One of the most impressive things about James Gunn and his Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy is his ability to weave in his oddball, outsider interests into a franchise machine. He populates his third MCU film with outcasts, animal rights advocacy, and ooey-gooey effects. He is one of the few filmmakers today who can make a personal film while operating inside a massive system. This combination mostly works in his final outing with the Guardians and it results in a satisfying if slightly overstuffed finale.
Vol. 3 opens with Rocket (Bradley Cooper) listening to an acoustic version of Radiohead's Creep. It is a decidedly different tone than the previous volumes but again, Gunn picks a great needle drop to set the darker, sadder tone of this. It also perfectly sets up Rocket's backstory, which is told in a series of moving flashbacks. From there, the film opens with an attack on the Guardians' home. Golden boy Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) comes crashing into Knowhere and begins to beat up everyone. Rocket takes the worst of it and hovers between life and death for the rest of the movie. Here is where the movie splits its story, focusing on Rocket's backstory and the team's attempts to save his life.
The mission leads them to the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a great Marvel villain who plays God as he attempts to create a utopian society. His experiments to create his Counter-Earth is Rocket's origin. Peter (Chris Pratt) is hung up over Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) who has returned as a grumpier version of herself. Gunn wisely sidelines their love story in favor of giving Rocket the opportunity to shine. While Pratt does his usually thing here his energy is lower and his heart doesn't quite feel in it. Pratt has increasingly struggled to recapture the boyish charm of his early years. Saldaña is great here, getting to play a wider range of emotions with this version of Gamora. The rest have little to do. Dave Bautista is fun as Drax. Karen Gillan is fine as Nebula but the character has little to do. Vin Diesel as Groot is routine. Pom Klementieff works as Mantis, whose comic relief hits only some of the time.
Overcrowded, Vol. 3 does at times lose momentum. However, it is full of fun moments and a lot of that goes to the film's aesthetic. Gunn favors costumes, makeup and sets even if it gives the film a B-movie vibe at times. I am pretty sure that is his aim and the film is in stark comparison to the CGI mess of the third Ant-Man film. Gunn relishes wacky and gross creature designs, vibrant costumes, and gore. Sure this is a Marvel film but he still manages to squeeze in some Slither vibes here and there. There is a genuine sense of fun to the character and set designs, like a random goon who looks like a carrot.
It is these little details that make Volume 3 feel weird and distinct in the best way. The focus on Rocket and his heartbreaking origins line up with Gunn's love of animals. This again speaks to Gunn's ability to make a big franchise film feel personal. The MCU will lose Gunn now as he takes over the DCU. I hope he is able to bring the same personal touches he has in the Guardians films. For fans, this is a satisfying end.