Art either exposes the frailty of humanity or pushes us to follow our better angels. No matter what it is – from the earliest cave paintings to Minor Threat songs to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 – all any piece of art hopes to do is to make something larger than ourselves by putting our own failings and triumphs into something people can keep for themselves. While some wouldn’t put the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the same pantheon as, let’s say, works by Leonardo da Vinci or any of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, they are all one and the same; they represent emotional touchstones upon which memories and inspiration are made.
What separates the Guardians of the Galaxy films (and the “Holiday Special” on Disney+, shot at the same time as Vol. 3) from the rest of the Marvel films largely rests on writer/director James Gunn’s sensibilities. In all of his films, from Slither to the present day, there are damningly serious stakes countered by the equivalent of shoving a fist with the middle finger extended at said stakes while heroes big and small do their best to avoid apocalyptic catastrophe. But it’s not done in any kind of parodical, Zucker Brothers manner; it’s done with an eye toward steering the main characters to triumph while having to deal with their many personal idiosyncrasies.
Gunn finally lets us in on what Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper and motion captured by Sean Gunn, also appearing as Kraglin) has been hiding all these years under a mountain of bluster, gallows humor, and a fascinating talent for hacking disparate objects together to make his own brand of mayhem. Even though he’s sidelined by Adam (Will Poulter) – the thing that Sovereign empress Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) is seen constructing in one of Vol. 2’s many mid-credits scenes – early on, Vol. 3 belongs solely to Rocket as he barely clings to life on a medical table. While he thrashes about in a coma dying from his wounds, his life flashes before his eyes, allowing us to see how he became the sarcastic, chaos-loving, leave-no-one-behind mercenary we’ve grown to love over the past three movies (and other MCU appearances).
His Guardian teammates all pitch in to save their friend, including the alternate version of Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) seen in the last half of Avengers: Endgame, who’s suddenly swept up in the fight for Rocket’s life. She doesn’t know who he is, let alone why Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) is mooning over her like a lost love, which brings us to the second crux of the film: coming to terms with new realities and purposes. Peter still believes that this new Gamora might be made of the same stuff that the old Gamora was when she’s so obviously not; even though he hopes she might see him the same way the old Gamora did, there’s a different history this new Gamora possesses, and ne’er the twain shall meet.
The rest of the gang follows suit as they break into an organic fortress to retrieve a file that may be the key to curing Rocket, but they’re dealing with their own problems. Drax (Dave Bautista) is still that guy who can’t tell his ass from a hole in the ground unless he’s fighting someone; Mantis (Pom Klementieff) is trying to keep this ersatz family together through Peter’s depression and alcoholism; Nebula (Karen Gillan) is still wondering why she’s saddled with a team that can’t seem to pull their collective shit together; and Groot (Vin Diesel), although more beefy and muscular, still can’t seem to get beyond being a kind of deus ex machina for whatever situation the Guardians land themselves in.
Don’t go thinking that these beloved characters are getting the short shrift; they’re really not. However, the focus of the film is Rocket and keeping him alive, and James Gunn has to be given a ton of credit for making one of the most single-minded Marvel films in all of the MCU. There aren’t any sidetracks or subplots to distract us, nor is there a glut of heroes or villains. In the latter department, Chukwudi Iwuji gives his all to a frightening God-figure in The High Evolutionary, someone figuring deep into Rocket’s history. “There is no God! That’s why I had to step in!” he thunders at one of his underlings; he’s credited with creating entire races through science, and there’s a reason he’s willing to kill to get Rocket under his control. Even with limited screen time, Iwuji gives one of the best performances the MCU has ever seen, crafting a being with a God complex would make even Thanos shudder with fear.
Gunn wants this wrap-up for the Guardians to hit us in all the right places, and for sure, it does. By sticking to one track and riding it all the way to its bittersweet ending, he has made one of the MCU’s best, asking us to ride one more time alongside these broken characters as they try to make themselves whole with and through each other. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 gives us a lot to smile about, laugh at, and feel as they endeavor to save one of their own. In doing so, they dive deeper into what makes them a family and, more importantly, what makes them the Guardians of the Galaxy.