Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023) By James Gunn
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 Director: James Gunn, Writer: James Gunn Stars: Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementief, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Sean Gunn, Maria Bakalova, Will Poulter, Chukwudi Iwuji with cameos by Sylvester Stallone, Nathan Fillion and Michael Rooker Runtime: 150 min, Rated: PG/14A (Canada) G (Quebec CA) PG-13 (MPAA) or intense sequences of violence and action, strong language, suggestive/drug references and thematic elements.
Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on IssuesEtc.org where Christianity meets culture. (This review contains some spoilers)
Messy Heroes in Need of Mercy
A botched kidnapping attempt by the golden-skinned alien Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) gravely injures the target, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper). With Rocket’s condition critical Peter Quill, aka the legendary Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), and the rest of the Guardians venture into danger to bring their friend back from the brink of death in a showdown that sees them face off against the villains who originally engineered Rocket from an adorable and endearing kit into the irascible and resourceful raccoon Guardian.
One of the hallmarks of these films is the music. Each film is sound-tracked by a diegetic “mix tape” originally meant to help Quill mourn the loss of his mother but later to help him remain connected to Earth, his home planet. The music, especially the opening song, also gives the audience an idea of where each story instalment is going. The first film opened with the upbeat “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone; the second with the equally upbeat “Mr. Blue, You Did it Right” by Electric Light Orchestra hinting at the fate of the blue skinned Yondu (Michael Rooker). The tone of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is quickly set with an introspective Rocket listening to a downbeat acoustic rendition of Radiohead’s melancholic “Creep” from their debut 1993 album Pablo Honey which includes lines like “I don't care if it hurts. I wanna have control. I want a perfect body. I want a perfect soul. I want you to notice when I'm not around.” From the get-go viewers are clued in that this film will be a bit different from the first two: more serious, decidedly less upbeat.
The heart of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is Rocket and his tragic background as a laboratory experiment of The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) a diabolical intergalactic mad scientist revered/feared by some as a god who among other things engineered the arrogant gold-skinned alien species “The Sovereign” introduced at the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Believing Rocket, the experiment that got away, is the key to his most recent project The High Evolutionary is bent on dissecting the genetically modified raccoon’s brain to unlock the secret of Rocket’s unpredicted ingenuity. Delving into Rocket’s past by way of flashbacks audiences see a heartbreakingly bleak world of futuristic animal test subjects all destined for destruction when their usefulness is exhausted. This is incredibly sad and explains much of the emotional turmoil and broken rage displayed by Rocket in earlier instalments.
Rocket’s story isn’t the film’s only sad part. The despondent Star-Lord still grieving the demise of his complicated relationship with Thanos’ daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) following the events of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019) has turned to binge drinking, and the whole crew of characters seem more aggravated and prone to bickering. Even as they settle into their new digs in the planetoid called Knowhere—the gigantic, dismembered head of an ancient Celestial—they come across as the embodiment of the adage “familiarity breeds contempt.” The empathic Mantis (Pom Klementieff), introduced in Vol. 2 who was revealed to be Quill’s half-sister from their father Ego the Living Planet (Kurt Russell) in the Disney+ The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special (2022), and the hyper critical and pragmatic Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora’s sister by adoption, struggle to keep the expanding team together. They along with Quill, Rocket, the sentient alien tree Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and the blunt Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) have added the new additions of Kraglin (Sean Gunn) lieutenant to former Ravager leader Yondu and the telepathic/telekinetic cosmonaut Labrador Cosmo the Space-dog (voiced by Maria Bakalova). Lost and in need of a refocus while rallying to the aid of Rocket becomes just the thing to remind them of their love and loyalty for each other.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 may be writer/director James Gunn’s last instalment with these characters as he leaves the MARVEL Cinematic Universe to reshape the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) as its new primary producer, following his successful soft reboot of David Ayer's Suicide Squad (2016) with 2021’s The Suicide Squad. As a result, it’s rather obvious that with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 Gunn wanted to finish the story he was telling with these characters, especially with Rocket, giving Vol. 3 the feeling of being both overstuffed and longer than needed. It has the same sort of “oh boy there’s a lot more story to tell here” quality that George Lucas' Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005) had upon its release. Some will find Vol. 3 a bit indulgent and excessive but one of the factors of the film industry in general moving from film to digital has been expanding runtimes; this coupled with permissive indulgence from studio heads and producers unwilling to rein in directors have caused equally messy duds like Taika Waititi's Thor: Love and Thunder (2022). While Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is better than that it’s not as good as Jon Watts' Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) the last really great MARVEL film. For an otherworldly MARVEL adventure Vol. 3 is also head and shoulders better than Peyton Reed's Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023).
With Vol. 3 Gunn oscillates between melancholy and violence, peppered with a liberal use of profanities and surprisingly gory and distressing moments making the film inappropriate for younger viewers regardless of the listed rating. Previous films were certainly crass and, this is no exception, but here Gunn even features the first f-bomb since the R-rated MARVEL vampire Blade trilogy (1998, 2002, 2004) starring Wesley Snipes. With a MPAA rated of PG-13 in the USA Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 in Quebec Canada received a G rating while elsewhere in Canada the rating ranges from PG to 14A (persons under 14 years of age must be accompanied by an adult). There is nothing G rated about this film. Setting aside profanity and violence replete with dismemberments and decapitations to focusing on frightening and intense scenes alone the film easily earns its hard PG-13 rating. In a scene reminiscent of the melting face of the villainous Major Arnold Ernst Toht at the climax of Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) the nightmare fuel removal of The High Evolutionary mask itself is a moment of horror beyond anything that should ever be included in a G rated film. Gunn isn’t making a static series of film: with nine years between Vol. 1 and Vol. 3 he appears to have accounted for the general aging of the original audience making a final installment that ventures into content allowable, if not preferable, for an older audience; parents of young children who enjoyed the original film will want to keep this in mind.
Does the film delve into religious questions? Is there anything Christians should watch for? Guardians of the Galaxy overall hasn’t shied away from religious ideas. In Vol. 1 Drax expressed his desire to see his murdered wife and children again in a future resurrection of the dead. Vol. 3 depicts a glowing white entryway into an afterlife during which the statement is made, “There are the hands that make us. And there are the hands that guide the hands…” The reference “the hands that make us” points to the laboratory experimentation of The High Evolutionary and his minions but who are “the hands that guide the hands?” On the surface this may sound great as if Gunn is moving into the “unknown god” (Acts 17:23) territory of Saint Paul’s appeal to the Athenians—the one in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28)—but it’s more likely a kind of Gnosticism where The High Evolutionary is a materialistic and arrogant sort of demiurge and the “the hands that guide the hands” is the spiritual monad like supreme being existing above everything. Perhaps the saving grace is that The High Evolutionary himself is a sort of atheist evidenced when nearer the end of the film as God is invoked as a reason to be merciful his immediate wrathful response is, “There is no God! That's why I stepped in!” The High Evolutionary, who is clearly the villain, in his arrogance is not aware of “the hands that guide the hands.” Quill who categorizes The High Evolutionary as just “another impotent megalomaniac whose mother didn't love him enough rationalizing about why he has to take over the world,” discovers what The High Evolutionary truly thinks of himself when he responds, “I'm not conquering the universe. I'm perfecting it.”
This is where the lyric from the Radiohead song “Creep” comes back into things. Remember it says “I don't care if it hurts. I wanna have control. I want a perfect body. I want a perfect soul.” The High Evolutionary doesn’t care if it hurts his test subjects as they are evolved into what he thinks is perfection or even if they die in the process of “advancement.” His frustration with the imperfections of the universe drives him to want to perfect and control everything he touches. He’s even created a counter-earth populated with his animal hybrid experiments, but this too is not perfect and must be destroyed on his path to evolutionary “perfection.” The interesting thing is the concept of evolution cast as an evil and cruel tool in the hands of a villain. What’s more The High Evolutionary is a transhumanist villain using technology to carry out his evolutionary goals. Perhaps the most interesting admission writer/director Gunn makes with The High Evolutionary is found in his defeat and unmasking. The disfigured and grotesque villain says to Rocket who has gotten the better of him, “Look what he did to me! For what? All I wanted to do... was to make things... perfect!” to which Rocket responds, “You didn't want to make things perfect, you just hated things the way they are.” This reads as a deep dissatisfaction with the goals of transhumanism and with progressive ideology which is constantly attempting to evolve society, culture, and humanity into something “perfect” driven by a hatred for what came before and for what currently exists; a sort of false redemption that when unmasked is shown as driven not by love but by hate. Is this where Gunn is with things in his life now? If so, this is very interesting. A question appears: Does Gunn see perfection as hopeless? Would he rather wallow in brokenness?
While Christians can certainly commiserate with Gunn’s apparent frustrations their response to the diagnosis will differ from Gunn’s as perfection is desired by the Christian in Christ Jesus who teaches, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). For Christians, the honest embracing of failures at perfection, the repentant desire to seek forgiveness and peace in this life while striving for perfection, is tempered by the promise that the love of God in Christ Jesus is the ultimate source of redemption and future perfection. If on the one hand The High Evolutionary is arrogantly unaware of his shortcomings and only interested in the kind of redemption he can accomplish by his works, on the other hand the Guardians of the Galaxy are very aware of their imperfections and need help from external grace and mercy just to get through the day.
Here in Vol. 3, as in the other Guardians of the Galaxy films, Saint Peter’s advice, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins,” (1 Peter 4:8) is on full display. Near the end of the film in a touching and poignant moment between Drax, Nebula and Mantis, the dour yet pragmatic Nebula aggravated by the dangerous lack of self awareness in the actions of Drax calls him out. Although Mantis agrees with her that Drax is indeed stupid she defends him saying that Drax is caring in a way the rest of them are not. Drax is deeply hurt and troubled by this admission from Mantis and out of love for him she uses her abilities to make him forget the whole conversation, “love covers a multitude of sins.”
The conversation however was important for Nebula to begin to see Drax in a new light and by the end of the film Drax proves his caring heart for others, particularly for the children test subjects of The High Evolutionary. Nebula says to Drax, “you were never meant to be a destroyer. You were meant to be a dad.” Gunn completes the character arc for Drax who moves from the bitterness and anger of Vol. 1 over the loss of his wife Ovette and daughter Kamaria at the hands of Thanos (Josh Brolin) and Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) to the joyful father to dozens of orphans. This makes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 yet another in a string of recent films where the idea of fatherhood is not maligned but encouraged. Gunn, who is by no means a model of personal perfection, doesn’t give the audience a perfect traditional family with his films but for the lost and the broken “losers” of the world—people who have lost things like homes, families, and normal lives—Gunn gives hope that some comfort can be found in the love, friendship, and loyalty of others. By the end of the film each of the Guardians needs mercy and receives some relief from their sorrows and an opportunity to keep growing in a positive direction, including the prickly Nebula. Even the secondary antagonist of the film Adam Warlock before he does anything to deserve it also receives of a second chance extended to him by Groot and the Guardians of the Galaxy.
For viewers deeply invested in these characters, and for those who have grown up alongside them over the last nine years, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 has the potential for being a very emotional film, especially knowing that this is likely the last time these characters will all be together in a film. They will likely be very forgiving of the film’s shortcomings. For casual audiences, or for those dragged along to the theatre with fans, the film’s messiness and long runtime may be too much for them to fully enjoy it. The violence, profanities and gory moments will also likely run interference for many. Yet buried in the muck and grime is a heart of mercy and grace worth considering. Christians who watch this film know that “the hands that guide the hands,” ultimately do not belong to some Gnostic idea of a spiritual supreme being but are those of the one true God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 145:8). Under different circumstances the story could have effectively been split into two films like Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019) and carried out for the Guardians of the Galaxy what those films accomplished for The Avengers.
For MARVEL Studios and Disney this edition may be too little too late as the current phase of their Cinematic Universe continues to falter and audiences are left with less and less of the stuff they first loved about these films. At least this film gives glimmers of the past glory of the MCU and perhaps a hint as to where the new DC Extended Universe is headed. Regarding Gunn’s departure from Disney and the MCU, the Radiohead lyric from the beginning of the film might be prophetic, “I want you to notice when I'm not around.” Time will tell if this proves true. At present the box office alone is evidence that they will.Rev. Ted Giese is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; an award-winning contributor to The Canadian Lutheran and movie reviewer for the “Issues, etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese. Check out our Movie Review Index!
 Demiurge: within Gnosticism a subordinate ‘god’ who fashions and arranges the material world antagonistic to all that is purely spiritual including any spiritual Supreme Being often associated with the creator God of the Old Testament.
 Monad: originating in Greek philosophy within Gnosticism the spiritual source of everything, the totality of divinity, which emanates all things including the demiurge. Historical and contemporary orthodox Christianity refuses to accept this conception of divinity and categorising Gnosticism as heretical. As Gnosticism was rising in the 1st Century A.D. it was already being addressed, denied and warned against in the Scriptural writings of Saint Paul and in 1st John, James and Jude.