Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is the most confounded I’ve been by a movie in some time. I don’t know how to process it completely. As a fan of writer/director James Gunn, his first film, and a massive fan of GotG Vol. 2 (as in it’s absolutely the best non-Avengers film in the MCU) I had high hopes for the gang’s swan song. Unfortunately, this final time out with this configuration of the Guardians - at least upon initial viewing - is an incoherent, repetitive, sensory overload so grating that any attempt at emotional resonance is rendered moot. 

From the minute Will Poulter’s underdeveloped and underutilized Adam Warlock arrives to decimate the titular team it seems clear Gunn took his screenplay out of the oven a few drafts early. The character of Warlock (who was heralded as a Christ-like figure in the second film) is presented as a clown mere minutes after almost annihilating the Guardians with little to no effort. The contrast could work, sure, but it's not developed in any recognizable fashion as Gunn was clearly more interested in the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a mad scientist of a man whose abusive yet paternal tendencies certainly fit the writer/director’s running themes in these movies, yet the High Evolutionary's arc feels as stock as the template Gunn uses to close out his trilogy. Iwuji also likes to yell. A lot. 

When I say template, I'm of course referring to the one where a main character becomes incapacitated, and the movie then spends the rest of its runtime sending his friends who desire to save them on countless missions to locate countless McGuffins required to in fact save him. I realize many a genre flick rely on these kinds of plot devices as a way of propping up their bigger thematic ideas through easily accessible checkpoints, but Gunn feels above this and that he chose to go out leaning on such a structure would only seem to suggest that the script and, as a result, everything afterward was not necessarily ill-conceived, but more feeble in the way James Gunn movies are typically bold and affecting. 

This isn't to say I loathed the film, but what made the previous Guardians movies so unique were the lack of expectations and the exceeding of expectations not only because of quality but because of how unconventional they were in regard to both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and movies of the comic book ilk as a whole. This is what makes the third film's reliance on some rather broad tropes so disappointing while the rather uninspired nature of the soundtrack this time around (the best of the choices being Earth, Wind & Fire's "Reasons" both because it felt in league with Gunn's previous selections as well as it having been far too long since I'd heard the song) only emphasizes the kind of rushed and unsophisticated approach Gunn seems to have taken (been forced to take?). I know, I know...the Guardians aren't supposed to be sophisticated or refined or whatever, but Gunn's storytelling always has been (the moment Ego reveals the twist in Vol. 2 is genuinely one of the most devastating moments in recent film history) and Vol. 3, though naturally having its moments, more often than not feels madcap and incoherent past the point of intention. 

Zoe Saldaña, Chris Pratt, Pom Klementieff, Karen Gillan, and Dave Bautista are all back for one final go-around as the Guardians of the Galaxy.
Photo by Marvel Studios/Courtesy of Marvel Studios - © 2023 MARVEL.

The set design and the fact there are actual sets, the color palette, along with whatever kind of lenses they are using here (can someone let me know which they are tho forreal, because I really love how this looks) automatically enhance the experience. I love and appreciate that Gunn found a new style around which to conceive this film and I love that he stayed true to the character lore and traits he established in the past films by delivering on Rocket's origins. I love that Chris Pratt's Star-Lord isn't again asked to be the charismatic leader but is dealing with losing Zoe Saldana's Gamora and Gamora's continued rejection of what once was. I love that Pratt is really good in this and that the pain in his performance transcends the fact most of his dialogue is still jokes and/or exposition. And while there are moments in which Pom Klementieff and Dave Bautista - a reliable comic pairing - stretch past their typical banter to provide real growth and insight for their characters much of it still boils down to shouting equals laughing and their character's destinations then don't feel as earned or impactful as some of the others. 

What always separated Guardians of the Galaxy from the rest of the MCU pack was their ability to be these ginormous, big-budget, special-effects extravaganzas while at the same time feeling like extremely personal films made via the vision of one person. I realize I may sound like someone complaining because this trilogy-capper isn't enough like its predecessors, but it's not that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is too much of a departure, but more that large swaths feel passable rather than personal. It is within a series of flashback sequences that Gunn is the most invested, yet these scenes are at such odds with the rest of the movie that even if they were as compelling as they think they are it still wouldn't be sufficient in convincing me Gunn had enough left to say with and about these characters to warrant a final trip with these a-holes.

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