Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) is severely injured during a mission, but his friends in the Guardians of the Galaxy - Quill (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) - will stop at nothing to bring him back to life. Breaking into a top-security facility to retrieve a file on Rocket's origins, they encounter the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a mad scientist who created Rocket and will stop at nothing to get him back...
Compared to how 'Guardians of the Galaxy' kicked off with Redbone's instant ear-worm, 'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3' starts with an immediate downer in an acoustic, half-murmured version of Radiohead's 'Creep'. Quill, played with unusual restraint by Chris Pratt, is being hauled out of a drinking establishment by Drax and Raccoon. His heart's broken over Gamora dying and the version that returned following the events of 'Infinity War' and 'Endgame' not remembering him. It's not that 'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3' is especially downbeat throughout its runtime, but it's definitely gone to much darker places than any other Marvel movie.
For instance, Rocket's backstory makes up much of the emotional core of the movie and involves animal experimentation and being held in cages, roaring speeches about genetic purity from Shakespearean-adjacent villain High Evolutionary, and more than a few scenes that cut surprisingly deep for CGI characters. Quill is dealing with a harsh breakup from Gamora, while Mantis and her emotions-changing ability can't work on him because, well, it's not real. Yet, in the middle of all this darkness, 'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3' grapples with something that lingers on - friendship. Despite the darkness, the light of comradeship and solidarity is what holds. They've all been through it together, so they're helping them get through it together.
While it's not like he's airing dirty laundry here, James Gunn is clearly working out some of his feelings on Marvel Studios in 'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3'. It's not score-settling, but rather his script deals with how friends can and will come to save you in your lowest moments and pull you from your own history. Back in 2018, the entire cast of 'Guardians of the Galaxy' released a joint statement criticising Disney's decision to fire him over past tweets unearthed by far-right agitators. Dave Bautista point-blanked refused to entertain the notion of doing another movie without him. Directors like Joe Carnahan, Fede Alvarez, Lloyd Kaufman of Troma fame, and Bobcat Goldthwait all rode to the rescue in support of Gunn.
Cast-wise, Chukwudi Iwuji turns in a deliriously villainous performance as the High Evolutionary, playing it somewhere along the lines of a Shakespearean rendition of Dr. Frankenstein. Will Poulter and Elizabeth Debicki are a great comedy double-act as Adam Warlock and Ayesha, while Cosmo the Space-Dog - voiced by 'Borat 2' breakout Maria Bakalova - has some of the funniest moments in the whole movie with Sean Gunn's character, Kraglin. As to the original cast, it's much as before with a few changes. Zoe Saldana plays Gamora with a harder edge, while Chris Pratt seems somewhat pushed to one side to give Bradley Cooper's voice acting a chance to shine.
At two and a half hours, 'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3' isn't of the same epic length as any of the 'Avengers' movies, but it does have some drawn-out moments that probably could have been excised for further alacrity. For example, there's a sequence set on a planet called Counter-Earth that's a warped version of Reagan-era America, complete with station wagons, indiscriminate crime, and a pervading sense of dread caused by a horrifying corporate entity that lurks in the background of it all. It's wacky stuff, but you get the sense that Gunn's trying to fit all of his ideas and what he wants to say as he's running out of time.
Comic-book movies are defined by how one connects to the other, how they're so often vehicles to set up another story, which sets up another story, and so on and so on. In 'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3', time and care is taken to close the story once and for all. Unlike other, recent Marvel entries, this has a clear objective and it largely achieves that. There are some moments of overwrought sentimentality, but you can see and feel that it's coming from a genuine place. It rounds out the story of this group of misfit weirdos with a convincing and emotional finish, rather than trying to artificially force it on for another few years - something that's all too common in this genre.