Review Roundup: James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Last year, it was announced that James Gunn was jumping ship to DC, where he would oversee all future efforts to bring Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al., to the big screen. (He’s currently writing a new Superman film scheduled for July 2025, which he’ll also direct.) But as a parting gift to the MCU, he wrote and directed the third and final Guardians of the Galaxy movie.
The first Guardians of the Galaxy movie — which was released nearly ten(!) years ago — focused on a ragtag bunch of ne’er do wells who had to overcome their differences to save the galaxy from a despot. With its madcap humor, memorable characters, and killer soundtrack, it remains a bright spot in the MCU.
A lot has changed, though, in the ensuing years, both for the world as a whole and for the MCU. Following the events of Avengers: Endgame, the MCU has struggled to regain its momentum and sense of purpose even after a slew of movies and TV series. So does the third Guardians movie provide some necessary closure for our galactic heroes as Gunn heads to DC? Or does it fall prey to the same issues that have plagued the MCU for the last few years? Read on for a brief overview of critics’ reactions.
Now Guardians of the Galaxy has reached the threequel stage: overlong, yes, and finally reaching for an importance and emotional closure (perhaps inspired by Gunn’s own emotional corporate redemption) that it doesn’t quite encompass, while leaving the GOTG brand open for a next-gen reboot. But it’s still spectacular, spirited and often funny.
As a whole, Gunn has spearheaded a franchise with an incredible setup and payoff for each character on the team. It’s almost impossible not to watch those final moments without a huge smile. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a heartfelt celebration of imperfection that welcomes everyone into the film’s titular found family. Gunn continues to be a director to keep an eye on thanks to his heartfelt storytelling and unique vision, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 leaves audiences excited to see what’s next.
There were moments of pure edge-of-your-seat action and consequences. Audiences get great fight scenes that display each character doing what they do best. The way these fight scenes are choreographed not only highlights their individual talents but also highlights their strength as a team. They know how to move and fight with each other to get the job done. Some fun moments are displayed. Everyone plays their role perfectly. I was excited to see how Zoe Saldana would do as a different version of Gamora. She was very good. There was no doubt that she is not the Gamora from our timeline.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 arrives as the latest in a series of franchise-wrapping movies, and audiences have reason to be wary of what that means, given the send-offs received by characters such as John Wick and James Bond. Gunn toys with the mortality of his ensemble as well, but he does so responsibly, honoring the bonds we’ve made to these characters over the years, and recognizing that the Guardians can and will evolve.
If most Marvel movies make their audiences stand up and cheer, Gunn’s does something even more meaningful: make them stand up and cry. (Yes, we’re talking about the movies with the violent raccoon and the talking tree.) Gunn’s special brand of sincerity, humor, and violence has always made for a strong match for the GOTG crew — there are no other characters in the current MCU lineup who are so adept at cracking jokes while absolutely wrecking a room full of baddies — and he takes that alchemy to insane ends for his final chapter.
In a franchise that has faced criticisms over how similar its movies can look or how often they recycle the same basic origin story plot, the Guardians of the Galaxy films have always felt like a breath of fresh air. It’s something the MCU is in dire need of at this particular moment. And Gunn delivers exactly that. The film strikes the right balance — it works perfectly within both the Guardians series and the MCU overall. The threequel is much darker than previous installments, but balances its tragedy with Gunn’s natural levity without overdoing it. The result is a triumphant finale, not just for the Guardians, but for Gunn’s time with Marvel.
One longs for a film solely focused on that compelling, frightening premise, one that would have worked better in the middle of a trilogy, just as the bleakness of The Empire Strikes Back is nestled between cheerier fare. It’s a peculiar note for a send-off — this ghoulish portrait of messianic tech, of disruption most foul — and especially jarring in the context of Vol. 3’s larger, maudlin intent. The film operates as if the awfulness of what we’ve just witnessed can be drowned out by the sniffles of poignant goodbyes and the early hammer-and-nail tinkerings of new world-building.
Vol. 3 is an allegory about fathers and sons, families both biological and adopted, and the life-saving possibilities of good friendship. But that’s nothing new, neither for the MCU nor for this sub-franchise. For some, being wrapped in that blanket of familiarity will be enough, but others may be left wanting for more of that jolt of energy that Iwuji’s performance brings to the proceedings — if only to distract us from the fact that Vol. 3 exists largely to be replaced by the next shiny thing in a seemingly endless conveyor belt of movies and TV shows.
The plot is threadbare and unusual, centering around Rocket Raccoon but oddly sidelining him for most of the film. The thin Vol 3 story is largely an excuse to tell a flashback origin story about how Rocket went from a regular Earth raccoon to a brilliant, gadget whiz and talking anthropomorphized animal/human hybrid and mostly short changes the rest. That tale is full of horror, trauma, and sadness, touching on animal cruelty, human barbarism, and of course, villainous narcissism. Rocket’s origin is fundamentally harrowing and emotionally bruising, and that speaks to just how tonally strange Vol 3 can be. It’s often dark, disturbing, and upsetting — young children watch out — but wanting to have its formula cake too, it also flips on a dime and tries to be cheeky, flippant, and coated with the usual hip vintage ’70s AM tunes, the series is known for.
Gunn’s movies are typically known for madcap humor, exciting action, and a slight edge that feels rebellious within Disney’s MCU machine. But here, much of the humor and edge is dulled by the depressing onslaught of death and torture. The violence is alarmingly intense for this brand. Characters are mauled, set ablaze, or have bones snapped, and a head is decapitated to presumably comedic effect. Maybe this mayhem would play better if the movie were funnier or at least less solemn. But as it is, it’s shocking and off-putting to see such graphic violence in a movie that presumably was meant for kids and parents to enjoy together. Essentially, it feels like Gunn is reaching for maturity through moping and shock value, and the result is gross, not engrossing.
The film’s wildly imaginative visuals are another plus, with the proceedings feeling so bizarrely trippy at times it’s as if Gunn is aiming to create a midnight cult classic rather than a blockbuster superhero film. His distinctively anarchic style is on full display here, which makes you wonder how he’s going to tone it down when he tackles such iconic characters less suitable for irreverent humor as Superman.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 offers a rare thing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: a satisfying ending to a trilogy. While the Guardians series will probably continue on in some fashion, writer-director James Gunn ties up this iteration of the team with the same humor and heart as the first two, but this time adds in unexpected darkness in the form of Rocket’s genuinely disturbing origin story. It’s what makes this somewhat busy but mostly lovable threequel such an emotionally rich comic book movie.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 opens in theaters on May 5, 2023. Watch the trailer below.