord, is spending his days at the bottom of a bottle. Despite the fact that he and the rest of the Guardians have built a great home and community on the planet Knowhere, Quill is consumed with grief over losing the love of his life, Gamora (Zoe Saldana). Things are thrown into further disarray when Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is injured in a confrontation with a new foe, Adam Warlock (Will Poulter). To prevent the death of their fallen friend, Quill, along with the Guardians, Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Groot (Vin Diesel), set off to find a way to save him. In doing so, they must face off with Rocket’s despicable creator, The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), as well as finally learn the truth of Rocket’s mysterious past.
Marvel sequels are often tasked with more than just building on the events of their immediate predecessor. For instance, each Captain America entry had a big Avengers adventure in-between, thus affecting important story points from film to film. If you were to watch the Captain America trilogy on its own, you might be a little confused if you haven’t seen the corresponding Avengers trilogy. Up until now, the Guardians of the Galaxy films seemed to be removed from this structure, as both Vol. 1 (2014) and Vol. 2 (2017) bore no critical story connections to the rest of the MCU. Since Vol. 2, the Guardians have interacted many times with the rest of the Marvel Universe, and have had major narrative beats occur in that time. Therefore, James Gunn’s ideal third Guardians film and ideal trilogy as he planned it will unfortunately never come to pass. Looking at what he likely wanted to do and pairing it with the status quo he’s been left with, Gunn had to bend over backwards to make it all work. With that in mind, the fact that Vol. 3 still feels like a near-perfect conclusion to his story is a minor miracle.
The key to successfully making the messiness appear cohesive is Gunn’s ability to remain true to the characters, and by extension the viewers. To be clear, Gunn isn’t just giving the fans what (they think) they want, but instead he stays true to the emotions of the situations at hand. For instance, Quill is still mourning Gamora, despite the fact there’s another Gamora from an earlier time period loose in the galaxy (as a result of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame). The easy solution would be to put her on the path back to where we saw her last, yet Gunn understands that would cheapen what the audience went through in seeing her die. In stark contrast to JJ Abrams on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), Gunn uses the cards he’s been dealt, finding ways to deliver compelling, unexpected, yet appropriate drama. This was done across the board, as all of the original characters are given interesting arcs which come to satisfying conclusions. Granted, there’s still some new story threads which feel less ingrained, but they are still useful for their plot utility.
The story itself is especially noteworthy, as it throws the viewer into shades of darkness not usually seen in action-comedy blockbusters. While still being relatively suitable for younger audiences, the narrative subtext carries some truly disturbing implications, exhibiting pretty explicit statements around animal cruelty. There’s sure to be an intense reaction to these sequences, all of which work wonders in making the viewer absolutely hate the villain of the piece. There’s no moralising, or alternate perspectives, as Gunn simply makes it plain as to who is good and who is evil. Some may find the lack of nuance to be one-note or emotionally manipulative, but that ignores Gunn’s highly effective storytelling. Sometimes there are people who do horrible things and don’t deserve your sympathy, while other times there are horrible things done to people which will earn your sympathy. Gunn expertly layers this space adventure with both of these ideas, resulting in an engaging central conflict.
That being said, Gunn maintains the true thematic heart of the Guardians franchise, which is the concept of overcoming trauma. Obviously, such a heavy subject yields tearful moments, yet just like the previous entries, Vol. 3 delivers a lightness of touch which is both heartwarming and uplifting. Each film in the series has discussed how to overcome trauma in different ways, with Vol. 1 expressing the importance of connections with friends, while Vol .2 unpacks the support of family, either chosen or blood related. Vol .3 takes the final and most important step in this analysis, making the statement that whatever trauma you’ve been through doesn’t define who you are, or where you’re going. It’s a strong message which plays well to the adults and children in the audience.
All that being said, Gunn never forgets that he is still delivering a superhero epic, so of course there needs to be plenty of action, thrills, excitement and laughter. As such, Vol. 3 is packed to the gills with the required levels of spectacle, delivering imaginative sequences which are truly jaw-dropping. Yes, there’s plenty of computer generated imagery, but unlike the recently released Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania (2023), the visual effects aren’t headache inducing, as they are beautifully rendered and appropriately integrated with the striking costumes and production design. There is a defined style to the visual direction, building to an amazing action climax which will have the viewer cheering, punching the air, and laughing until it hurts.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is an incredibly cathartic experience for an unusually high number of reasons. Firstly, the fact that it matches the quality of the previous two films, while still maintaining the series’ unique feel, is astounding. Secondly, seeing this colourful story come together, despite the roadblocks along the way, makes it one of the few trilogies without a lacklustre chapter. Finally, the success of this entry maintains Marvel’s place at the top of the tree for a little while longer, while also proving James Gunn is truly one of the most focused and creative directors working in the blockbuster field.
Best way to watch it: While cuddling your fur baby.