Nine years ago, director James Gunn convinced audiences to root for a talking raccoon and talking tree save the galaxy. Nine years later, he makes us cry about what might happen to them. Guardians of the Galaxy has become the oddball, misfit ensemble of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They’re quirky but not bubbly, brash but not mean, and heartfelt but not sappy. With a colorful assortment of underdogs, the third and final film gives them a proper send-off with a fitting finale.
It helps that this entry focuses more on the other characters than it does Peter “Starlord” Quill (Chris Pratt). After two movies and two crossover event movies, we’ve learned just about everything there is to know about the abducted human in a galaxy of alien creatures. This third film gives more of the spotlight to the lesser featured characters. None of them have a complete arc this time than Rocket (Bradley Cooper), the foul-mouthed raccoon with a past he hasn’t been fully upfront about. This picture gives us his brutal origin story and shapes his more significant conflict with the new villain. Fitting with the general themes of the saga, Rocket’s problems stem from being traumatized by his past and seeking a family in his future.
But Rocket’s overall struggle with trauma is a theme that affects everyone in this sci-fi adventure. Peter still hasn’t let go of his former lover Gamora (Zoe Saldana), unable to accept that her current version from another universe has no memory of their adventures. Nebula (Karen Gillan) finds it hard to side with others after a lifetime of abuse from her father, Thanos. Drax (Dave Bautista) needs to find a better outlet for his underused skills as a father, and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) needs to find herself after being free of her oppressive father. As for the gruff tree Groot (Vin Diesel), well…he will always be Groot.
This time the gang has to stop the egotistical The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a mad scientist with dreams of creating the perfect world. Consumed with destroying imperfections, his irrational goals make him the perfect foe for a band of misfits. It also helps that Iwuji launches himself fully into this role, becoming a powerhouse of a madman who goes from the chill doctor to a short-fused psychopath at the top of a hat. His devious plans of devastation and unethical experimentation lead to such wild locations as Counter Earth, a planet that has the modern style of earth with the population of The Island of Doctor Moreau.
Even with a much darker tone this time, Volume 3 still has a vibrancy not present in any other Marvel saga. So much color bursts from the screen in the many dazzling shots. A highlight of the film is a heist targeting a space station composed entirely of organic matter, looking weirdly sterile and gross simultaneously. Even the somewhat simpler setting of Counter Earth has some great details, as with hybrid animals mowing lawns and doing drug deals behind alleys. Naturally, this volume of the Guardians saga doesn’t skimp on jukebox classics to back up the tone, including a perfectly placed song for a fierce fight down a hallway.
Despite how much of the film works so well, some sidelined arcs don’t wrap up so neatly. The most underdeveloped character is Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a superpowered literal golden boy excited at the end of Volume 2. He’s more or less present as a child-like enforcer who has to get over his controlling mother. But since he’s more or less considered an expendable backup, he struggles to find his place in this movie. Even The High Evolutionary doesn’t seem to have much use for him. There’s also Sean Gunn returning to the role Kraglin whose only goal in life seems to be living up to the late Yondu and mastering his whistling arrow technique. He does at least have a decent dose of comedy with the talking dog Cosmo.
For how much it tries to cram, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 ends this trilogy on a high note of great character, charm, and classic rock. It feels more whole than Volume 2, which more or less tried to find stuff for the other characters to do. Considering this is probably the last time we’ll see these characters, they’re given a send-off that fittingly touches on what makes them exciting and unique. While far darker than other entries and perhaps lacking in the laugh-out-loud moments, this entry has the most depth and heart, making the audience care about these oddballs. I must admit that there is some warmth to the scene where Groot’s creeping branches cradle the pint-sized Rocket. Scenes like that made me smile at the absurdity and earnestness which Gunn embraces like no other director.