Review: With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Marvel Sets Up a Satisfying Conclusion to This Iteration of Universe-Saving Misfits

After months of speculation leading up to the most recent Ant-Man and the Wasp film, Quantamania, that Scott Lang was going to somehow get killed by the end, observers of all things Marvel have moved on to an even stronger belief that some member or members of the Guardians of Galaxy would bite the dust before the end of Vol. 3. If for no other reason, people believe this because writer/director James Gunn and pretty much every cast member has made it clear that this is the last chapter of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise with this iteration of the team. I’m obviously not going to reveal who, if anyone, doesn’t make it to the end, but there are certainly early indications that death is imminent and tears will be shed.

When we rejoin the team, they now own and operate Knowhere, the outpost carved out of a celestial’s head. Once a hive of criminal behavior, it appears Knowhere is a functioning, law-abiding safe haven where people look to the Guardians to maintain order and make this place resemble a civilization. The team is nearly intact, with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff) Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and even former Ravenger Kraglin (Sean Gunn) all handling fairly mundane tasks to keep their base secure and running smoothly. The only one missing is Peter’s love interest, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who died at the hands of her adopted father Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, and had a version of herself from the past come into the present in Avengers: Endgame, now no longer knowing Peter at all, let alone loving him. Her whereabouts are unknown at the beginning of Vol. 3, but rest assured, she returns, perhaps not how you were thinking or desiring.

As the film opens, the team must deal with some lingering business from Vol. 2, namely the vengeful wrath of golden alien Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), who has sent her greatest creation, a perfect specimen known as Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), genetically engineered to follow her every order and be a flawless killing machine. The problem is, he was taken out of his gestation cocoon too early and emerged kind of dumb, which provides a few laughs in the movie but might disappoint more than a few fans of the character from the comics, who is decidedly not a himbo. 

It turns out Ayesha and Adam are in league with a figure from Rocket’s colorful past known as the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a scientist of sorts who has made it his life’s mission to genetically combine species for no other reason than he can, including one he created years earlier named Rocket, who in turn escaped his maker. The High Evolutionary wants his creation back because he’s one of the few experiments who grew to become smarter than he was, and he wants to examine Rocket’s brain to understand how that could have possibly happened. The backstory of Rocket and the High Evolutionary is scattered throughout the film, and if we didn’t have enough reasons to love and adore that burly raccoon, wait until you see him as a sweet baby one. He was caged with other talking and modified animals (many of whom end up living on a planet called Counter-Earth, which we get hilarious glimpses of in the movie), including a kind otter named Lydia (voice provided by Linda Cardellini).

When Adam attacks the Guardians on Knowhere, he mortally injures Rocket, and when the Guardians attempt to save him, they discover that any attempt to open him up or revive him will activate a kill switch that will instantly end the little guy’s life. So they have to find the High Evolutionary to get Rocket’s schematics and a code to save him without killing him. During the course of the movie, probably half the team members go through some ordeal that is meant to convince us that someone is going to die; it’s a little aggravating, but it does test audiences as to which characters they find most beloved—if you almost cry, that means those Guardians are great.

Filmmaker Gunn takes his time moving through the odyssey that is their final mission and reintroduces us to some of their old cohorts along the way, including Cosmo the Russian Spacedog (voiced by Maria Bakalova), who is desperate to be a good dog and show off her telekinetic powers; Sylvester Stallone returns as ravenger Stakar Ogord, who no longer considers Peter among their ranks; and even Nathan Fillion pops up as a guard in one of the film’s many elaborate heist sequences. Even a certain talking duck shows up briefly. And then of course, there’s Nebula; I won’t say where she’s been keeping herself and how she’s involved, but it’s a constant source of amusement how much Peter wants her to be his Nebula and how he won’t stop whining about how mean this version of her is to him.

The film gives each Guardians member a chance to shine and even grow in Vol. 3. That being said, Bautista and Klementieff get a little less spotlight time than many others, perhaps because they were the stars of the recent Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. Still, compared to other Marvel films of late, this installment is colorful, has mostly great pacing (even with its 2.5-hour running time), and has stakes both big and small that give the outcome of the film some mystery and gave me a bit of anxiety in the process. With that said, teasing the deaths of multiple characters does tend to feel repetitive and loses some of the weight of those stakes each time you threaten the core makeup of the team.

The High Evolutionary is one of the more compelling Marvel villains of late, perhaps even equalling the danger levels of someone like Kang (from Quantumania), but most of the great Marvel baddies succeed because their motivations are believable, perhaps even understandable from a certain perspective. When Rocket tells us that his creator doesn’t really want to make the perfect society, he just doesn’t like things the way they are, that almost instantly devalues the character, taking him from interesting to just a bully, which is always boring.

As a showcase to decommission this version of the Guardians, Vol. 3 succeeds as a worthy installment by leaving the team (and the audience) content in a place where it’s possible we’ll run into a few of them down the road while still giving us the type of emotional conclusion we’d been hoping for (just maybe not for the reasons we think). It’s a solid work that rights the stumbling that Marvel films have been engaged in lately, and makes me a tad more excited for what comes next.

The film begins a theatrical release on Thursday, May 4.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.