Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 Is One of Marvel's Best Finales Ever

The Guardians franchise rockets to new heights in the third, and final, film.

Marvel Studios
Inverse Reviews

There’s no dancing in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.

Not until the end, at least. But nine years after Chris Pratt waltzed with a Walkman mouthing “Come and Get Your Love,” Vol. 3 opens sullenly. This time it’s Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper, and Sean Gunn in flashbacks) that director James Gunn tracks on a somber stroll through busy alien streets. A Zune (see Vol. 2) drops the needle for Radiohead’s acoustic cover of its own “Creep,” setting a predominant melancholic mood that foretells of finality.

It’s not that Gunn or the Guardians refuse to accept the end. That prospect actually sounds exciting; to end means to unload all that’s been weighing them down. But Vol. 3 refreshingly stands apart from the hyper-kinetic, hyper-hilarious joyrides of Gunn’s previous movies — and mercifully, the staid action-comic tones of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Instead, Vol. 3 employs a darker mood profoundly colored by sadness over what’s lost, anger over what can’t be regained, and joy there is still tomorrow. Following up on years of earned emotional moments, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 ranks high as one Marvel’s finest and most moving movies ever.

Rocket Raccoon is the clear star of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 brims with animalistic fury and human complexity, beautifully expanding upon the series’ foundational theme of found families. Before Rocket had the Guardians and hung out with the Avengers, he was a raccoon hand-picked by the High Evolutionary (an exceptional Chukwudi Iwuji), a scientist with a god complex and the same taste in purple as Thanos. Through a series of horrifying experiments, that raccoon became Rocket, whose fraught origin story of love and friendship ends in horrific bloodshed. Imagine a Disney movie told by an animal rights anarchist, and you’ve got Rocket’s story in Vol. 3.

A sudden attack on Nowhere by a golden Adonis named Adam Warlock (Will Poulter, woefully underutilized) leaves Rocket in critical condition. This springs the Guardians into action to save Rocket. Meanwhile, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) tries to reconnect with Gamora (Zoë Saldana) after her displacement in Avengers: Endgame, but his sister Mantis (Pom Klementieff) reminds him of a life he can still lead on Earth.

While nearly all of the actors in Vol. 3 give arguably their series best performances, including Dave Bautista and Karen Gillan (who find more meat left in their roles), and Bradley Cooper piercing through VFX to feel as real as anyone in the ensemble, it’s Iwuji in Vol. 3 who leaps out like a revelation. His delivery of stone-cold lines like, “God does not exist, so I stepped in” tear through the air like a gale force wind. It’s almost unfortunate Iwuji is stuck in this role; his Shakespearean ferocity and arrogance makes him almost a stronger candidate for Kang than now-embattled Jonathan Majors.

Will Poulter’s Adam Warlock is sadly underused.

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

In the years since Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in 2017, a lot happened in and out of the MCU. In it, the unwieldy events of the last two Avengers films shook the universe. In reality, things were as unstable. In 2018 the writer/director was fired by Marvel after conservative commentators unearthed decades-old offensive tweets by Gunn, and led to the director’s year-long exile from the studio. Embraced by his collaborators, Gunn was hired back to finish what he started. (But only after writing and directing for rival DC, which Gunn now oversees as creative co-chair.)

Whether intentional or not, Gunn imbues all the sentimentality and resentment of the past few years in Vol. 3. His frames jolt with subjectivity; see cinematographer Henry Braham whip and pan the camera with brisk force even in tight spaces. Vol. 3 is at all times aggressive, indicating a fully unleashed Gunn taking advantage of the conditions at play — his last Marvel movie — to provoke a corporate kingdom that prizes IP over the people who make them meaningful. (This plays out in the very text of the film, as the Guardians straight up break into a corporate fortress to steal back Rocket’s DNA code.) Gunn also taps into his own Troma origins, unleashing an array of monstrosities that look equal parts H.R. Geiger and Ninja Turtles villains, none of which are candidates for a plushie at Disneyland. Almost ironically, Disney has allowed Gunn to actually be the provocateur it feared him to be.

Vol. 3 doesn’t quite indicate a grunge phase. But the soundtrack’s pronounced shift to drum-and-guitar rock and new millennium indie (including Obama era acts like Florence + The Machine and The Mowgli’s) over boomer supermarket pop adds a distinct texture to Vol. 3. Vol. 3 trades spectacle for skill, sacrificing the chart-topping formulas that have worked in the past for offbeat songs that genuinely feel right. Big as Gunn’s Vol. 3 looks in terms of scope — entire planets get annihilated here — there’s few moments of fist-pumping thrills, save for one memorable action-packed moment where the Guardians synthesize as one unit. (It looks like a comic book splash page and is set to Beastie Boys, and it rocks.) This isn’t to say Vol. 3 doesn’t have the goods. But it’s not the same songs of Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 playing on repeat.

Zoe Saldana’s Gamora remains an outsider for most of the movie.

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

While Marvel’s inescapable cowardice means Vol. 3 doesn’t actually shut the door on the Guardians of the Galaxy for good, whatever closure Gunn brings to the film makes it confidently exist as one of Marvel’s best singular trilogies. Dare it even be said: It’s one of Marvel’s best director-driven sagas. Vol. 3 isn’t overtly grim like other superhero epics, but like the vacuum of space that surrounds these characters who live on the edge of survival, it is often unforgiving. In the end, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 — and the trilogy as a whole — has been about just two things. When you do something long enough, the victories begin to feel few and far between; and when it feels like you’ve lost everything, all that remains can mean the world. So you should go ahead and dance, while you still have time.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 opens in theaters May 5.

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