Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 Hugs Out Its Finale

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

There’s a recurring gag, one of many in James Gunn’s trilogy finale Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, where a wild dramatic videogame-worthy move of some kind will be landed by one of our heroes. In that victorious mini-moment, the performing stud will look over to one or more of their teammates and ask, “Did it look cool?” Within the movie, the answer is always wide-eyed “Yes!”

To us in the audience, we may or may not be holding up different scorecards as cinematic contest judges from our IMAX or Dolby Atmos-enhanced seats. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is the kind of movie that can bring together mind-blown NBA Dunk Contest reactions, the more erudite and dramatic types from Dancing With the Stars, or the full-on Olympic-level figure skating and gymnastic judges looking for every flourish and decimal point of technicality.

Three team members walk down a cooridor.
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

That being said, this very writer attempts to measure the question of coolness in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 like this. If you have to ask, is it really that cool? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but how much preening is really necessary when you have a guaranteed hit. That can be called trying too hard.

When it comes to coolness, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is an air conditioner of a blockbuster movie. Its comic book movie breeze is crisp and non-stop, making any hot room feel stupendous. The compressors are chugging on full blast and the thermostat is set low for maximum chill. But, like any air conditioner, you can run that machine too long. It’ll churn, rattle, need a filter or two, frost up, run out of refrigerant, or overdo the coolness for the room.

Four Guardians stand on the ramp of their ship on a suburban street.
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

Jumping ahead from when we last saw our characters on The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special (not required homework by any means for this movie, but worth the visit), the defenders-for-hire have set up a ramshackle headquarters on the space barrio streets of Knowhere. Their R&R time is interrupted by the thundering arrival of Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a genetically engineered being from the Sovereign sent to capture Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper and performed on set by Sean Gunn) for the mad scientist High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji from John Wick: Chapter 2). In the fracas, Rocket is gravely wounded and any medical intervention capable of saving him is disrupted by the killswitch attached to his heart from his old mechanical implants.

As we come to learn, High Evolutionary is the brilliant and vile man who installed that killswitch and made Rocket the enhanced and scarred individual everyone loves and fears today. High Evolutionary has never been able to tap or replicate Rocket’s innate knack for engineering and seeks to put him under the knife once again. With the Guardian’s quest to track down the High Evolutionary to his planet-sized homebase lab of Counter-Earth and save their friend, James Gunn essentially hands the majority of this movie’s put-upon importance to Bradley Cooper’s surly varmint.

A raccoon creature in a uniforms steers a spaceship in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

While you cannot steal a movie that’s handed to you in this way, the deep flashbacks chronicling the previously-unrevealed origin of Rocket Raccoon warm the rest of the room from what the movie air conditioner is doing elsewhere. Caged between experiments, young Rocket befriends a trio of fellow test subjects—Lyllah, Teefs, and Floor, who are an otter, walrus, and bunny voiced respectively by Linda Cardellini, Asim Chaudhry, and Mikaela Hoover—who long for their promised utopian freedom. Their naïve and supportive cuteness is pitted against the cruelty of Iwukji’s powerful villain. In a unique way, with all the valiant animal rescue occurring, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 could have been sponsored by the SPCA as a not-so-low-key anti-animal cruelty PSA backed by the Marvel entertainment machine.

When the group enlists the help of the Ravagers to help infiltrate facilities and track down High Evolutionary, that alliance brings in the version of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) from the pre-Endgame timeline that never met Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). Their lost, unrequited love is reinjected into trilogy as subplots, alongside a myriad of what-more-can-be-done stepping stone moments of valor and schtick for Nebula (Karen Gillan), Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Kraglin (Sean Gunn), and Groot (Vin Diesel).

A purple scientist is flanked by two aides in white tunics.
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

Bigger than the encyclopedia of races and species everyone is and all their different walks of life, the friendship goals know no bounds in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Even if there’s always one or two morons on a given team (another recurring humorous bit in this movie), good friends include them with love, loyalty, and support. That tenet has been the hallmark theme of the entire trilogy since their rag-tag, loner-curing formation nine years ago.

That’s all well and good, but the route Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 takes with this interstellar chase is all over the place. Start with the villain and his goal of creating genetic perfection on a planetary scale and razing every failed attempt along the way. Unfortunately for Chukwudi Iwukji, he’s only granted two vocal settings for his dialogue. It’s either pontificating whispers of altruistic intent or a shout-to-the-balcony scream of maniacal yelling. The latter gets awfully repetitive and downright foolish, weakening what could have been a prime heel for a Marvel movie. Comic fans will also find disappointment in the himbo treatment of Adam Warlock, played by professional movie doofus Will Poulter. The character’s badassness was nearly completely neutered.

A golden-colored woman in a golden setting turns back to look at her son.
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

Circling back to the “Did it look cool?” showcase, two more by-products percolate. The positive one is the rich production value. The massive army of makeup artists from Legacy Effects and the production design work spearheaded by Beth Mickle (The Suicide Squad) created arguably Marvel’s most unique set designs and character creations this side of Black Panther. The accompanying VFX from supervisors Susan Pickett (Eternals) and two-time Oscar nominee Stephane Ceretti (Doctor Strange) spew explosions and censor-softened, non-crimson alien blood all through the wild stunt choreography from coordinator Heidi Moneymaker. Everywhere you look, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 pops off the screen with distinct coolness.

The more challenging by-product is the density of it all, so to speak. When you feel the urgent need to give everyone multiple hero moments and cathartic codas, as James Gunn does in this swan song, you get a busy movie that, for the air conditioner we’ve been talking about, becomes over-cooled. While the final third of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 gets to contain the big brawl of sentiment and action for loyal fans, it also becomes very overstuffed and flirts with the classic Moon Knight “random bullshit go!!!” meme for ridiculousness and exhaustion.

A team in multi-colored space suits leap in low gravity on an organic surface.
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

Luckily, unlike Taika Watiti, James Gunn can pace his jokes. The departing writer-director who is heading across town to helm the DCU for Warner Bros. gives his comedy some minutes (even the extra ones stretching to 150 in total) to breathe and, best of all, wholly balances them with epic feels. Gunn’s now-legendary curated soundtrack choices, piped through a Microsoft Zune and produced by Marvel’s go-to music supervisor Dave Jordan, surge the emotional roller coaster to even more stylish heavens than before. Sorry, Air. You had a good one-month run as the best soundtrack of 2023. The champ has returned.

Ultimately, any air-conditioned frost of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 can be scraped or shaken off relatively easily, but not this movie’s heart. That’s going nowhere in Knowhere. The jovial intimacy brims throughout every heroic character interaction from all involved. In the end, the quality time of hugs are cooler than any perilous gunshot, slashing blade, or punching power move.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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