The final entry in a film trilogy is a long-suffering position, prone to letdowns, downright failures or ill-advised existences altogether. Even studios and companies known for their ability to craft intricate and satisfying storylines across numerous movies like Disney can fall victim to the trappings of a third movie. “Iron Man 3” simply didn’t live up to the standard of its predecessors for many, a common trilogy entry complaint, while “Rise of Skywalker” seemed to set a new low for fumbling the ending to a franchise.
With that said, it’s easy to see the difficult task set forth for “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” Writer and Director James Gunn. Tying a bow on a story spanning nine years is an unenviable challenge, one that was always going to be prone to mishap.
Somehow, Gunn stuck the landing in a way many others couldn’t, however, creating a movie that tops all of the bars set by the Guardians crew’s entries and appearances before it and sets a new standard for MCU trilogy entries moving forward.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” opens with little time wasted on recap or summary. Gunn seems to have rightfully realized that the Guardians’ story is one that viewers have practically grown up with over the past nine years.
Within minutes, it plunges into the central conflict between the Guardians and the franchise’s latest big bad, The High Evolutionary played by Chukwudi Iwuji. The High Evolutionary is the man responsible for essentially creating Rocket, having used him as an experiment subject for various forms of twisted experiments on cybernetic and genetic enhancements in his efforts to create the perfect civilization. As a result, he feels he owns Rocket and sends his lackey Adam Warlock, played by Will Poulter, to kidnap him.
It’s a refreshingly straightforward plot for a trilogy entry that skillfully threads the needle between diving deeper into the characters and themes of the original movies without reinventing the wheel when it what made these characters beloved to begin with.
In fact, one of the biggest successes of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is the interplay and building of relationships between the Guardians. Each hero receives a satisfying arc and plenty of standout moments, a feat in of itself for a movie juggling as many of them as Guardians does.
Pom Klementieff’s Mantis is one of the biggest beneficiaries as she struggles to show she’s more than just the emotional core of the team while simultaneously helping each of them find their own place within it. Her efforts at helping Star-Lord and Nebula work through their respective traumas are some of the best balances between heart and humor that the movie has to offer.
Speaking of Nebula, Gunn also expertly executes her story of finding a way to accept the various members of this ragtag team of oddballs while acting, at times, as almost a surrogate leader in lieu of Star-Lord. Karen Gillan felt like an unsung star of “Avengers: Endgame” in the role, and she deserves even more praise here. Her performance is perhaps the best of any of the Guardians at keeping the movie tonally on track, something it occasionally struggles with given some of the subject matter clashing with the franchise’s reputation for comedy.
The movie even finds a way to use the laugh-out-loud comedy relief of Drax, played by an always-game Dave Bautista, to great effect, though, to help show how he could be more than simply the group’s muscle and comedic punching bag. In other words, Drax is once again a scene-stealer through and through, and the film benefits heavily from it
Rocket’s story is where “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” really hits its highest mark, however. His flashbacks to his time with The High Evolutionary are some of the most emotionally impactful scenes the MCU has ever produced.
Rocket’s abuse at the hands of The High Evolutionary is shocking and heart-wrenching. His scenes are quite honestly hard to watch. Violence and abuse against animals are always difficult subjects to watch on screen, and this movie makes no qualms about showing them. Even when the acts themselves take place out of view of the audience, they’re viscerally upsetting. Suffice it to say; this movie earns its PG-13 rating in spades.
At the same time, the movie never feels like it exploits those moments for shock value. They make the moments of beauty between the heartbreak, the times Rocket spends forming a makeshift family with fellow victims of The High Evolutionary, even more poignant and moving. Both the audience and the rest of the Guardians also have a much better understanding of Rocket’s character as a result of seeing and understanding his past so intimately too, no matter how uncomfortable it is.
Last but not least, it makes the stakes for confronting The High Evolutionary that much clearer, an undeniable improvement given that “Guardians of the Galaxy” started off with one of the MCU’s weaker villains in Ronan the Accuser.
Gunn wisely doesn’t attempt to make The High Evolutionary sympathetic or understandable in any way either, and Iwuji’s performance reflects that. He’s a delusional and dangerous maniac trying to play God, nothing more or less. When Star-Lord gets the chance to confront him, there shouldn’t be a soul in the theater who doesn’t want to see Chris Pratt’s character knock The High Evolutionary’s lights out.
Adam Warlock is a bit of a different story. He’s basically a misguided man-baby stuck in Superman’s body in the movie. It’s a fine role but for a different character. Warlock alludes to a motive for why he’s helping The High Evolutionary, but Gunn shoehorns it into a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment during a much more dramatic sequence for the Guardians.
Warlock’s character in the comics has a surprising amount of depth and meaning, but not here. It makes you wish they saved his teased reveal for a later project, despite the fact that Poulter nails the material given to him, instead inventing a new character to fill Warlock’s role in the film.
It also doesn’t help that Warlock is the walking embodiment of the clashing tones the movie can sometimes struggle to reconcile. He’s shockingly violent but also regularly hilarious, much like “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” itself.
Nonetheless, the movie finds an adequate balancing point more often than not, making the few awkward slip-ups far easier to forgive, given the masterful storytelling of the movie as a whole.
Overall, James Gunn put together one of the most satisfying conclusions to a big-budget trilogy in years. Wherever the Guardians IP and characters go after this, whoever takes the reins will certainly have to work overtime to come close to matching what Gunn created with “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.”
Spotlight Score: 9/10