Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 (United States, 2023)

May 03, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 Poster

Marvel’s post-Thanos struggles continue, this time in a movie that features two of the Mad Titan’s daughters. Although the malaise that has afflicted many of the recent MCU releases – from the unheralded Eternals to the much-hyped Doctor Strange and Thor sequels – isn’t at full force in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3, this is the least enjoyable of James Gunn’s trilogy. While some of the darker threads in the movie are welcome – Guardians was in danger of becoming overtly jokey – it suffers from many of the same problems that have dogged the latest round of comic book movies: a too-long running time, not enough genuine excitement, a generic villain, and a weak ending that doesn’t justify all the build-up.

If there’s a curious aspect to Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3, it’s the decision to decouple these characters from the wider MCU. This is very much a stand-alone story. With the Thor connection having been previously severed, no Avengers make appearances. The multiverse is never once mentioned and the new Big Bad, Kang the Conqueror, gets neither a cameo nor even a mention. Because the setting is outer space, this feels more natural than it would with an Earth-based scenario and it’s refreshing not to have as much baggage, although the post-Thanos headache is impossible to ignore.

If Guardians 2 was about the origins of Star Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), this edition delves into the dark secrets of how Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) evolved into his current walking, talking, quipping, fighting mode. It’s a tragic, uncomfortable story that adds aspects to this Guardians that weren’t present its predecessors. The movie still offers comedic elements – the relationship among Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Nebula (Karen Gillan) is spiced with playful banter – but (for better or worse) Guardians has evolved. Unfortunately, the central storyline is recycled and the villain, The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), is one of the least imposing of the dozens of antagonists to have roamed the MCU since its inception.

The movie opens with a bang, as was the case with Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. The Guardians – Star Lord, Drax, Rocket, Nebula, Mantis, Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), Kraglin (Sean Gunn), and Cosmo the Spacedog (Maria Bakalova) – are in their headquarters when they are suddenly and violently attacked by Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), who has come to kidnap Rocket to bring him back to his master, The High Evolutionary. Warlock fails but Rocket is seriously injured in the confrontation and cannot be healed because of a “kill switch” that has been implanted in the circuitry that transformed him from a normal mammal into the hybrid man/beast he is. This leads to a quest – the Guardians must seek out a code that will deactivate the kill switch so Rocket can be healed and restored. Although all roads lead to The High Evolutionary, there are a couple of detours along the way. One involves a reunion with Gamora Mark II (Zoe Saldana), the “other universe” woman with no previous romantic attachment to Quill and who is now the leader of the Ravagers.

The wide variety of outer space habitats allows for all sorts of weird and wonderful visuals but there are times when the special effects aren’t quite up to snuff. Although Volume 3 mostly looks good, there are times when the CGI becomes cartoonish. Although this may have been a conscious decision by Gunn, there are some jarring moments when the obviously fake locales and/or creatures creates a distraction. Considering the amount of money spent of visual effects for all MCU movies, this was surprising (not in a positive way).

The action sequences aren’t as inventive as some in the previous installments, falling primarily into the category of “generic superhero movie fights.” The movie also cheats on at least a couple of occasions, when seemingly major moments are degraded as a result of cowardly narrative choices. And Volume 3 can’t seem to decide how powerful it wants The High Evolutionary to be. At times, he is represented as a godlike being. At others…not so much. He is underdeveloped (not surprising), underused, and ultimately forgettable.

Generally speaking, I have been a fan of Gunn’s oeuvre. He’s one of the best at establishing an irreverent tone that allows a mostly-serious story to develop with a flippant, tongue-in-cheek edge. The first Guardians of the Galaxy had a lazy plot but worked because the characters were vividly presented and Gunn kept things rolling along. Volume 3 is partially undone by its length. Some of what was breezy in earlier installments feels repetitive and stale here. The ending is flat-out disappointing and the post-credits sequences (there are two) are wastes of time.

Although the movie’s end credits proudly announce the return of at least one of the Guardians characters, it’s unclear whether there will be any more chapters to this franchise. Creative maestro Gunn has packed up his bags and become DC’s Kevin Feige, so he’s likely out for a potential Guardians 4. Additionally, at least two of the actors have “retired” from their roles, although that’s less of an impediment considering how superhero team rosters are always seemingly in flux. My sense is that there’s not much more these characters can give and it might be best to let them fade away. But the ultimate arbiter of whether or not there will be another sequel – the almighty box office – may feel differently. That’s why we keep getting diminished and devalued franchises and, sadly, the trend is already evident in Guardians of the Galaxy. This isn’t a bad movie but by no means is it worthy of booking an opening-night appointment.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 (United States, 2023)

Run Time: 2:29
U.S. Release Date: 2023-05-05
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: Action/Science Fiction
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1