“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 3”
Starring Chris Pratt, Chukwudi Iwuji, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Zoe Saldana, Vin Diesel, Sean Gunn, Will Poulter, Elizabeth Debicki, Maria Bakalova
Written and directed by James Gunn
Based on “Guardians of the Galaxy” by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning
Produced by Kevin Feige
Cinematography by Henry Graham
Edited by Fred Raskin and Greg D’Auria
Music by John Murphy

By Matt Neufeld
May 4, 2023

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is excellent, and not only is the film a stirring, exciting and thoroughly entertaining, welcome return to form for the beleaguered, long-troubled comic book superhero sci-fi fantasy genre, this third “Guardians” movie notches several noteworthy achievements through its excellence, too: The movie is the best comic book superhero film in years; it’s one of the best sci-fi and fantasy films in years; it’s the best Marvel movie in years; it features one of the flat-out best, most well-acted and most well-written movie villains in any genre of film in many years; and the film marks the completion of a complete, solid, generally above-average and successful movie trilogy, which is a feat that is rarely achieved in film, in general.

“Guardians” is also expected to propel the 2023 late-spring/summer movie season off to a great start, albeit a bit early, traditional-summer-movie-season-wise, and the movie is also expected to lead and spur what is forecast to be a strong, continuing, prolonged resurgence of moviegoing during the second and third quarters of the year as the nation, and the world, slowly but steadily climb out from under the pandemic rock and cloud that’s buried and dampened filmgoing for much of the past three years.

All of this is welcome good news, not just for the movie industry, but for the legions of science-fiction, fantasy and comic book superhero fans who have been waiting patiently, and impatiently, for the genre to bounce back from the generally average or just plain terrible, embarrassing movies from the past few years. “Guardians” is such a blast, such a rollicking, thrilling, suspenseful and gratifying film on every level, that it’s a relief, a welcome comeback and a cause for celebration for the millions of genre fans worldwide. But, it must be noted, this “Guardians” is a good enough movie, like any solidly good movie, that non-hardcore sci-fi, fantasy and superhero movie fans–any filmgoer, really–can go out to the theaters and enjoy this movie, too. When a movie is truly good, it’s good for all moviegoers, and even the most casual sci-fi fan will indeed enjoy “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.” Yes, yes, it’s not over-reacting—the movie is that good.

So as we welcome the first full weekend of May, and, concurrently, spring, summer and the return of good, warm weather, do yourself a favor and please just get up, go out to a real movie theater, sit back in those crazy-comfortable new lounge-chair movie theater seats, enjoy some stupidly over-priced warm “buttered” popcorn and let yourself be entertained by this crazily entertaining cast of characters who are collectively known as the guardians of the galaxy for their most honorable, giving and courageous heroic deeds of saving people and worlds, and, at times, all things that are, in essence, time, space and the universe.

For it’s indeed that unique, inventive and varied cast of characters that, more than anything else, sets the “Guardians” movies above and beyond their counterparts. The “Guardians” characters are just fun–and funny, smart, inventive, distinctive, heroic, good-hearted, caring, strong, tough and much more, and they’re a true family of renegade, rogue space soldiers and operatives that works with each other, helps each other out, counsels each other, saves each other, and, just like most people and other beings, they also happen to love each other but often find it hard to tell each other that basic human feeling. And just like any close-knit team or family, they also sometime bicker with each other–but their particular style of inter-species and cross-universe-cultural bickering can be endlessly hilarious.

For many people, fans and moviegoers, and this is not over-reacting, either, the “Guardians” ensemble of characters are far more entertaining and endearing than many other genre groups of superhero compadres, including the angst-ridden and angst-driven Avengers, Justice League, Suicide Squad, Thor gang, Iron Man gang, Spider-Man gang, Black Panther gang, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel crews, and even the over-angsty X-Men and Fantastic Four gangs. These modern-day Guardians characters, created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning and who debuted in the comics pages in 2008, and who should not be confused with the original, different but samely-named Guardians of the Galaxy who debuted back in 1969 from Roy Thomas, Arnold Drake and Stan Lee, are just so well-defined, well-drawn-out, well-written and well-characterized, they easily slip into your hearts, and you just love them and care about them. That’s standard, yes, of course, for superheroes, but, let’s face it—through time and space and too many movies and far more than enough darkness, brooding, navel-gazing, angst, psycho-babble, psycho-gaggle and neurosis to fill Bob Hartley’s schedule for the next millennium, many fans have had enough, already, of the griping and the moaning and the crying and the amateur-hour psychoanalysis of most, if not all, of the other, aforementioned superheroes.

Bob Hartley, by the way, would have cured any of these neurotic superheroes with just a few sessions of his down-home, common sense counseling.

The Guardians, you see, don’t play that downer, depressing, alternative tune. They play a happier, classic rock and pop style tune. They have problems and gripes and little spats, yes, of course, but, well, as stated, their spats are actually human and humane, and are always based on and solidly grounded in friendship, caring and love, and their little fights amongst each other are actually even funny and entertaining–except for one. They’re just unique beings and unique characters, these Guardians–human, part-human, part-animal, alien, part-alien, whatever–who are, in summarization, simply uniquely and distinctively highly-lovable beings.

And much of that appeal is based on solid writing that develops these unique characters’ equally-distinctive and inventive backstories, histories and lives.

And with “Vol. 3,” which follows the first film in the series, “Guardians of the Galaxy” from 2014—yes, 2014, if you can believe that—and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” from 2017–writer and director James Gunn delivers a stellar, original, stand-alone well-written story that brings a new freshness to the series. Gunn wisely keeps the endearing, loveable and heroic qualities of his main Guardians characters, but he even develops, a bit, their individualistic characteristics, foibles, quirks and backstories. Gunn has written a smart, tight, insightful and generally non-cliched script that not only fleshes out the main characters, but also tells a good story, keeps the action-packed and suspenseful momentum continually moving forward, manages to be about several important life lessons and, while we’re at it, delivers some thoughtful, important and intelligent morals and messages.

And Gunn directs this movie at the same high level as his script, story, plot, backstory and dialogue. The movie is alternately dramatic, moving, emotional, heartfelt and stirring, while also containing just the right mix of humor–after all, the Guardians are a funny bunch—and well-staged action, genuine suspense and visual effects that are consistently dazzling and breathtaking. And Gunn’s pacing, timing and editing are always in control, strong and tight, and this movie does not have a single lapse of style, mood, action or momentum during it’s entire two-and-a-half-hour run time.

That run time, by the way, flashes by at a continually entertaining speed, and is never too long, and never over-extends its welcome, as too many of the comic book superhero sci-fi fantasy movies unfortunately have done during the past several decades.

“Vol. 3” tells the story of the Guardians embarking on a literal life-or-death mission to save the life of one of their own, the highly-intelligent, mechanical-genius, wisecracking Rocket, a genetically-altered hybrid being who is biologically a raccoon but who has also been infused with human abilities such as human intelligence, feelings, thoughts and speech. Bizarrely, the only real way to save Rocket, who was critically injured in a brutal alien attack on the Guardians, is to invade the highly-guarded, dangerous and scary laboratories of…the man who created Rocket, Herbert Wyndham. And equally bizarrely, Wyndham just happens to want Rocket back in his possession to create some type of new, genetically-altered scary master race of beings to, yes, rule the universe and essentially wipe out everyone else, all of whom the quite mad and deranged Wyndham views as inferior and not worth saving.

That mission and showdown between and among the Guardians, their rag-tag equally rogue allies and the powerful Wyndham and his equally-powerful, and delusional, soldiers and followers, all centered on and around not only saving Rocket but saving the universe, presents the basis for a strong, suspenseful story and movie. Always at the core of the Guardians’ initial mission is to simply capture the genetic codes and formulas and data that will save Rocket, and the fact that this group of lovable friends would risk their collective lives to save their friend is just powerful, emotional and moving. Add to that the additional levels of suspense presented by Wyndham’s power, his powerful fight and his crazed lunatic focus, and there’s an intense two-tiered battle royale in play.

All of the large-ensemble actors shine in “Vol. 3,” and it’s immensely gratifying to continue to see how these talented actors have so comfortably settled into their respective roles during the past ten years. All these leads perform well: Chris Pratt as the strong, funny, heroic and still down-to-earth Peter Quill, the Guardians’ leader; Chukwudi Iwuji, in an exceptional, stand-out, bravura performance as Wyndham that steals the movie straight out from everyone else; Dave Bautista, still deadpan and dry-wit funny as Drax; Bradley Cooper, still funny and edgy as Rocket; Zoe Saldana, still drop-dead beautiful, sexy, tough and independent as Gamora; Karen Gillan as the equally-tough Nebula; Pom Klementieff as the also-tough and mind-altering Mantis; Vin Diesel as the ever-lovable Groot, one of the most original and originally lovable characters anywhere; Will Poulter as Adam Warlock; and Maria Bakalova as, yes, Cosmo the Spacedog, who is, yes, a talking dog. And, yes, even a talking dog is funny and works in “Vol. 3.”

However, a special recognition needs to be noted for Iwuji’s performance in this movie. His acting here is, as noted, just exceptional. Iwuji, as Wyndham, powerfully and frighteningly conveys the right balanced, equal mix of wayward warped intelligence, complete madness, horrific insanity and lunacy, absolute power corrupting one’s mind, heart and soul absolutely, and, even somewhere amidst the enveloping madness, some slight, scary semblance of humanity. But, as with the best of actors, Iwuji doesn’t only properly and powerfully utilize his voice, face, eyes and line-readings to perfection, but his expertly-timed, staged, blocked and choreographed body movements and physicality are also heightened and used at the same high level of expertise. Watch how he uses his body and movement to convey emotion, and it’s a master class in physical acting. Again, Iwuji just delivers a bravura performance. He channels a thousand scary, insane villains, but it’s easy to catch glimpses of Yaphet Kotto’s equally-scary Dr. Kananga in 1973’s “Live and Let Die” and a hundred varied versions of Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein—the actual doctor, not the monster. Although Iwuji does give Wyndham plenty of monster. As noted, Iwuji’s performance in “Vol. 3” is one of the best portrayals of a movie villain, in any genre, in years.

“Vol. 3” delivers some important messages, but those messages come through organically, naturally, and not in a heavy-handed manner. The film delivers important morals and messages about friendship, teamwork, family, relationships, heroics, caring, kindness, support systems and networks, good over evil, the continual dangers of man playing god, the dangers and risks of genetic engineering, the essential importance of looking out for one another, and nothing less than the essential importance of life and love.

One of Gunn’s influences for “Vol. 3” was the classic horror sci-fi story “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” and the themes of man playing god and messing around with risky, dangerous and potentially fatal genetic engineering are prevalent in “Vol. 3.” The same themes resonate strongly in “Vol. 3” from Shelley’s story, too.

Kudos must also go out to the literally hundreds of hard-working special, visual and digital effects artists who worked on “Vol. 3.” The visual, special and digital effects in the film are consistently superb. The effects do not district from or overpower the rest of the movie. Instead, the effects compliment the storytelling, as all good effects should do in a movie.

Additionally, the set, art and production design, hair, make-up and costumes are exceptional. The hair and make-up artists were tasked with applying extensive hair and make-up to not only most of the lead actors, but also to dozens of supporting actors, featured extras and extras.

It’s not a spoiler to note that “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” heads toward a final act and conclusion that is powerful and emotional—but not depressingly or downer or overly negative powerful and emotional. There is positivity, optimism, hope and happiness, and, again, that’s not a spoiler. It’s no secret that Bautista and Saldana have publicly states that “Vol. 3” would be their last bows on the filmic stage for their “Guardians” characters, and it is time for them as actors to step offstage and move onward to other roles. And that’s entirely understandable, of course. And Gunn understandably brings this iteration of the Guardians to an acceptable, agreeable—but still positive, smart and happy–conclusion. Hey—people don’t always have to die to bring a story’s certain chapter to a close. There should be happy endings to most movies, really. Life is for the living, and movie lifes should be given the same happy chance to live on in our memories.

This particular group of Guardians of the Galaxy may be going their separate ways and worlds apart, but I’m hooked on a strong feeling that not too many years from now, we’ll be back to soaring through time and space and saving the universe with another fun, funny and heroic group of Guardians of the Galaxy.

I am Groot.

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Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years.