Niko Ramses’s review published on Letterboxd:
[This review contains minor spoilers for plot details and jokes within Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3]
I allocate too much time in all of my Marvel Cinematic Universe reviews writing about how much the franchise has let me down while reminiscing about its long-since-passed glory days. I didn't bother watching Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania for this exact reason. However, if there has been one MCU production that I can honestly say I was highly anticipating, it was Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. I think it’s fair to say that the recent Phase of MCU movies, the immense praise that this film in particular has received comes across as reactionary given that it is one of the few consistently well-crafted movies from start to finish, and because of this, it seems that many are willing to turn a blind eye to the issues that are intrinsic to it. Despite any of the flaws that surround his films, I could always count on James Gunn to deliver a deeply personal and emotionally resonant feature with a side of sci-fi spectacle to ice the top of this cake. And Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 gives you exactly that.
Whereas the first Guardians of the Galaxy was a film about sharing pain and using this to rise from the ashes to become something more and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was about accepting that this pain will forever be a part of one’s life but that it doesn’t mean that this pain will forever define us, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 presents us with a narrative about the lengths that we go to prevent those we deeply care about from experiencing the pain that we ourselves have felt in our lives.
There is one very brief scene in particular that best emphasizes this sentiment. As Gamora argues with Quill about the unreasonable lengths that he is going to in order to help Rocket, Nebula interjects and states that Rocket is their family and that is the only reason necessary to justify their actions. It’s such a subtle moment that not only expresses the deep connection that Nebula and Rocket grew to have in the five years that the rest of the Guardians were snapped out of existence, but it parallels the relationship that Nebula shared with Gamora earlier in the franchise. Whereas Nebula once scoffed at the idea that the Guardians could possess such a profound concern for one another, to the extent that they would risk their lives for each other and refer to themselves as a family, she now preaches these same learned values onto Gamora who very much resembles the more angsty and temperamental attitudes that Nebula once held. While Nebula was forced to fight an alternative timeline version of herself in Avengers: Endgame, it is this moment in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 which truly pits her against everything she once stood for and represented.
Speaking of Gamora, one of the biggest concerns I had about this movie regarded how Gunn would handle her death and subsequent revival via the alternate timeline version of her character. And contrary to the opinions of many, I thought that her death in Avengers: Infinity War was effective and well-executed, intertwining itself with the film’s themes of the inescapability of fate and one’s unreconciled past catching up with them. However, I do believe that it was completely undermined by her return in Avengers: Endgame. With that long-winded tangent completed, this begs the question: was it worth it to revive Gamora? No. No it was not.
While watching any scene with Gamora, all I could sense was an overwhelming feeling that many plot threads had been left unresolved (and at times resolved off screen) despite these ideas being teased as the focal point of this film and other movies. I’ve heard that Gunn had no part to play in her death in Avengers: Infinity War or her subsequent return in Avengers: Endgame, and while I’m sure he did the best he could with what he was given, her inclusion in Vol. 3 feels unnecessary and an afterthought. If anything, there is more blame to be bestowed on Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the writers of the most recent two Avengers movies) who failed to stick to the narrative decisions that they made. That being said, I can’t help but think that Gunn was in some way spiteful about what these writers left him with and tried to negate their work by refusing to elaborate upon it and instead casting it aside. I say this because it’s clear that the film’s marketing material and the premise of The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special heavily emphasised the search for Gamora and subsequently, Peter’s ability to cope with her death and his life without her. Heck, even the brief scene of the Guardians in Thor: Love and Thunder teased a version of Quill who was beginning to move forward from this loss. And outside of a few short moments, none of this is ever the case. A story pertaining to the Guardians learning to cope and move forward after the death of their teammate, nay family member, all the while grappling with the fact that they might soon be faced with the sudden and unexpected death of another, would really amplify the stakes of the film and showcase the desperation in our protagonists’ actions. It would also strengthen the decision that Quill makes at the end of the film much more powerful, given his newfound appreciation that life can be unfair and cut short, so he should do what he can to make the most of it with the ones that he loves.
There then arises an issue of allocating too much time to the wrong characters, which is especially an issue given how bloated this film’s cast is. Adam Warlock, for instance, is another character who is severely underutilized despite the six years of build-up he received (possibly 12 years in continuity depending on when this movie is set). Aside from functioning as the disrupter of the film’s equilibrium and the catalyst for its inciting incident, he adds no value to the story. If anything, it comes across as though he was written specifically for the purpose of teasing his return in a sequel, spin-off, or other project. I think that removing Gamora from the movie and devoting the attention to Adam Warlock and the Sovereign would have not only balanced the narrative a bit better, but also would have made it feel more precisely connected to what was teased previously.
Perhaps the greatest concern that I had going into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 regarded Gunn’s sense of humour. I’ve complained ad nauseam about the distaste in the direction that Gunn’s comedy has taken with specific reference to the self-indulgent and juvenile “loud = funny” structure that his jokes take the form of, as well as the Flanderization that many of his characters have undergone in their recent appearances. This was most applicable to Drax and Mantis, the former having once been comparable to Gary Cooper (you know, the strong, silent type) to a loud and abrasive jackass who has been increasingly upsetting and underwhelming to watch as time has gone on. I felt like the Punisher in that “no, no, no. Wait, wait, wait” scene every time the Guardians split off into groups and Drax and Mantis were continuously paired together because I quite literally started squirming in my seat and panicking at the mere thought of more unfunny and “quirky” shenanigans between the pair occurring. The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special really did a number on my psyche and I believe I’m entitled to some degree of financial compensation for retributive justice. I talked about this quite a bit in my review of The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, so I’ll end this rant here. Anyway, the humour in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is situated upon an odd middle-ground for me. As I’ve said before, the best jokes in the MCU are those pertaining to offhand remarks between characters during their banter rather than the calculated one-liners that the scripts tend to narrow-in on. This movie has both.
During the film’s first act, there is a surprising lack of humour save for a running gag between Kraglin and Cosmo being established. This made me believe that Gunn was prioritizing characterization and the narrative over goofs and gags. All that changed the second that the Guardians set foot on OrgoCorp. It is here Gunn lets loose and begins to start derailing both the narrative and pacing of the film for the sake of including some gags with his good pal Nathan Fillion. While I default to the “comedy is subjective” line of argument, it’s undeniable that the film quite literally stops in its entirety, as if the characters have been placed within a bubble that is isolated from the rest of the narrative, simply so they can do a bit. This happens several other times throughout the movie (with the other most egregious one being one about Drax lying down on a couch) and these moments become increasingly more irritating as time goes on. I found myself wishing I had a TV remote with me so I could fast forward through these moments (and on a rewatch I most definitely will given how inconsequential these scenes are to the film as a whole). The truly funny thing about this scene is how this is now the third MCU movie to feature the protagonists visiting an uncharted location only to spend a significant amount of time there (often close to a full 30 minutes), in turn causing the entirety of the movie’s pacing to screech to a halt. It’s comparable to the scene with the Illuminati in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and the realm of the gods in Thor: Love and Thunder. But whereas these films stop the flow of their narrative for the purpose of interjecting cameos, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 does so for the mostly more altruistic purpose of riffing and raffing (or goofing and gaffing if you feel so inclined). Credit where credit is due, at least James Gunn knows better than to cram a barrage of senseless cameos into his film, something that even the better recent entries into the franchise such as Black Panther: Wakanda Forever cannot seem to stray away from. The parallels to Thor: Love and Thunder don't end there however, as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3's climax also involves rescuing captive children from the villain. It does work significantly better here, however just like the previous parallels, it's strange that these same narrative decisions have been implemented again (and all within a year of each other).
I want to make it clear that I don’t despise Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and as you can tell by the rating that I assigned to it, I actually like it quite a bit. In writing such unsavoury paragraphs about the film, I only wanted to highlight some of the flaws within the film that I haven’t seen many others highlighting. The film is beautiful and any of the negatives are staunchly outweighed by the positives. For instance, James Gunn has mastered the art of spectacle. Everyone is rightfully citing the “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” hallway fight as the pinnacle of this film’s spectacle (and rightfully so because that scene is masterful), but Vol. 3 is interspersed with dozens of small, yet subtle, moments of visual flare (and often a visceral brutality) that are so pleasing to watch unfold. Whether it be the camera slowly spinning around the characters as they float through space or fall through the atmosphere, characters sprinting as a crashing ship barrels toward them, or action shots being partially obscured in the background as an unconventional foreground subject is focused on to set the tone of the sequence, Gunn always delivers unique and interesting moments of spectacle, never settling for the bare minimum for coverage and resigning himself to a “lets pre-viz this entire thing and film it in front of a poorly lit green screen because don’t worry, we can fix it in post” mentality.
I briefly mentioned the Beastie Boys scene and I feel that discussing the soundtrack of a Guardians of the Galaxy film is just as important to any discussion about the narrative, themes, or characters. Music is so deeply instrumental to this franchise yet aside for a couple songs, lacks the crisp and motivated throughline that the soundtracks did in both Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, often coming across as overbearing and inserted into the scene for the purpose of having a needle drop. This was especially apparent for Rainbow’s “Since You Been Gone” (a track which was paired astonishingly well to one of the film’s trailers) and Heart’s “Crazy On You” which is so overplayed that it felt lazy. Say what you will about incorporating “Creep” by Radiohead, but at least it carried thematic weight for the scene, setting up one of the film’s major interpersonal conflicts. Perhaps this more alternative and rock styled soundtrack just doesn’t match my tastes, but I do think that stylistically, this soundtrack is more in line with Gunn’s previous feature The Suicide Squad than it is with the rhythmic stylings of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Even Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame nailed the tone of the previous soundtracks with their inclusion of The Spinners’ “Rubberband Man” and “Supersonic Rocket Ship” by The Kinks. By this I mean to say that this franchise works best when restricted to a particular period (late 1970s to mid-80s) rather than four decades of music and that straying away from it has in turn negated the iconography these soundtracks once garnered. Or maybe I’m just unreasonably mad because I was desperately holding out hope for Gunn to have a change of heart and incorporate King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight.” Also, I would like to apologize for being negative again. This paragraph just happened to flow better when placed after my discussion of Gunn’s excellent spectacle filmmaking.
However, despite any ill–will I hold toward this soundtrack, there is an undeniable beauty that it brings about in one of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3’s final sequences. Move aside Another Round, Beau Travail and Shrek because there’s a new closing dance party finale in town. There is such an earned feeling of profound liberation that comes in this sequence that I couldn’t help but smile at. For a franchise that used music as a mode of revealing character, bringing them closer together, and at times being that which tears them apart, it was beautiful to witness something like this unfold. The use of Florence + The Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over” stimulates a catharsis over the audience and the characters as this dance and song work to celebrate the flaws and imperfections of these characters, finally granting them this moment to rest and experience redemption and vindication for their pasts, using music as the means of leading them toward a brighter future. They may be separated geographically, but spiritually, they are closer than they ever were. It’s not only the perfect send off to a group of characters that both Gunn and audiences alike adore, but to the franchise as a whole. Not even the ending of Avengers: Endgame had such a level of finality to it. I really wish that I was able to adequately convey exactly how this sequence made me feel because it truly provoked something in me that I haven’t experienced in a superhero film in a long time. If there was any way for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 to conclude, I wouldn’t want to see this franchise go in any other way than this. As one of the film's taglines states, “once more with feeling” and James Gunn lives up to that promise in full.