Audiences seem genuinely confused by the current slate of MCU offerings and what to expect going forward. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever were both quite good. But Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania was only okay, Ms. Marvel was a waste of time, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law did not stick its landing, Thor: Love and Thunder was far worse the second time I watched it, and all of us are still trying to get the Eternals stink out of our clothes. And I’m still not sure how I feel about the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. It would be an understatement to say I was nervous going into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3.
Vol. 3 returns us to Knowhere, where Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) has disappeared into a bottle, still completely shattered from losing Gamora (Zoe Saldana) twice. Wisely, this is not the main plot of the film, but a supporting subplot. Vol. 3 is about Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper). More specifically, it’s about what Rocket means to the dysfunctional family that is the Guardians of the Galaxy. While going about his business, Rocket is attacked by Adam Warlock (Will Poulter). Who is that, you ask? Do you remember those gold painted people from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2? Kind of; not really? Me too. Adam is one of them.
After grievously injuring Rocket, Warlock is chased away by the rest of the Guardians. While trying to save Rocket, Nebula (Karen Gillan) informs them that Rocket has a self-destruct program hidden in his implants’ software. In order to save Rocket, they have forty-eight hours to get the code to deactivate the self-destruct. Who has the code, you ask? The guy who created the gold painted people, a scientist/megalomaniac called the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji).
The High Evolutionary has a singular goal – to create the perfect society. To achieve this, he has performed countless experiments on living beings, created and destroyed entire civilizations, and developed cybernetic enhancements to exponentially increase the intelligence of certain beings. Like Raccoons. I told you – this movie is about Rocket.
What makes Vol. 3 really good is how it makes a prequel without making a prequel. Rather than just making a straight prequel like Solo or the Star Wars prequel trilogy or X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it tells us Rocket’s origin story while showing us the Guardians quest to save Rocket’s life. It’s like a really long episode of Lost, but you aren’t confused and dissatisfied at the end.
The original story also works to flesh out the villain, the High Evolutionary, one of the better villains of the MCU. Unlike many MCU villains, there isn’t a single moment where you sympathize with him. He is cold, methodical, and calculated, yet prone to wild outbursts like a drug addict going through withdrawals. Early in the flashbacks, we meet three other augmented animals locked in cages with Rocket. Physically, they look like creatures from our nightmares. But as we get to know them through successive flashbacks, we become every bit as emotionally attached to them as does Rocket. We also come to loathe the High Evolutionary and dread where these flashbacks appear to be heading. It’s a great bit of storytelling and filmmaking, deftly building the suspense in both Rocket’s past and his present.
By the time Rocket’s past and present come to their respective climaxes, it becomes apparent that the shared theme of the film, if not the entire Guardians trilogy, is love. Past Rocket is willing to do anything for his friends, just as Current Rocket’s friends are willing to do anything for him. This bond also helps bring Star-Lord’s subplot to a satisfying conclusion, as he must come to terms with the Gamora from a different timeline who never knew Star-Lord prior to the final battle in Endgame. Regardless of how the various stories conclude, you will shed a tear or ten.
While the film is very good in several ways, it does drop the ball a couple of times. For some reason, the visual look of Groot (Vin Diesel) has gone very backward despite the rest of the film looking gorgeous. While the details of Rocket and his past companions, especially Lylla the otter (Linda Cardellini), are strikingly real, Groot looks like someone wearing a cheap, padded Groot costume from a Spirit Halloween store. Then there is Star-Lord’s famous helmet, which is inexplicably missing in the entire film. But perhaps the most egregious flaw is the inconsistency of the music. Like the previous installments, the music is very noticeable, but often doesn’t fit the scene or moment. More than once, a song just kicks in seemingly at random, as if someone accidentally hit the play button during post-production and was too tired to edit it back out.
Luckily, the flaws were small and many of the things plaguing the recent subpar films and series were absent from Vol. 3. Most notably, the balance between seriousness and humor was restored, the film not leaning so hard into the silliness of Drax (Dave Baustista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) or the seriousness of Gamora and Nebula. It’s just the right amount of a bunch of emotions, working together rather than against each other, restoring our confidence in what’s to come next in the MCU rather than having us wondering what that smell still is.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back, but maybe for a tissue.