by Rob DiCristino
When we last saw the Guardians of the Galaxy, they…Wait. When did we last see them? Endgame? No. Thor: Love and Thunder, right? Oh! There was that Disney+ Christmas thing. Did I watch that? It’s hard to keep track anymore, just as it’s hard to shake the feeling that Star Lord and his band of renegades are artifacts of an era (era) gone by, the last vestiges of a golden age that ended with the snap heard ‘round the galaxy back in 2019. Subsequent Marvel adventures have been sketchy at best, incoherent at worst, and largely dependent on the support of die-hards willing to brave a multiverse of characters lacking Iron Man’s charm or Captain America’s texture. It’s actually funny to remember that the original Guardians film was the first such departure from that storyline, a gamble taken on the ethos of an untested auteur wielding little more than a roster of D-listers and a yacht rock playlist. A decade later, James Gunn’s final Guardians film is an elegiac goodbye to Marvel’s most unlikely — and most irreverent — family unit.
As the Guardians join forces with Gamora to track down the High Evolutionary — a move that Quill finds more than a little distracting — screenwriter Gunn flashes us back to the comatose Rocket’s earliest memories: Experimented on from infancy, saddled with bionic implants, and forced to do involuntary calculus — the worst kind of calculus — for a self-styled god who considers his creation little more than a step along the evolutionary line, the terrified trash panda soon forms a bond with Franken-otter Lylla (Linda Cardellini), another “lower being” dismissed as expendable by her master. Meanwhile, the Guardians bicker and argue their way through a roster of enemies old and new — including Ravager boss Stakar (Sylvester Stallone), golden goddess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), and security grunt Karja (Nathan Fillion) — to discover the secret to Rocket’s recovery, sort out an ever-growing list of interpersonal grievances, and save the universe from the genocidal maniac who doomed their friend to a life of pain and loneliness.Wakanda Forever and Quantumania. The Guardians are intensely personal to Gunn, and he wasn’t about to waste our time with sky lasers or mystery boxes. Instead, the writer-director deftly scaffolds a world-ending plot around a simple, character-based premise: Rocket meets his maker. Drama comes from character, of course, and Rocket isn’t the only character with drama: Mantis is recognizing her lack of personal affect, Drax is frustrated by knocks on his intellect, Nebula’s leadership ambitions are tempered by her, well, temper, and Quill’s preoccupation with his indifferent ex is eating away at his last scattered fragments of self-esteem. Vol. 3 is undoubtedly darker than its predecessors, a story of limitation and insecurity, of missed connections and arrested development.
With all that said, Vol. 3 is hardly a funeral dirge. Gunn’s sharp wit and ear for banter are as vibrant as ever, and this final adventure is rife with hilarious arguments and slapstick bits that underline the Guardians’ desperate need to grow beyond the roles that have come to define them. Our heroes are at each other’s throats for most of the running time, with Nebula and Mantis anchoring some unexpected — but welcome — philosophical conflict between cynicism and hope. Considerable energy is also spent helping Quill understand that this new Gamora will never love him the way “his” Gamora once did. It’s a beautiful approach to a breakup that never condescends to or undercuts Gamora’s agency; she is not that other girl, and the movie never pretends that she can, will, or should be. Instead, Quill is encouraged to make peace with the end of one era (era) and the beginning of a new, more fulfilling one. It’s growth. Change. We like seeing these siblings at odds, sure, but it’s even more gratifying to watch them earn the confidence to take real risks and find their bliss on their own.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 hits theaters on Friday, May 5th.