After the last few years of Marvel duds, disappointments, and flat-out disasters, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 feels like a miracle. I’ll stop short of declaring it as such, but it’s an oasis in the desert made up of the remains of what the Marvel Cinematic Universe used to be. It feels like a send-off to that once-adored universe’s past as much as it is to the Guardians themselves because James Gunn went for the gusto with this one, packing his farewell with action, drama, laughs, tragedy, and all the heart you expect from the freakin’ Guardians of the Galaxy.
As the Guardians adjust to their new roles running Knowhere – and Peter Quill adjusts to living without Gamora – an attack from a powerful intruder leaves Rocket badly wounded. The rest of the Guardians saddle up to find a way to save their friend, which pits them against an intergalactic pharmaceutical company and a cruel scientist called The High Evolutionary.
The trailers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 teased a darker film than the previous two (or the Holiday Special, which you should watch before this), and they weren’t lying. There are moments of horror in this movie that will surprise you, and not just for a Guardians film; this one goes further than any MCU movie in that direction. Impressively, it never feels at odds with the tone of the others; Vol. 3 is packed with humanity, even in its more terrifying scenes, using the inherent kindness and relatability of characters old and new to fuel the darkness. But it also has a lot of humor, with the Guardians all acting in character and delivering lines that are both funny and unique to each of them. And unlike too many of the recent Marvel output, this film knows when to pull back, to let drama be drama, to let the heroes bleed or mourn or just relate to each other.
That’s supported by the great cast once again beautifully inhabiting characters they could probably play in their sleep by now. But no one rests on their laurels, and watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is like a reunion with old friends. But these are old friends at different points in their lives than when we last hung out: Peter has lost Gamora; Gamora is adrift in a world she doesn’t fit into; Drax wonders what he brings to the team; Groot is finding his way as a young adult (not the pre-teen kind); Mantis feels extraneous, with no one listening to what she insists is good advice; and Nebula is angry, feeling like she has to corral the herd of misfits she’s now stuck with, whether she likes it or not. And, finally, Rocket is reminiscing and regretting his past, wondering if he’s damned for his mistakes. Each one of the Guardians has an arc, and they end up in some surprising places.
Bucking a Marvel trend, the heroes of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 are elevated by a terrific villain. The High Evolutionary isn’t your run-of-the-mill MCU bad guy; he’s an absolute monster, an intergalactic Mengele who tortures all kinds of life forms in his search for genetic perfection. He’s a break from the world-ending threats and multiversal madmen that have been Marvel’s stock-in-trade for a long time. But his goals are just as horrific, and his motivations are equally scary; to borrow a phrase from another great sci-fi movie, he’s the guy who thinks he can make people better. The coldness with which he views life, the sadistic lengths to which he’s willing to go to perfect nature, and the scary sterility of his soul manifested in science stand in stark contrast to the love a family of misfits shares. I don’t think I’ve ever hated an MCU villain as much as The High Evolutionary, and I mean that in a good way.
I’m also left in awe by the visuals with which Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 washes the screen. This movie looks wonderful, with imaginative designs for the various locations and alien beings the Guardians encounter. The interior of a space-faring medical facility mixes the expected white with splashes of vivid colors, while its exterior is roughly textured beige, almost like a brain protecting the scientific wonders at work inside. This is juxtaposed with the mundanity of an Earth-like suburb, with homey houses lining a street of well-maintained lawns and smooth roads – albeit populated with anthropomorphic animals. The special effects blow the last couple of years’ worth of Marvel productions out of the water, with all the fantastical creatures and settings feeling alive. This movie draws you in and makes you believe in it.
There aren’t many complaints I have about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, but it isn’t perfect, despite how giddy I was leaving the theater. The music, often one of the best parts of the Guardians’ adventures, isn’t as good this time. There are a couple of nice beats – and one showstopper towards the end that you’ll know when you see/hear – but they’re mostly bland and forgettable. I also wish they had done more with Adam Warlock, one of the new characters introduced herein. That’s surprising for me to say because I never cared for the character in the comics; I tend to find the cosmic heroes flat and boring, nowhere near as cool or fun as the earthbound heroes (and Thor). He’s better in the movie, but he’s not in it much, more a plot device than a character. That being said, he does have an arc despite his small role, something at which James Gunn excels. But he still feels a bit tacked on.
That’s pretty much it, though. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a fantastic time, a stellar send-off to beloved characters, a human story about finding your own way rather than submitting to what others have decided for you, a warning about those who try to rule and cause harm in the name of science, and once more, the love among a group of outcasts nobody else wanted till they found each other. I have the sneaking suspicion that Marvel movies will never be this good again, or at least not for a long time, because with James Gunn’s defection to the Distinguished Competition, Marvel may have lost the last guy working there who actually cared.