Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023)

Recently it has seemed like the Marvel Cinematic Universe is on its last legs.  A couple of good films graced us for Phase 4, but it was populated largely by mediocre fare like Black Widow and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.  The latter was the most recent prior to the release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and was so bad that it seemed like it was written by AI.  Not a good thing as it was released just before the latest writers' strike, giving ammunition to those that would wonder why good money should be paid to people who do just as bad a job of concocting a movie as a computer program. 

Then came Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, a return to one of the most surprising MCU franchises.  I thought that Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 stumbled horribly.  It had its moments, like Yondu's (Michael Rooker) sacrifice for Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), but where the original had balanced some of the sillier moments with making what appeared to be a ridiculous idea gel with the help of great characters the second seemed to have scene after scene of pure stupidity.  On top of that it had the usual curse of terrible MCU CGI.  The only thing that kept any interest for me in the long gap between Guardians films was that their cameos in various other Marvel films, as well as What If..., which featured T'Challa as Star-Lord instead of Peter Quill.  Except for the two Avengers flicks that wrapped up Phase 3 their appearances often were the best part of some rather dire movies. 

Although James Gunn was back writing and directing one last time before heading off to try his hand at rescuing the DC Cinematic Universe I didn't really pay much attention when this was coming out.  There was nothing from either the MCU or Gunn himself that made me overly excited, but then some people I trust started saying this movie was actually good.  Other than that, like Guardians of the Galaxy itself, I went into this blind, not knowing exactly what to expect.  

Quill is drinking himself into oblivion in Knowhere, which has become the location of the Guardians of the Galaxy's headquarters.  Gamora (Zoe Saldana) returned in the second film, but she's from another time before she and Quill were an item, and is now the leader of the Ravagers.  Her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), Groot (Vin Diesel), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) round out the old crew, with former Ravager Kragler (Sean Gunn) and the telepathic Russian space dog Cosmo (Maria Bakalova) making up the new members.  Their peace is suddenly interrupted when Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) shows up and tries to capture Rocket.  Though Warlock is initially repelled Rocket is mortally wounded and, thanks to a kill switch installed by the company that created him, attempts to save him are complicated.

It turns out that he was created as an experiment by a man named the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), who has been experimenting for years with genetics and other methods of making the perfect society.  It is he who sent Warlock as Rocket is his only creation that went beyond his programming and he wants him back so he can dissect him.  The Guardians must infiltrate his front company in order to try to save their friend and, ultimately, prevent the High Evolutionary from continuing his experiments. 

After the silliness that was Vol. 2 I really didn't expect such an effective story.  It may sound like another MCU film about a big, bad villain that must be stopped, but the attention is mostly on Rocket himself, exploring his origins, which previously he has kept hidden from the rest of his friends.  Throughout the quest to save him Quill is forced to deal directly with Gamora, while many of the others get fleshed out as well.  As usual Dave Bautista is a highlight, and one of the few of the heroes besides Groot that seems to be exactly what he is.  Mantis is underused in Vol. 2 but comes into her own, and it is nice that she is presented as a heavily flawed character and in some ways a terrible friend to Drax.

Vol. 3 manages to also successfully maintain the visual style present from Guardians of the Galaxy, something Vol. 2 tried but rarely achieved.  There is still some iffy CGI at the beginning, but things do shape up, presenting us with an organic (and very fleshy) headquarters for Orgo Corp. that looks quite unique and stomach-turning at the same time.  Surprisingly a good number of the creatures seen in the movie, including most of those on Counter-Earth, were achieved with prosthetics and practical effects except for where it would have been pretty much impossible.  

The other thing that I enjoyed was that the off-kilter humor, which came so easily in the first movie, is back again.  Despite the long delays due to Gunn being fired and re-hired and then everything once again delayed by the pandemic the Guardians feel like a unit and not just a bunch of people talking about being such.  This helps the jokes land, unlike most of the MCU films where they seem to either feel unnatural.  There is also no attempt to bring the movie to a stop to lecture the audience about the benefits of socialism and or some cause du jeur in a manner that's akin to one's grandma offering sex advice.  It's as if Gunn knows what he did wrong the second time around and pretty much understands what his audience wants rather than trying to make a movie to please a committee of bosses. 

It is one of the few times in recent memory that I have enjoyed a big-budget blockbuster film as many are so hollow and bland.  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 reminds me of something I would have gone to see back in the early 1990s, not knowing completely what to expect but being surprised at the end.  I can understand why Gunn was hired away from the MCU, partially because Kevin Feige and Disney didn't appreciate him, and also because The Suicide Squad and the Peacemaker television series were two of the few DCCU offerings that were any good.  If anyone can right that ship it will probably be him.  As for this, the introduction of the new Guardians at the end makes me hopeful that someone at Disney will take the hint and run with what Gunn has given them and not destroy it like they have the other Marvel franchises. 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023)
Time: 150 minutes
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Karen Gillan, Dave Bautista, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel, Chukwudi Iwuji
Director: James Gunn



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