Just as the Fast and the Furious saga proudly demonstrates found-family pop-culture franchises aren’t just for whitebread folks, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy series has demonstrated they aren’t just for humans, either. Whether you’re a little-league space hero, the daughter of a genocidal madman, a 1950s kaiju, a funny-animal gunslinger, or some other kind of ill-formed misfit who’d never be invited to apply for Avengers membership (okay, maybe the Great Lakes Avengers), these losers gave us hope that we too might find the right motley crew out there who needs us on their team so we can all become all-stars with our own action figures.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: in 2014 Scooby-Doo flick-writer Gunn directed and co-wrote (with Nicole Perlman) the big-screen mainstream intro to that now-famous team who were comics C-listers on their best day, by which I mean their original, completely different ’70s lineup. Guardians changed the very shape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and superhero films themselves by proving virtually any preexisting character, no matter how thinly developed or intrinsically silly, can be transformed into someone watchable, possibly even awesome, under the right creative circumstances. That knowledge was a little too dangerous in the hands of eager studio execs who then began salivating every time they skimmed a Marvel or DC IP roster, but it escalated Gunn’s career and clout to a new level.
After the more chaotic yet equally heartfelt Guardians Vol. 2 in 2017, Gunn was canceled for a while due to some past tasteless edgelord tweets and had to console himself with making The Suicide Squad as his next film instead, a perverse grimdark-comedy shoot-’em-up kaiju-actioner that’s possibly one of DC Comics’ greatest works of the past decade in any medium. Gunn was eventually released from Twitter Jail, allowed to helm last December’s Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special on Disney+, and completed his planned space-antihero trilogy with the epic-in-every-sense Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. It’s the 32nd film in the MCU and easily the best of the Guardians series.
Going into his grand finale, I imagine Gunn’s to-do list was long and ambitious:
- Make Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord less stupid than Infinity War made him for plot’s sake, and put his one-note Jurassic World dino-tamer to even more shame.
- Integrate Zoe Saldaña’s alt-timeline Gamora back into the fold (yet another Infinity Wrench thrown into the Guardians’ gears), to the extent that Saldana was up for one last ride-along.
- Challenge Vin Diesel to find new intonations for Groot’s one line, kinda like how with every Dom Toretto appearance he has to come up with a new aphorism about family or else they dock him $5 million.
- Offer roles and cameos to every actor he’s ever worked with in all his other films ever, because what’s a going-away party without friends? Like, all your friends?
- Give his brother Sean more lines than ever, so Kraglin feels more valuable and we can remember how fun he’s been in other small parts throughout his career, like that time he was in two episodes of Bunheads as the world’s most finicky artisan barista.
- Digitize the rest of his old mixtapes and upload them to the soundtrack.
- Allow Karen Gillan’s Nebula a slight emotion or two without taking away from her relentlessly funny state of constant seething.
- Make everything about Bradley Cooper’s Rocket, the best character of the bunch.
Not that he ignored the other two major players, Dave Bautista’s Drax and Pom Klementieff’ Mantis, but they already shared the spotlight in the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, which was basically their personal playground as well as their big chance to meet Kevin Bacon. They’re still here but have no reasons to complain. Related note: hopefully you watched the Holiday Special, which was not just a cute throwaway extra like the I Am Groot shorts, but contained some important Guardians continuity updates. We learned Mantis and Star-Lord are siblings fathered by Kurt Russell’s Ego; the team now live in Knowhere, the dead Celestial’s head from the first film; and Knowhere’s other residents include the Old 97s as an alien bar band. (Their frontman Rhett Miller also returns for Vol. 3. Alas, Kevin Bacon returns in spirit only, for a couple of end-credits decorations.)
So yes, Rocket is the center of this film, though maybe not in the way he would’ve preferred — he’s its emotional core and the motivation for the team’s latest MacGuffin chase. Through a series of flashbacks that alternate with present-day perils, at long last we learn the secret origin of the fuzzy, prosthetic-stealing scoundrel who’s so tech-savvy that he once helped build a time machine in Avengers: Endgame. Long ago before all that, he was one of the most successful animal experiments in the space laboratory of the High Evolutionary, an intergalactic mad scientist played by Chukwudi Iwuji from Gunn’s Peacemaker series. The otherwise nameless Evolutionary created his own planet unimaginatively named Counter-Earth, which he intended as a replacement for our inferior, messy, disappointing real thing. Rather than invite us measly humans who ruin everything, he planned to populate it with genetically manipulated subjects of his own design using the twin evils of eugenics and cruelty-filled animal testing. This malevolent Space Dr. Moreau hoped to make his own Zootopia that he of course would rule despite his own lack of animal DNA that no one’s rude enough to point out.
As we’ve noticed, Rocket didn’t stay put in the Evolutionary’s clutches. Yadda yadda yadda, now he’s a spacefaring rogue. Everything seems fine with him until Knowhere is attacked without warning by Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), the superpowered scion of the golden-skinned Sovereign whose creation was announced in a scene during the Guardians Vol. 2 end credits. His explosive bout with Our Antiheroes ends more or less in stalemate, but leaves Rocket on the edge of death. When he’s opened up on the operating table, they discover his artificial parts are rigged with proprietary safeguards to prevent patent piracy and third-party repairs. Apparently he’s such a skilled fighter that he’s never been this wounded before and his teammates are discovering all this just now. Once they figure out the MacGuffin that might save the day, their latest quest is on — to rescue Rocket from the clutches of planned obsolescence.
Then again, the High Evolutionary doesn’t necessarily want him dead, either. From his standpoint, Rocket is the best and smartest success story of his faunal-cyborg program. He’s also its only success story. Our Villain wants him back by any means necessary — not just because he believes Rocket “belongs” to him, but because he wants to know what’s different about Rocket’s brain and/or DNA that made him adapt so readily and impressively. As in some real-life animal experiments, some fatal dissection may be necessary to pinpoint the answers, and he likewise shows no regard for all his other lesser specimens, some of whom had become Rocket’s BFFs. But he wants what he wants, in the way he wants it. Little does he realize even the most advanced tools and hyperinflated egos can’t replicate everything that the human (or racooonoid) soul can do, especially not when wielded by such immoral hands. We’ve seen that borne out in Rocket’s frequent displays of mechanical ingenuity throughout this series (and in Endgame), which we can compare to the real-life emotionally void artwork and derivative typing generated by ChatGPT and other devices spat forth from humankind’s hollowest pursuits.
So yeah, the High Evolutionary is an out-and-out megalomaniac, which Iwuji sinks his teeth into with a vile gusto befitting a true comic-book supervillain as he slowly escalates from a quietly sinister schemer to a screaming lunatic by the end. He is not the same kind of alignment-debatable opponent we’ve seen in other MCU films. if you’re watching this film and thinking to yourself, “Well actually the High Evolutionary makes some good points,” you may have played hooky a few times too many from humanity school. Yeah, people as a species seem an utter wreck, but figuring out how to do better — without doing so at other people’s expense — is kinda part of our mission statement. The Guardians themselves may differ from us average Joes on some issues (they do rack up a fair body count yet again, not all of which can be chalked up to self-defense), but for their last hurrah with Gunn, the High Evolutionary is the perfect kind of antagonist: we can totally accept that at least Our Antiheroes aren’t as bad as that guy.
In some ways that might make the conflict seem old-fashioned by today’s standards, but I’m fine with that as an aged reader of an older generation used to plain ol’ good-vs.-evil. It all plays out across gorgeously rendered tableaux that feel fresher and more tantalizing than the gummy realms of Quantumania. The Guardians zoom across their turf from Knowhere to go do a heist on a heavily defended space data center, then zip over to Counter-Earth itself, whose ’60s-idyllic suburban architecture lies somewhere between the neighborhoods of Over the Hedge and Edward Scissorhands, where Our Villain’s fractal-star-destroyer lair hosts the big showdown and is of course eventually covered in EXPLOSIONS — so, so many EXPLOSIONS. Watched in an AMC-upcharged Dolby Cinema, every set and every backdrop is nonstop eye-popping.
None of those sets would matter if the people and CG cartoon characters standing in front of them weren’t holding our attention and our feels so well. The in-depth portrayals of Rocket’s trauma are among the biggest, most welcome tear-jerking moments the MCU has attempted since…well, okay, Wakanda Forever‘s monarchical wake was only six months ago, but still. Also important to a Marvel audience: those action sequences. Every teammate — even Kraglin! — gets super awesome fight-scene moments destined to be immortalized in YouTube supercuts. The show-stopper of them all, possibly the best MCU combat since The Winter Soldier, is Gunn’s take on a Marvel Netflix staple writ large for the big screen: a tracking-shot hallway fight. Gen-x-ers feel seen as they realize it’s set to “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”, the best song from the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill. It isn’t the most enlightened tune in their catalog (remember when “hoes” were all the rage?), but as Gunn lets the fracas keep going and going and going and going, the incredulity in the then-young trio’s lyrics mirrors Gunn’s own in this raucous, deliriously extended moment: he cannot believe he gets to have this much fun for a living.
Thrills like that make the 2½-hour runtime positively fly by. The only major misstep for my money is the short shrift given to newcomer Adam Warlock. As created by Jim Starlin, he’s generally regarded as an assured, heroic, caped demigod who’s among the most powerful of Marvel’s cosmic do-gooders whenever he’s not dead (which was the case through most of my childhood, which is why I never really got attached to him). Poulter’s version is new to existence and annoyingly single-minded in his assignment, basically treated like a flashy minion. At some point during the writing process, someone in charge remembered Adam is supposed to be a hero at the end of the day and a pivot becomes necessary. (Presumably Warlock will have to face Kang within the next few years.) But his ostensibly redemptive face-turn in the third act is perfunctory and unconvincing. I don’t blame this on Poulter, whose career trajectory has curiously arced from the third Narnia film to The Revenant to Detroit to here. He’s written into a corner and then quickly escorted out of it, but he does what he can to balance the weird mix of pomposity and naivete that’s asked of him. Hopefully his future adventures are more flattering to him and more rewarding to older comics fans who dig the character.
Adam aside, Guardians Vol. 3 is a lovingly overblown, irreverent blockbuster spectacle with a surprisingly warm sincerity in its essence. Going into this, every fan was haunted by the same question: how many characters does Gunn murder on his way out the door? Would he burn down the sets and kill off everyone a la The Suicide Squad before he left to go clock in for his new DC job? Or would he let everyone live merrily ever after, like those two Downton Abbey fan-service movies? Either way, not a single actor phones it in just to finish out their contract. Whatever issues they might have with making giant-sized flicks in general or with Marvel in particular, they’re all here for each other and enjoying their time together, just like you’d hope for cinema’s coolest space family.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Beyond the main cast, other returning players include Elizabeth Debicki (Tenet, The Crown) as Adam’s mom; Seth Green as the voice of Howard the Duck; Academy Award Nominee Maria Bakalova (Borat 2), who hopped aboard in the Holiday Special as the voice of Cosmo the telekinetic cosmonaut dog; Gregg Henry as Star-Lord’s grandpa; their fellow swashbucklers in the Ravagers, including Sylvester Stallone and a barely recognizable (and woefully silent) Michael Rosenbaum; and one surprise cameo from a past Guardian who’s one of Gunn’s longtime regulars.
Voices of the High Evolutionary’s animal-experiment victims include Linda Cardellini (already in the MCU as Hawkeye’s Concerned Wife); Judy Greer (already in the MCU as Ant-Man’s Concerned Ex-Wife); Asim Chaudry (Abel from Netflix’s Sandman); Lloyd Kaufman, Gunn’s old mentor at Troma Films; Pete Davidson (another The Suicide Squad returnee); and the director himself.
The space data center’s staff includes Daniela Melchior (The Suicide Squad‘s Ratcatcher II), Gunn’s wife Jennifer Holland (The Peacemaker‘s Agent Harcourt), and TV’s Nathan Fillion, who’s been ride-or-die with Gunn since Slither and whose space security chief gets far more screen time here than TDK did in The Suicide Squad. Other newcomers to the Galaxy include Dee Bradley Baker (voice of nearly every animated Clonetrooper from The Clone Wars to The Bad Batch) as a hairy alien housepet who at some point is named Blurp and likely to be heavily merchandised soon; Miriam Shor (Younger) and Nico Santos (Superstore) as Recorders, an android race I’m familiar with from Bob Layton’s Hercules stories; and Adelynn Spoon (Sister Night’s li’l daughter in HBO’s Watchmen) as one of several child prisoners.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there are indeed scenes during and after the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 end credits. For those who tuned out prematurely and really want to know, and didn’t already click elsewhere…
[…insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship…]
…during the end credits: the slightly rechristened Rocket Raccoon and his all-new Guardians of the Galaxy prepare to defend a village from an alien deer stampede. New Guardians role call: Rocket! Kraglin! Cosmo! Blurp! The reformed Adam Warlock! Groot with a slightly more Kirby-esque stature! And the kid who led all the other kids to safety from the High Evolutionary’s ship, whose name was apparently Phyla (played by Kai Zen from Disney Junior’s Eureka!)! Do these Guardians have a higher or lower chance of headlining any more films than Thor and his newly adopted daughter Love do? Don’t ask James Gunn, because they’re not his toys anymore!
After the end credits: Star-Lord shares breakfast with Grandpa, who’s reading a newspaper with a top story about Kevin Bacon’s alien abduction. And…that’s it, that’s the whole scene, much like the quiet shawarma dinner at the end of the first Avengers.
And we end with one final message to the viewer in towering letters, not the modestly sized James Bond font: “THE LEGENDARY STAR-LORD WILL RETURN.”
Granted, this film went a long way toward redeeming him, but are we too late to vote for Rocket instead?