Guardians of the Galaxy was a sea change for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The tenth movie in the comic book adaptation series, Guardians represented a shift from (relatively) grounded storytelling to films on a galactic scale. For Disney, the transition worked. 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy grossed nearly $800 million worldwide and became the franchise’s highest-grossing non-Avengers movie to that point. Guardians of the Galaxy opened the door to a “bigger universe,” as Nick Fury might say.

In the last five years, audiences haven’t been starved for more adventures of Starlord, Drax, Groot, and company. The Guardians had prominent roles in Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, made an appearance in Thor: Love and Thunder, and even had a Christmas special. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 finds itself at an entirely different point of the MCU lifecycle. With the exception of Spider-Man: No Way Home, the MCU has yet to find its foothold in the post-Infinity Saga world commercially or critically.

Baby Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 goes some way to change that trend. As we begin Volume 3, we find some of the Guardians in their darkest hours. That theme continues throughout the film. Volume 3 is a decidedly darker film than its predecessors. Writer and director James Gunn benefits from the groundwork laid in the aforementioned Guardians appearances. Here, we see the best-drawn versions of Starlord, Drax, Nebula, and Mantis, benefiting from hours of on-screen character development and paying off long-established emotional ties. Those characters are vital to Volume 3, but this is unabashedly Rocket’s movie. Working as a Rocket origin story, Bradley Cooper’s cybernetic maybe-raccoon steals the show in this film.

Tonally, Volume 3 finds its footing towards the film’s second half, struggling a bit at the start. Gone is the sequel’s tendency to immediately undermine dire moments with misplaced humor. In fact, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 may be a little light on humor. There are laughs in the movie, but they’re often just on the other side of heavy, emotional moments that tug hard on the heartstrings.

Speaking of the heartstrings, it’s a fair warning to audiences who find it hard to stomach seeing animals in peril; this film is chock full of it. Someone sensitive to that subject matter may have a difficult time with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Additionally, the film contains violence that is a bit more visceral than that of other MCU movies. In that regard, 32 movies in, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 contains a first for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This review won’t ruin the surprise, but look for a line of dialogue from Peter Quill in the second act that breaks some ground in the MCU.

(L-R): Pom Klementieff as Mantis, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord, Dave Bautista as Drax, Karen Gillan as Nebula in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2022 MARVEL.

With all that said, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a heartfelt ode to characters fans have fallen in love with for the last nine years. There are missed opportunities and questionable decisions in the film. However, with a great soundtrack and fantastic fist-pumping action, Volume 3 is the best MCU movie since No Way Home, and despite some issues with uneven tone, it earns a recommendation.