Rocket Raccoon gets his due in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, a bombastic intergalactic adventure that maintains the same level of top-tier quality as its predecessors, and might even be the best entry in the trilogy. Bolstered by some wild filmmaking diversions that reference sci-fi classics from David Cronenberg and Terry Gilliam, this one is a lot of fun, even for non-fans.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 starts a little differently than its predecessors, with Radiohead’s anthem of alienation Creep replacing some of the more upbeat tunes that opened previous entries. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) has become a hopeless alcoholic after ex-love Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) returned from the dead with no memory of their relationship, while the always-brooding Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) seems to be having an existential crisis.
It’s key that writer-director James Gunn takes these characters and their mental anguish seriously, even if this is a goofy space opera, and one of those characters is an animated raccoon. The characters may be otherworldly but their emotions are genuine, and unlike Thor in previous MCU outings, their pain isn’t used as the butt of jokes.
Through origin flashbacks, we learn just why the raccoon is so miserable: he was ‘created’ by wannabe god The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) and kept in a cage after achieving sentience. There, he was befriended by other genetically-altered animal creations, including an Otter with robotic arms voiced by Linda Cardellini.
These animal experimentation scenes are darker material than we expect from the average comic book movie, and filmed through a hyper-stylized lens that recalls the work of Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys) or Jean-Pierre Jeunet (The City of Lost Children). But because of them, and Iwuji’s arresting live-wire performance, The High Evolutionary resonates far more than other recent MCU villains like the cryptic Kang the Conqueror.
These flashbacks prove relevant to the proper story of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, as The High Evolutionary has returned in search of his once-prized possession, sending the seemingly indestructible Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) after Rocket.
In order to save their friend, Star-Lord, Nebula (Karen Gillan), Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and walking tree Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), with an assist from the new Gamora, head out to a living space station that feels like it came from the body-horror mind of David Cronenberg. There, they battle with a security guard in a fleshy costume played by Firefly’s Nathan Fillion.
While Star-Lord and Rocket might have the weighty bulk of the character development in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, the supporting characters also have tangible arcs, with Nebula and Mantis, in particular, getting a richer presentation here than in previous films. But Gunn gives newcomer Adam Warlock the short shrift: he essentially has the same story as Rocket and Rocket gets all the juicy material, leaving Warlock just along for the ride.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 feels like a swan song for its characters; even though the end credits promise a return, this is likely writer-director Gunn’s sendoff for his creations. By the end, it’s an unexpectedly teary one.
Once a paragon of cinematic consistency, the MCU has struggled leading up to the release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, its 32nd(!) film. Movies like last year’s Thor: Love and Thunder and February’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania represent some of the weakest MCU features to date.
Coming from a background of horror filmmaking for guerrilla production company Troma, Gunn fills his third Guardians of the Galaxy blockbuster with wildly inventive sets and costumes, vibrant effects that seamlessly mix practical work with CGI, and carefully choreographed fight scenes, including a climactic slo-mo one-take that recalls Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy.
Compare all this to the soulless void and perfunctory action scenes that made up the world of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 proves that there is still creativity and innovation in these big-budget comic book adventures, but with Gunn jumping ship to head up DC’s upcoming slate, the life he has breathed into his final MCU outing may not last much longer.