source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

We’ve come a long way from wondering who the Guardians of the Galaxy are. Back in 2014 they seemed like a gamble for the MCU, an expansion of their usual superhero roster that veered into the downright strange with a talking raccoon and whatever Groot is. Their bright, music-packed space adventures proved catchy, though, and some even found real pathos as the group formed a found family.

Volume 3 will be a test for those who emotionally connected to the first two movies, because the series tones down its incessant banter and fills the space with plain, unencumbered emotion. It’s a fitting upping of the ante for the group’s final outing in their current form, and it proves to be the best MCU movie in years.

The shift is surprising considering James Gunn is still writing and directing, duties he performed for both previous movies. Many of the trademarks he baked into this goofball group are still there, from action scenes that bounce and bound along with the characters to flashes of color that break up the space western aesthetic to the prominent, danceable soundtrack, the latter of which represents our first subtle change. The music choices have crept closer to present day, or perhaps to age myself, have crept into hits from my teenage years. Imagine my distress when a series that prides itself on reminding moviegoers of classic bops blasts a song from my friend’s high school graduation mixtape (Do You Realize? if you want particulars). 

The song also hints at the more melancholic feel of Volume 3, which is the film’s biggest and most welcome change. No one in the MCU escaped Thanos’ plan without scars, and even though those creeped into Guardians early thanks to the torturous backstory of villain-turned-hero Nebula (Karen Gillan) and founding Guardian Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), they weren’t really allowed to hit home until now. Previously, Gunn let few emotions to sit unencumbered in his jaunty series, but Volume 3 slows down enough to tell a truly heart-wrenching tale.

The outing roots itself in Rocket’s backstory, filling out the prickly raccoon’s history to explain why he keeps everyone at arm’s length. His past crashes into the Guardians when Will Poulter’s Adam Warlock comes to collect the trash panda during the film’s opening. Failing but leaving Rocket gravely injured, the rest of the movie involves the Guardians plus a memoryless version of Gamora scrambling to save their friend. Interspersed with their adventures are flashes of memory from the unconscious Rocket, taking us through a tragic upbringing filled with such adorable characters that it would fit right into the legacy of the MCU’s parent company, Disney.

If Volume 3 had stuck to its guns and truly shaped the film around this arc, we may have had a masterpiece on our hands. Everything the series has to say about found families and everything this entry has to say about their impermanence is in the poignant subplot, but the MCU has yet to conquer its bloat.

There’s nothing wrong with the time spent on the rest of the Guardians’ relationships. In fact, it would be wrong not to put a bow on Peter (Chris Pratt) and Gamora’s love story, and there’s moments between the odd couple Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) that eloquently summarizes the group’s bond. The problem with Volume 3 is pure structure, the nuts and bolts mechanics of plot. It hits the emotional high point too early, and the film is saddled with a final battle that twists and turns for far too long.

It doesn’t help that the extension means more time spent with the movie’s bad guy, a biotech wizard called The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). Even the film jokes about how one-dimensional he is, and Iwuji is quickly left with nothing to build on but his own increasing spittle. Compared to the rest of this thoughtful film his flatness is a letdown, but he shouldn’t have been a major player in the first place. He’s a villain that should exist purely for plot function, but the necessity of a big battle means he was uselessly expanded.

Of course, Gunn was working within the restrictive framework of the MCU, and that means he couldn’t make a film purely about the function of the Guardians in each other’s lives. The quips and action set pieces a modern blockbuster requires can be worked into that story, and he’s just the latest in a string of prestigious filmmakers attempting the difficult task. That he struggled to do so is expected. What’s so unexpected is how close he comes to making it seamless.

Release: in theaters May 5th
Director: James Gunn
Writers: James Gunn
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Will Poulter, Chukwudi Iwuji

Author: Emily Wheeler

Member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Rotten Tomatoes certified critic. Movie omnivore.

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