To paraphrase another MCU title, it was Rocket all along.
Irascibly voiced by Bradley Cooper, the walking, talking raccoon had the makings of a foul-mouthed bit of digital comic relief. Instead, James Gunn fashioned the character into the irreverent core of the Guardians of the Galaxy, his ragtag team of space heroes that save planets and wreak chaos wherever they land. There have been glimpses into Rocket’s past – the scars revealed in the first film, his bonding with Thor over trauma’s lingering effects in Infinity War – but audiences have never seen the complete story.
Given all that, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is primarily dedicated to Rocket’s devastating backstory and deeply-felt presence in the Guardians’ world. The group experiences a crisis when the superpowered Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) attempts to kidnap Rocket for the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), an evil scientist hellbent on creating a “perfect” society through experimentation. Warlock gravely wounds Rocket, and the Guardians embark on a mission to break into the facility where Rocket was experimented on to learn how to save him. Meanwhile, while Rocket clings to life in a coma, we get the unvarnished truth about his past.
Rocket’s past might be the MCU at its most shockingly and unabashedly cruel. For the sake of science and progress, the High Evolutionary physically, psychologically, and emotionally brutalizes Rocket. Describing Rocket’s treatment as “inhumane” feels woefully inadequate. Even for a franchise that wiped half of sentient life from existence, it’s surprising that Marvel allowed James Gunn to go in such a direction. After all, abuse can’t be glossed over with MCU standard quips. Blessedly, Gunn doesn’t try. He makes us, and the Guardians, sit with the awful truth and the accompanying tangle of messy emotions. He also finds glimmers of light in the darkness in Rocket’s friendships with otter Lylla, walrus Teefs, and rabbit Floor.
Rocket’s journey of survival and self-actualization against unspeakable evil is daring for a child-friendly blockbuster. Pulling off is challenging, making it a miracle that James Gunn does so splendidly. Unfortunately, Volume 3 doesn’t hold firm to that intention. While saving Rocket’s life in the inciting incident of the Guardians’ mission, typical Guardians shenanigans and competing character developments cause the story to lose focus. Peter (Chris Pratt) is still struggling with the loss of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the existence of her post-Endgame alternate self. The other Guardians are also going through their own stuff, although it isn’t clear what we should take seriously and what we should regard as comedy.
The confusion leaves Volume 3 a bit of a tonal mess outside of Rocket’s arc. The issues are noticeable, if not as glaring as in recent MCU entries. An out-of-place joke will undercut a moment of dramatic tension, or a character beat will shove into an action sequence where it doesn’t naturally fit. One character that struggles the most in this wonky space is Adam Warlock, who once seemed poised as Guardians’ next great threat. Rather, the film regards Adam as an indestructible nuisance, crashing into scenes like a calf in a rusty china shop. It’s a solid bit of Gunn-ian subversion, but it doesn’t entirely work. (Plus, you can’t help feeling Will Poulter deserved more meat to chew on).
The wear-and-tear largely heals itself in Volume 3’s rousing and riotous third act. The finale is an entertaining and fulfilling spectacle, finally landing on the perfect mix of humor, heart, and hijinks. The action is tight and electrifying, while the visual gags are delightfully ridiculous. Most importantly, Rocket and the Guardians find a resolution grounded in their unique camaraderie, leading them into a prosperous future. Not every character moment feels fully earned, and the ending might be a bit too tidy, depending on your tolerance for sentiment. (I wrote an essay about the merits of Meatloaf’s “I’d Do Anything for Love,” so it’s clear where I fit.) However, the emotions are genuine and deserve the tears you will undoubtedly shed when the closing credits roll.
Another of Gunn’s directorial strengths is his ability to draw top-notch performances out of his motley cast. For instance, Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista owe part of their on-screen success to Gunn surfacing surprising facets of their acting skills (Pratt in heart-on-his-sleeve drama and Bautista in dry humor). Volume 3 offers outstanding performances, especially from Pratt, Chukwudi Iwuji at the High Evolutionary, Karen Gillian as Nebula, and Pom Klementieff as Mantis. Pratt gives his best dramatic performance to date, and Iwuji delivers a note-perfect villain. Bradley Cooper, however, is the film’s beating heart. Rather than autopilot his performance, he finds heart-shattering and soul-strengthening emotions, earning every moment. It shames the Academy for not honoring voice-over acting.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a satisfying conclusion to the MCU’s most emotionally and narratively rich trilogy. The film would’ve benefitted from a tighter cleave to Rocket’s harrowing story. And yet, the flaws feel like a feature rather than a bug. Beneath the insanity, you sense that James Gunn told the story he wanted on his terms, with little intervention. Most directors within the MCU don’t have that privilege. (The lack thereof has hobbled nearly every post-Endgame project to some degree.) That is an impressive accomplishment for Gunn to carry as he seeks to save another universe from itself.