At the precipice of what might spell the end for the MCU’s ragtag cosmic crew, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (★★★★☆) ventures back to the beginning — or the almost beginnings of an adorable raccoon kit who soon will call himself “Rocket.”
But first, Baby Rocket is subjected to a series of torturous experiments by captors on an alien planet. His tiny body painfully altered, along with his mind, he acquires speech but not his freedom. Yet, even caged among a menagerie of mangled and mutated animal subjects, he’s already the wily, resilient spitfire who, with the rest of the Guardians team, has proved himself a badass hero throughout Marvel’s Infinity Saga.
Era-defining for its titular team, Guardians 3 offers all the franchise’s main players some heartfelt sense of resolution, but in so many ways this story belongs to Rocket, that tenacious, wisecracking, weapons-obsessed raccoon. Not that he takes kindly to being called a raccoon. Do so, and maybe get torn to pieces.
Rocket knows he’s no ordinary rodent, but still doesn’t know where he fits in this vast universe. Voiced again in gritty, grounded fashion by Bradley Cooper, our mopey mo-cap raccoon opens the film singing along to Radiohead’s “Creep,” as he sits alone watching passersby in the congested mining metropolis Knowhere, home to Guardians HQ.
It’s an emo start for the superhero team known for their giddy, groovy adventures across the galaxy, though consistent with the stream of pathos that rippled through Volumes 1 and 2. Written and directed by James Gunn — one of only two filmmakers, including Ant-Man’s Peyton Reed, to complete a trilogy of Marvel movies — Volume 3 is steeped in loss and trauma.
That’s the way of superhero lore, of course. Look no further than Ben Parker. It’s also, stealthily, beneath the sarcasm and ’70s-Rock needle drops, been the way of this franchise, which gave us the death of young Peter Quill’s mother before the opening credits of Volume 1.
Here, Gunn draws fruitfully from the Guardians’ individual and collective traumatic pasts to propel them forward into profound changes for their future as individuals and as a family. Quill (Chris Pratt), who’s been tripping through the galaxy as Star-Lord almost since his mom died, is slipping in his duties as leader of the Guardians because he’s still reeling from the loss of teammate and true love, Gamora (Zoe Saldaña).
Pratt and Saldana constructed a compelling, embattled romance for Quill and Gamora through two Guardians films and other MCU appearances, only to see their pairing cut short by Gamora’s death in Avengers: Infinity War.
Gamora lives again, now, as the version of herself plucked from the past before she’d ever met Peter Quill, a state of innocence that offers something new in Saldaña’s portrayal. Just as Pratt finds a fresh note of insecurity in Quill’s heartbroken insistence on projecting this been-through-it-all love on a woman who sees him as a stranger.
Of the billions of beings across their universe and beyond, would these two, if they met under completely different circumstances, still be endgame for each other? As it stands, like Rocket, they’re not sure where they fit. Gamora is running with Quill’s former renegade crew, the Ravagers, and both teams face a threat from mutual enemy, the Sovereign, those uptight, golden-skinned invaders, led by Elizabeth Debicki’s amusingly haughty High Priestess Ayesha.
The Sovereign’s powerful new weapon, a man called Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), crashes into Knowhere in the film’s first effects-laden battle of many, including an attack by a horde of what look like space roaches, and an eye-popping fight set to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Reasons.”
Guardians Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and recent talking-dog recruit Cosmo (voiced by Maria Bakalova) aren’t as well-served as the lead trio in terms of story, but they pull their weight in brilliantly-edited, though cartoonish, action sequences that bound nimbly between characters, locations, and on occasion, between the present and flashbacks to Rocket’s origins.
The feisty little guy has to confront his past, and his deranged creator, the enigmatic High Evolutionary (Peacemaker’s Chukwudi Iwuji, in a fabulous villain turn), in order to figure out his purpose.
And the entire Guardians family will have to face mortality in an adventure that, despite convoluted plotting and at least one too many scenes of slo-mo strutting to classic tunes, earns its poignant ending, and passionately forges new paths ahead for some of the MCU’s favorite figures.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is playing in theaters nationwide. Visit www.fandango.com.
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