Our heroic mercenaries, the Guardians of the Galaxy — armed with weapons, friendship and a Zune with pre-2000s hits — take to space and the big screen one last time in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.”
From that Zune, the film opens with Rocket (Bradley Cooper) somberly nodding along to Radiohead’s “Creep” and ambling around Knowhere, the head of a deceased celestial being that the Guardians have made their home base. Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), can be found passed out in a lake of spilled alcohol and tears, while the rest of the ragtag gang worries over his distraught mourning of the dead-but-not-dead Gamora (Zoe Saldaña).
This band of weirdos was last seen together after aiding in the defeat of Thanos, in which one multiversal version of Gamora was killed by her father’s own hand, leaving their betrayal of the “perfect” species, the Sovereign, in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” a distant memory. Not too distant, however, as early in “Vol. 3,” Rocket is severely injured by the naïve, Oedipal and absolutely shredded Adam (Will Poulter), a specimen the Sovereign created to exact revenge.
Although the gang fends off Adam, they are unable to heal Rocket due to an exploitive failsafe built into his heart by his creator. Peter, shocked out of his grief, leads the Guardians in tracking down the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) — who, coincidentally, also crafted the Sovereign — and save their friend and, you know, the galaxy again.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, the film falls in Phase Five, which has been reproachfully received by audiences, to put it lightly. What sets “Vol. 3” apart from recent Marvel missteps is that the Guardians franchise represents the culmination of a well-crafted space ensemble comedy that hit its storytelling stride in its first installation. There are no multiversal truths or surprises for audiences to digest, no incomprehensible set-ups for films to come.
Instead, “Vol. 3” gives hardcore Marvel fans the “Rocket the cybernetically enhanced raccoon genius and sarcasm machine” backstory they’ve thirsted for.
That backstory is more painful and cruel than expected. Flashes of Rocket’s past — from full bodied baby raccoon to an enhanced youth living alongside other experiments of the High Evolutionary — cut the anticipated space fights and comedic spittakes characteristic of the Guardians.
In this way, “Vol. 3” is both fresher and extremely balanced. Saldaña impresses with a gruffer, more aggressive Gamora that, rightly, iterates to Peter that she is not the woman he fell in love with. Our favorite sentient tree Groot (Vin Diesel), the puppy-like empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and deadpan, lovingly idiotic Drax (Dave Bautista) round the edges of the ensemble (but hold your breath: he does make it through a metaphor).
A beautiful facet of every well-written trilogy is the depth of character development that can be tracked from film to film. In this arena, writer and director James Gunn hits a homer. Nebula is a drastically different character, one who seems to almost understand compassion now. Cosmo (Maria Bakalova), first rescued by the Guardians in “Vol. 1,” makes an appearance as a truly good dog, and Mantis extends her motherly senses and empathic abilities even further.
Visually, the film is stunning and inventive. The choreography of space battles, the movement of Knowhere and the simple concept of what a planet made of living tissue would look like represent another victory for Gunn — a consistent note throughout the franchise.
At times, the ensemble is almost a bit too comforting in that their actions and retorts have become predictable. Further, the fight scenes become blurry and confusing with so many bodies, human and otherwise, flying here and there. Emotionally, the splicing of space travels and trials with harrowing and difficult to watch tragedies (read: blatant animal abuse, even if it is CGI-generated) of Rocket’s past generates a tonal dissonance that becomes more jarring as the film progresses.
These bumps do not detract from experiencing the touching end of one of the strongest franchises in the current MCU, especially when it’s set against another powerfully nostalgic soundtrack. At the very least, you can still bop along in your seat to “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” and “Dog Days Are Over.”