With writer/director James Gunn off to DC and some of its stars signalling they’re done with their characters, there’s an inevitable air of finality – not to mention contractual obligation – about this third instalment in Marvel’s Guardians series. If anything, though, that’s more a strength than a weakness, all involved being seemingly intent on going out on an emotionally affecting, thematically audacious high.
Having popped up in two Avengers films, one Thor and a Holiday Special, the Guardians have hardly been idle since 2017’s Volume 2. Small wonder, then, that they’re all a little battle-weary as Vol. 3 begins, their galaxy-saving taking a back seat to the everyday demands of setting up a new HQ on Knowhere and, in Star-Lord’s (Chris Pratt) case, drowning his Gamora-related sorrows.
But after Sovereign commando Adam (a gold-hued Will Poulter) zooms in to dish out some superpowered payback, our favourite bunch of A-holes find themselves united behind a new cause: to find the genetic passcode that will save the wounded Rocket’s (Bradley Cooper) life. The wise-cracking planet-hopping that follows may have a familiar ring, but it always feels like there is something important at stake – unlike, say, in the MCU’s other recent venture into three-quel territory, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.
It’s the delving into Rocket’s tortured backstory, though, that really enables Gunn to take risks and chances. By detailing the raccoon’s journey from infant guinea pig to genetically modified experiment, Guardians 3 offers nothing so much as a broadside against animal testing; the big bad pulling the strings here is the eugenics-obsessed High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji).
Poignant scenes involving Rocket’s fellow sentient lab rats – a rabbit, otter and walrus equipped with various robotic body augmentations – will likely be distressing for younger audiences, while a ‘Counter-Earth’ populated by human-animal hybrids is The Island of Doctor Moreau in all but name. The result is a rare franchise blockbuster with an ethical conscience, albeit one whose tonal shifts could be tricky to negotiate for those solely wanting guilt-free popcorn entertainment.
So comfortable are the leads now in their spacesuits that they have the feel of a cosily familial ensemble. If there’s a standout, though, it’s Karen Gillan’s Nebula, her surly cyborg here boasting a priceless comic timing that was hardly imaginable back in the original Guardians.
Guardians of the Galaxy 3 is in UK cinemas on May 3 and in US cinemas on May 5. For more on the MCU, check out our guide to all of the upcoming Marvel movies and shows on the way in 2023 and beyond.