Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3: 3 Stars out of 4

It’s too long, the plot’s a mess, and it’s pretty moody for one of Marvel’s “funny” franchises, but given the quality of the post-“Endgame” era, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is surprisingly good, and an appropriate capstone for one of the more unique trilogies to come out of the superhero movie genre.

The first movie assembled the oddball “Avengers in Space,” the second one explored the dark past of their leader, and now the third one explores the dark past of their smallest member, the cyborg-raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper). Directed by James Gunn, “Guardians 3” picks up in the aftermath of 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” and seems to embrace the somber tone of that climactic film.

The movie opens with a long slow-motion sequence of Rocket walking around Knowhere, the Guardians’ adopted home, set to a melancholy acoustic version of Radiohead’s “Creep.” Music has always been fundamental to the Guardians movies, but where tracks like Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” and ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” kicked off previous films with upbeat energy, the Radiohead track lets us know that all is not well. Team leader Star Lord (Chris Pratt) is still reeling from the loss of Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who has joined up with a group of space pirate Ravagers, and Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) is struggling to keep the operation together.

When Rocket is critically wounded during an attack by a golden super-being named Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), the Guardians connect the dots to a megalomaniac called The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), who is responsible for Rocket’s original cyber-modifications, and wants to reclaim his creation as part of a plan to populate his own twisted utopian planet.

As the Guardians fight to save their fallen friend, flashbacks explore Rocket’s literally tortured past, and the plot also ties in supporting characters like Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). Naturally, the story also brings Gamora back into the mix, which leads to some heartbreaking exchanges with Star Lord, and in a more hopeful thread, an ex-Ravager named Kraglin (Sean Gunn) struggles to succeed his old boss Yondu (Michael Rooker), whose passing at the end of Vol. 2 offered up one of the most resonant moments of the trilogy.

The Guardians’ story has always had some serious emotional stones in its foundation, but they’ve never been on display the way they are in Vol. 3. It might be a little jarring to fans used to the irreverence and quippiness of the previous films—which is still present, if subdued—but it also provides a meaningful character arc for the team in the wake of everything they’ve been through in their previous adventures. The gang has matured over three movies (five if you include the “Infinity War” and “Endgame” juggernauts), and Vol. 3 reflects that growth. Even the soundtrack has evolved, adding newer tracks like Spacehog’s “In the Meantime” and the aforementioned “Creep” to 1970s pop favorites like Rainbow’s “Since You’ve Been Gone.”

All the moving parts lead to some confusion as the plot spins off into various theaters of action, and though the ending feels satisfying, you’re left with the feeling that the 150-minute Vol. 3 has at least a half-hour of album bloat. But if this is the last adventure we’ll be taking with the Guardians, a few unnecessary tracks isn’t a bad thing. And considering the missteps of its recent Marvel peers, even a flawed “Guardians 3” feels like a breath of fresh air.

I’m always going to have a little trouble evaluating the Guardians movies, thanks to some fond personal memories connected to the first film’s release back in 2014. But I think I can see this new film with enough objectivity to get past my superhero fatigue and personal baggage to acknowledge “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” as a flawed but fitting finale to my favorite Marvel trilogy.

Like the previous films in the trilogy, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and mayhem, but it does include some imagery that might be a little more frightening for younger viewers, and though it is considerably less crass than Vol. 2, it does contain scattered profanity, including a single use of the “F-word.”

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