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‘Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3’ Review

A pleasant relic from the recent past.
May 5, 2023
‘Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3’ Review
Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, and friend. (Courtesy Marvel / Disney)

At a certain point in the early-to-mid-2010s, someone joked that it was crazy that DC and Warner Bros. couldn’t figure out what to do with iconic characters like Wonder Woman when Marvel was out here making movies about talking trees and raccoons with an attitude problem. And while this comedian’s point had more to do with their despair about the state of the female solo action movies, the real lesson here was that Marvel was striking black gold on every random shaft they sunk—and they were sinking wells in some very strange places.

Guardians of the Galaxy was, in a very real way, the moment it became obvious that comic book movies had entirely swallowed showbiz. Yes, Avengers had made a ton of money; sure, Iron Man wasn’t exactly Spider-Man or Batman in terms of public reverence. But that first run of movies still had mostly recognizable characters like Captain America and the Hulk and Thor, characters that had been around for decades and were operating in a world that felt at least familiar if not quite our own. When Guardians showed that any Marvel Cinematic Universe property was capable of making $300 million domestically and more than double that worldwide, the game changed.

It helped that Guardians of the Galaxy was, in fact, quite good. It worked as a hangout picture: after a decade of box office dominance, people have maybe forgotten what it was like seeing Parks and Rec’s Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt) make the jump from doughy comic relief to action movie hunk. He was a revelation, as was Dave Bautista’s seriocomic Drax, the aforementioned CGI trash panda voiced by Bradley Cooper, and the put-upon daughter of Thanos, Gamora (Zoe Saldaña). And it worked as action-comedy, the writing/direction of James Gunn bringing something a little different to the table, even if it closed with your typical big CGI explosion thingamajig.

It just . . . worked. As goofy as it was, the whole thing had the sort of mass and niche appeal that turned the MCU into a juggernaut the likes of which Hollywood has rarely seen.

And I think it’s entirely possible that Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 is the last gasp of that once-invulnerable cultural wrecking ball.

Guardians Vol. 3 suffers from some of the problems that the rest of the MCU has been suffering from, the biggest of which is the problem that all comic properties eventually run into: it’s all so goddamn convoluted that it’s hard to keep track of who is dead, who is alive, and how some of the dead people came back to life. For instance, I thought Gamora had died as a result of a sacrifice made by Thanos to gain an Infinity stone (don’t ask, it’s not important) and thus was not resurrected when his population-halving Snap (please don’t ask, it doesn’t matter) was reversed by Tony Stark in a last-ditch effort to save the universe and his daughter (again, please, don’t make me explain any of this).

But . . . I guess not? And one of the gags in this movie is the repetitive way her return is dealt with, as multiple characters simply regurgitate some stuff about a younger version of her coming to this universe, and how she doesn’t remember any of her time with the Guardians, so now she’s a space pirate.

Like I said: complicated. But it doesn’t really matter because Guardians of the Galaxy, despite being intricately wrapped up in the whole multiphase Thanos thing, never really relied on that stuff to appeal to audiences. It has always been best understood as a hangout picture. And you know what? It is fun hanging out with Star-Lord, Rocket Raccoon, Drax, talking tree Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), emotion-manipulator Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Gamora, her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), and a talking Russian dog named Cosmo (voiced by Maria Bakalova).

Nebula (Karen Gillan), Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). (Courtesy Marvel / Disney)

They all have great chemistry together. Bautista’s deadpans as Drax are funny. Star-Lord’s frustration with Gamora for failing to remember the years they spent together are comic and also poignant. Speaking of poignancy, I never thought I’d tear up while watching a computer-generated raccoon develop an emotional bond with a bionic otter, and yet, here we are.

As I was leaving the press preview with a fading grin, I couldn’t help but think that this feels like the last gasp of that old Marvel magic, which has for the last 15 years enjoyed an almost supernatural confluence of commercial and critical acclaim. Grosses are down for reasons having to do with the films themselves (the recent Black Panther, Thor, and Ant-Man sequels were all inferior to their predecessors) and changes to the business ushered in by streaming (I don’t know this to a certainty, but I’d wager rushed releases onto Disney+ have gutted repeat-viewing habits). Judging by the tracking, I don’t think Guardians Vol. 3 is going to be breaking any records.

It’s easy to joke about comic book fever breaking, about audiences finally tiring of the same computer-generated slop served up over and over (though the light at the end of the tunnel may be a Super Mario Bros. Movie-train bearing down on us). But Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 is a reminder of why these movies popped in the first place: It’s fun and funny and it works nicely in the moment, even if you never think about it again after you walk out of the theater.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association