Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

With the Marvel Cinematic Universe increasingly showing signs of storytelling fatigue, the question becomes what each sequel can do to freshen things up. Writer/director James Gunn seems to have figured out a decent approach with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. He chooses one of the characters, Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and delves into his backstory, which not so coincidentally fuels the plot. Even if this third outing doesn’t quite hit the heights of Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, it still avoids the “been there, done that” quality that has felled a few of the other recent Marvel releases.

The story opens with Rocket being critically injured during a fight with a powerful golden being named Adam Warlock (Will Poulter). To save their friend, Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) and his team – Drax (Dave Bautista), Groot (Vin Diesel), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) – go in search of a code that will override the kill switch embedded in his body. Also lending a hand is Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Quill’s former girlfriend who now has no memory of their relationship. The trail leads right to Warlock’s leader, a scientist named the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) who has been doing a series of experiments creating new lifeforms. Rocket is a proprietary design that he wants back.

Interspersed with this formal plot are flashbacks showing a younger Rocket held in captivity with several other animal subjects. We gradually learn about the trauma that evolved his personality into what fans of the series know it to be. Gunn does a good job doling out the information so that each piece of the puzzle we get lines up with the proper story. In other words, the flashbacks don’t slow things down as such detours are prone to do. They help propel the action.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 retains the qualities that made the first two installments successful: winning performances from the entire cast, eye-popping visual effects, and a healthy dose of offbeat humor. In terms of acting, the ladies get more to do this time around. Saldana is terrific as angry Gamora, Klementieff is hilarious as Mantis, and Gillan nicely transforms Nebula into a heroic character without sacrificing her edge. Action scenes are often creatively designed, particularly a lengthy sequence where the Guardians make their way into the Orgosphere, the High Commander’s headquarters that’s as much a living organism as a physical structure. Design of that location and others are really fun to take in, especially up on a big screen, where the detail can be fully absorbed.

Emotion is higher this time around. Gunn builds a sense that Rocket has been indelibly shaped by what he went through. There’s a sadness to his arc because of the horrors committed against him. Tied in to that is the clear impact his potential loss would have on the Guardians’ “family.” Vol. 3 isn’t afraid to go to some complex places, and that’s meaningfully reflected in the group dynamic.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 isn’t as consistently funny as its predecessors, and Adam Warlock is disappointingly underdeveloped as a character. He has a lot of potential, yet largely gets used for comic relief, almost as if forced in just for the sake of including a fan favorite. Beyond those qualms, the film is a satisfying wrap-up to the Guardians arm of the MCU. Now that the gang has our affection, Gunn takes us to new places, finding depth in their relationships and proving that they’re more than just a ragtag band of adventurers. Prepare to get a little choked up.

out of four

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, strong language, suggestive/drug references and thematic elements. The running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes.