Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, review: Marvel’s once-perkiest heroes now look like a spent force

Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 - Marvel

Fifteen long years after Tony Stark first clambered into his Iron Man suit and shot a repulsor blast through Hollywood’s old way of doing business, it’s hard to tell how much trouble Marvel is actually in. In purely commercial terms, the outlook still seems bulgily robust.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is, at the time of writing, the second most successful film released in 2023, while last year the studio’s cinematic output accounted for three of the year’s 10 highest-grossing titles. But even so, when was the last time you heard anyone actually expressing enthusiasm over one of these things, outside the franchise’s heavily invested fanbase?

That hazy but palpable sense of waning enthusiasm makes the third Guardians of the Galaxy film – which was directed and written, like the first two, by James Gunn – feel like something of a litmus test. This sub-series’ wisecracking band of waifs and strays are among the most beloved members of the whole Marvel menagerie – it was arguably the extraordinary success of the original Guardians outing, which in 2014 turned a set of D-tier unknowns into box-office dynamite, that proved this cinematic universe was going to thrive. So if anyone could rekindle widespread audience excitement, it would surely be Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill, Dave Bautista’s Drax and the others amassing for one final rodeo.

It’s ironic, therefore, that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 should itself be so irritable and frazzled: watching it often feels like snooping on a group holiday where the participants stopped enjoying one another’s company years ago, but are ploughing on for old time’s sake. Where the cast’s chemistry used to run on playful joshing and bickering, now every other group interaction is just sour, if not actively rancorous.

Karen Gillan’s Nebula, in particular, is just relentlessly bad company here, while Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, arbitrarily resurrected after her death in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, is now essentially a stranger to the rest of the gang, scuppering the group dynamic. (Pom Klementieff’s Mantis, who gets the lion’s share of funny moments, is clearly the one who’s decided to put a brave face on it.)

The plot revolves around the strange origins of Rocket, the gun-toting bipedal raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper: early on, we discover he was one of a number of Doctor Moreau-style experiments carried out by Chukwudi Iwuji’s High Evolutionary, a spacefaring geneticist with a god complex and a vague arsenal of super-villainous powers. (He can throw things around like a Jedi and make purple-white explosions, somehow.)

After Rocket is mortally wounded by one of his creations, Will Poulter’s golden-skinned adonis Adam Warlock – one of a few promising characters who don’t feel properly utilised – it falls to the rest of the Guardians to retrieve a code from their new foe’s HQ which will deactivate the kill switch on his heart. A crew doggedly sticking by their fallen colleague, even though it’s clear their glory days together are past: perhaps there is an intentional reflection of Gunn’s own rocky recent career arc, after Marvel fired him in 2018 over some years-old, off-colour tweets then sheepishly reinstated him after his cast rallied round.

Rocket, the gun-toting bipedal raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper, in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Rocket, the gun-toting bipedal raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper, in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 - Marvel

Gunn is a rare example of a gifted, stylish filmmaker who has been able to thrive in the cinematic universe format: during his absence from Marvel he was snapped up by their rivals DC, for whom he is currently cooking up a new Superman film. And there are semi-regular flashes of Gunn brilliance here, most noticeably in the luxuriously silly and gruesome creature and set design: I loved the suburb teeming with grotty human-animal hybrids, the “organic space station” which resembles a tumour, and some especially nasty business with a peeling face.

But the plot is a mess, with little sense of meaningful cause and effect behind its wrigglings. And it’s also wildly overlong: regular flashbacks involving Rocket’s former cellmates (an otter with spindly metal arms, a walrus with wheels instead of flippers, and so on) never quite manage to drum up the desired misfit-toys pathos. It’s more worthwhile than Ant-Man 3, Doctor Strange 2 and Black Panther 2, at least – and mercifully, I don’t think the multiverse is ever mentioned. But it’s still hard to see the series’ formerly perkiest heroes looking like such a spent force.

12A cert, 150 min. On Disney+ now