This does have the feel of a victory lap, bringing everything full circle and giving everyone their time to shine. Everyone loves the literal-thinking lunk Drax (Dave Bautista) and towering tree-man Groot (Vin Diesel) but it is stoic cyborg Nebula (Karen Gillan) and eager-to-please empath Mantis (Pom Klementief), previously both pretty one-note, who end up being the undisputed highlights here. The former’s gruff and tough personality has gradually been eroded over her time with the Guardians, and the rare occasion when she lets down her guard and lets emotion overwhelm her really hits hard. The latter is the heart of the team, gets most of the funniest lines, and her unique power helps her and her friends out of a few tough spots in some unexpected ways.
Newcomers to this universe include Borat 2‘s Maria Bakalova as Cosmo the talking psychic cosmonaut dog who has an adorable film-long argument with space pirate Kraglin (Sean Gunn), Will Poulter as genetically engineered gold man-child Adam Warlock, and Chukwudi Iwuji as the High Evolutionary, arguably the most evil and irredeemable bastard in the galaxy who will mutilate, torture and thoughtlessly dispose of countless living things all in service of his delusional mission to create a “perfect society”.
The action is all very polished and exciting, and because this is the team’s last ride it all feels a lot more dangerous for our heroes somehow. A fight in a corridor in the final act might be the finest couple of minutes of action in the MCU to date – not only is it meticulously choreographed, ludicrously entertaining and set to a killer Beastie Boys track, but it lets the team work in violent harmony and gives every member of the team a chance to showcase their special abilities, each getting their own big character moment at the same time.
James Gunn has always happily leaned into the sillier visual and conceptual aspects of space opera, and rarely have such strange ideas been more convincingly brought to life as here. From a bio-formed space station seemingly made of meat to learning that the city of Knowhere (built inside the skull of a dead space god) can actually be driven to a new location, and even to a mirror image “Counter-Earth” populated by humanoids forcefully evolved from lower lifeforms, big swings are taken. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is an epic, galaxy-spanning quest, but all this imagination vitally remains in service of a very intimate story.
A minor criticism that could be levelled at this particular Guardians iteration is that the soundtrack isn’t as memorable or pitch-perfect as in the previous two films, with John Murphy’s (Sunshine, The Suicide Squad) original score extensively incorporating choral singing provoking a stronger reaction than the vast majority of the needle-drops. Similarly, the final act of the film, after over two hours of putting every Guardian through one life-threatening incident after another, keeps piling on the jeopardy to an almost absurd degree even when it is already fit to burst.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 brings this unlikely team’s journey to an immensely satisfying and appropriately epic conclusion. It is spectacular to look at and really funny, but it is also easily one of the darkest stories in the Marvel universe and does not pull its punches to make its pretty explicit discussion of abuse and animal testing any more palatable. We may see some of these characters again down the road, but for now it’s a fond farewell to them all, especially the acerbic Racoon who just wanted to be loved.