Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a darker chapter with a big heart to match

Filmmaker James Gunn returns to helm Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, his third and final instalment of Marvel’s misfits-in-space saga. A darker chapter with a big heart to match, Liam Maguren says those qualities are outsized only by the film’s muscular production and slightly overstuffed story.

DC’s new screen content captain James Gunn ends his involvement with the Marvel Cinematic Universe by delivering a mighty swan song for his rag-tag ratbags in space. A worthy addition to Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, this darker chapter has a big heart to match—outsized only by its muscular production and slightly overstuffed story.

Following the events in Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 sees the gang trying to pick up fallen pieces. For most of them, that means rebuilding their home and community in rad-as-hell space skull Knowhere. For a drunken Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), that means picking himself up from the grief of losing Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), who died at the hands of Thanos.

It doesn’t take long for the film’s big bad, The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), to issue a critical attack that puts Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) on life support. As the rest of the Guardians venture off to find the space equivalent of a pacemaker, Rocket’s left revisiting the memories of his tormented past alluded to in Vol. 1.

Torment’s the operative word, here. Combining the ruthlessness of The Plague Dogs with the maniacal nature of Sid from the first Toy Story, Rocket’s backstory gives unflinching depth to the character’s salty insecurities. It’s affecting and confronting stuff, boosted by some seriously impressive animal acting from the animators.

Iwuji’s go-for-broke performance also elevates these sequences, leaning into all the qualities that make The High Evolutionary a villain you love to hate. Cold. Cruel. Belittling. Narcissistic. Ooooh, he’s a piece of work. While technically a one-note antagonist, the sole motive of this wannabe science God makes for a unique spin on the tired ‘world domination’ plot.

More impressively, Gunn is able to expand upon his remaining Guardians and guide them to satisfying endpoints. Karen Gillan’s role as Nebula has never felt weightier with the brooding blue bio-woman finding her big sister role among this dysfunctional family. It’s also great to be reminded of Pratt’s talents as Quill, given ample opportunity here to goof and emote in front of a completely different Gamora (Saldaña sells the switch).

After their holiday hijinks, it was wise to give Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) less attention this time around. It’s still a bit of a bummer how their original comedic quirks—Drax’s literal interpretations of everything, Mantis’s unhinged ability to read emotions—have diminished to simple doofus-ness, but at least Gunn fulfils their hearts’ desires by the time the credits roll.

It’s a testament to Gunn’s passion for, and compassion towards, these characters. While other blockbuster superhero films settle for spectacle, GotG has always made it a priority to dig these loveable losers out of whatever poisonous personality pit they found themselves in.

To be fair though, it also does the spectacle pretty darn well. The third act, especially, ends with a superbly coordinated and gargantuan climax with lots of moving parts that never feels incomprehensible thanks to a tight edit. These set pieces also make the most of the film’s AAA production—the kind that utilises million-dollar CGI when it needs to while embracing practical effects. For a genre overloaded with greenscreen nothingness, it’s refreshing to get a superhero world that feels tactile and lived in.

It can occasionally feel like too much of a good thing with a bloated plot fit to burst. As entertaining as Will Poulter is as new-to-life golden boy baddie Adam Warlock, his involvement feels like less of a necessity and more like an obligation to honour the stinger from Vol. 2. That focus could have gone to poor ol’ Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), the team’s unsung MVP.

Despite the extra fat, Vol. 3 concludes on a moving and gratifying note for anyone who’s followed these noble knuckleheads for the last decade. It ends so well, you might forget to stick around for the inconsequential stingers.