The Marvel Cinematic Universe has done a great job of earning a reputation for grinding down the personalities of interesting directors-for-hire with endless tinkering and boring pre-vizzed visual effects sequences. Filmmakers like Edgar Wright, Ryan Coogler, and Sam Raimi have all struggled, to varying degrees of success or lack thereof, to articulate something approximating a vision within the superhero franchise. So it’s sort of surprising that, of all people, a guy who got his start directing Troma detritus and writing a Scooby-Doo movie has managed to make the most idiosyncratic movies both here and for the DC Comics film line (of which he’s even more miraculously currently in charge somehow), even after being fired and rehired by Marvel.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 might not be the most successful of his trilogy of spacefaring, wisecracking misfits, but it’s not for lack of a swing, and at the very least Gunn knows where his bread is buttered as far as both juvenile sarcasm and maudlin weepiness go. We start in flashback: little baby Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is terrifyingly plucked from a cage by an enormous hand, which we soon learn belongs to The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a powerful being obsessed with creating a perfect civilization at all costs. To that end, he performs hellish experiments on Rocket — and indeed a host of other creatures — creating creepy, emotionally stunted animal cyborgs who he cruelly manipulates and tortures. The multiple flashbacks to Rocket’s upbringing and torment at the hands of the bad guy are genuinely unpleasant, and frankly you’d have to be made of stone or something to not get a little dusty at the repeated closeups of cute critters trembling in terror.
Back in the present day, we find the titular Guardians posting up at a new home base and hanging out a shingle. Star-Lord/Peter Quill, however, is drowning in misery and booze, still pining for his lost love Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who you may recall was killed in Avengers: Endgame only be replaced by an alternate timeline version of herself with no memory of Peter (thankfully, this is just about the only thing you have to know about any of the other MCU films to follow along here). Everyone’s routine is interrupted when a mysterious, incredibly powerful guy named Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) shows up in an attempt to kidnap Rocket for unknown purposes, only to gravely wound him instead. That in turn reveals that Rocket will die unless his augmented parts can be circumvented, thereby necessitating that the gang pull one big mission to confront the High Evolutionary and save their pal.
This time around, the ragtag crew of goofballs traversing new and uncharted territory on a rescue mission slightly reminds of Finding Nemo — only replete with dick jokes — and the cruel scientist determined to harm everyone’s best friend seems like a subplot from a kids’ animal movie from the ’90s, like Beethoven. But Gunn does a sturdy job of synthesizing his influences and tics into something resembling a tidy narrative, or at least as tidy as franchise demands allow. It’s clear that the director has tremendous affection for all of his characters, and that he’s wholly determined to give them a properly tear-jerking sendoff. To that end, the movie can frequently feel both overstuffed and under-paced, with emotional trajectories left to feel a bit rushed even as the narrative seems to meander from one set piece to the next.
Slightly more disappointing are those set pieces themselves. Gunn has always been, relatively speaking, one of the more reliably elaborate MCU directors when it comes to visual design. The action sequences he orchestrated in Vol. 2 boasted some legitimate ingenuity, but here things are regrettably flattened mostly to the usual flying around and shooting laser beams — only a late conflagration, a very long and very CG-assisted one-take, locates his usual pizazz. On the other hand, the set and creature design are both outstanding, featuring loads of great makeup, costumes, and gorgeous locations. There’s barely a minute of Vol 3 that isn’t packed with impressively oddball aliens or strange sets, and unlike the recent Quantumania, a lot of it what’s going on here has the welcome tactility and texture of practical VFX. And so, if it all doesn’t fully hang together at the end, well, that’s sort of okay and it certainly could have been far worse — as demonstrated by recent MCU entries. Relative to the increasingly homogenized look and material of Marvel films, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3‘s endearing weirdness and genuine attempts at pathos at the very least distinguish this from the more somber and more machine-tooled nature of the franchise at large. Uneven though this is, that level of personality goes a long way.