de facto film reviews 3.5 stars

Less than ten years ago, Marvel studios took what was deemed their first real risk, making a film featuring a d-list roster of Marvel heroes, alongside their most popular heroes, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, etc. Helmed by Troma alum James Gunn, the first Guardians was a breakthrough hit that took audiences to strange, inventive corners of the cosmic side of the MCU. Gunn, the first real filmmaker to cement his own personality within the Marvel universe, took things even further with his Guardians follow-up, Vol. 2, the most emotionally involving and idiosyncratic film of the Marvel universe. As Gunn readies his next gig, serving as the co-CEO of DC Studios at WB, he bids adieu to his tenure at Marvel with a daring and completely satisfying final chapter. 

Gunn has been one of the few filmmakers in recent years to cement his directorial stamp over big Marvel blockbusters. You can chalk it up to his playful sense of humor, inventive visual eye and manic energy, but what makes his Guardians trilogy, and his Suicide Squad, so singular is his clear understanding of character. No other series of films in the Marvel universe have the emotional clarity or character depth like the Guardians films. Gunn allows his characters to be messy and deeply flawed, but rarely to service a joke. We first find Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) drunkenly reeling from the loss of Gamora (Zoe Saldana), with the alternate universe version of her wanting nothing to do with the group. However, Peter’s drunkenness is rarely played for laughs, with Gunn portraying the once-heroic Quill as a shell of his former self. These are characters who are united through their mutual sense of loneliness in the galaxy. The most tragic character of the group, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper, while Sean Gunn does the on-set movement), whose harrowing backstory is unveiled in full, serves as the film’s emotional core.

It’s the exploration of Rocket’s past, involving the film’s big villain, the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) a mad scientist hellbent on creating a perfect society inhabited by his Dr. Moreau-like test subjects, that gives Vol. 3 its tragic edge. In fact, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is quite bold in its unflinching darkness. The many flashbacks to Rochet’s origin are often disturbing and push the limits of PG-13 rating. With the added emphasis on Rocket’s tragic upbringing, Gunn’s usual firm grasp of tone is clunkier here than usual for the filmmaker. While not nearly as whiplash-inducing as Thor: Love and Thunder, the tonal shifts can be quite jarring.

Gunn’s directorial abilities are still above-and-beyond compared to most Marvel directors. Coming off of visual sludge such as Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania and Thor: Love and Thunder, Vol. 3 is a gorgeous-looking film and a consistently colorful one at that. The bright, glowing production design of OrgoCorp, the company run by the High Evolutionary, practically beams its way into your senses. A third act action sequence set to Beastie Boys “No Sleep till Brooklyn” is one of the few vfx-heavy “oners” that inspires genuine thrills. Not unlike the recent Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, the amount of practical make-up effects on display is just stunning.

As a fitting swan song for Gunn’s trilogy, the cast gives some of their finest work to date. This is one of Pratt’s best dramatic performances, wearing his vulnerability more openly on his sleeve. The new dynamic between Quill and Gamora is unexpected, but dramatically satisfying. Bradley Cooper’s voice work is top-notch, both Dave Bautista and Pom Klementieff have terrific comedic timing. Karen Gillan’s Nebula has not only grown to be one of the MCU’s richest character arcs, but one of the richest characters, period. Chukwudi Iwuji’s High Evolutionary is a highly imposing villain. Yes, Thanos wiped out half the universe and Loki has… issues, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a villain in the MCU this cruel.

Vol. 3 is also Gunn’s most unwieldy narrative in some time. It’s clear Gunn gets a bit caught up trying to incorporate a few too many side plots while introducing new elements that ultimately come up short. For all the fanfare over his inclusion, Will Poulter as fan-favorite character Adam Warlock has strangely little to do. Poulter musters whatever charm he can into the role, but the character serves very little purpose in the film and ends up feeling like an afterthought.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is flawed, emotionally dense and deeply moving. James Gunn’s trilogy of a ragtag team of misfits searching for love and acceptance concludes on a simultaneously somber and fun final chapter. This is without a doubt, the best trilogy to emerge under the MCU.