Promotional still from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 where Nebula is carrying an unconscious Peter Quill, and the rest of the Guardians are walking behind her. It's supposed to be a metaphor that illustrates where they are emotionally at this point in the film, so it's very cinematic with Quill passed out in Nebula's arms as she carries him with purpose. There's a lens flare (bright light) behind her.

(L-R): Sean Gunn as Kraglin, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord, Karen Gillan as Nebula, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Dave Bautista as Drax, and Pom Klementieff as Mantis in Marvel Studios' Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3: Pretty Hurts

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is vibrant and exciting. But the film depicts marginalized people as NPCs for the white gaze and it’s tiresome.

Nearly 10 years ago, writer-director James Gunn made his debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Guardians of the Galaxy. Compared to their more iconic counterparts like the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy were obscure. Pegging a feature film on them was seen as a gamble.

Fast forward to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and that gamble has seemingly paid off. Before The Mandalorian’s Grogu stole his thunder, Baby Groot was the adorable menace dominating toy sections everywhere. The Guardians of the Galaxy franchise has no doubt become a beloved staple in the Marvel fandom. The first films made a combined $1.6 million USD worldwide, and its characters have appeared a handful of times across other MCU properties.

Like its predecessors, Guardians 3 plays as a Marvel space opera mashed up with the archetypal ’80s nerd comedy. Gunn’s time helming The Suicide Squad (2021) and Peacemaker (2022) has a visceral influence on his latest project. For a PG-13 film, Guardians 3 is surprisingly brutal, and the violence and body horror feel excessive at times. I just know PETA is gonna riot.

For the most part, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is vibrant, exciting, and full of heart in a way that the MCU has lacked lately.

But James Gunn writes marginalized people as NPCs for the white male gaze and personally, I’m tired of it.

Pom Klementieff as Mantis, Dave Bautista as Drax, and Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord, and Karen Gillan as Nebula in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

Gunn’s pattern of playing into various stereotypes in his writing makes for a pretty uncomfortable two hours. The movie has beautiful character moments and brilliantly choreographed action scenes, but so much brutality for shock’s sake. I didn’t need to watch Mantis fall on her neck and audibly break it twice. Nor did I need to see the raw, bloody flesh of an antagonist who had his face scratched off.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’s strengths lay in its superb craft

Where Guardians 3 shines is its storytelling and character work. In finally exploring Rocket Raccoon’s origin story, Gunn depicts a poignant commentary on chosen family, and integrating traumatic memories. It’s not just our favorite bipedal trash panda that gets character development either.

At a recent press junket, Sean Gunn spoke to Off Colour about Kraglin’s journey in this film. Now that Yondu is gone, Kraglin’s “trying to find his place in this group.” Throughout the movie, Kraglin calls Cosmo a ‘bad dog’ for making him feel insecure about failing to command Yondu’s arrow. “He’s pretty adrift [at first],” says Gunn, “[But] he’s a soldier. By the end of the movie, he’s ready.” Kraglin can only admit that Cosmo is, indeed, a ‘good dog’ when he remembers to wield the arrow from his heart.

Sean Gunn as Kraglin in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

This review would be incomplete without mentioning Chukwudi Iwuji’s terrifying and majestic performance as the High Evolutionary. The eugenicist pseudo-god’s arc parallels Kraglin’s, amplified to the nth degree. His obsessive need to be the superior being in the galaxy is what ultimately leads to his downfall. Rocket aptly psychoanalyzes him: “You didn’t want to make things perfect. You just hated things the way they are.”

Chukwudi Iwuji spoke fondly of the cast and crew on Guardians 3 and their passion in making the film come to life. “When you know you’re working on something special, there’s a levity to the place,” he told Off Colour. That levity relieved some pressure so he could focus on his performance. To prepare for the role, Iwuji took Pilates classes and listened to classical music to get into the character’s mindset. “The real work starts when someone else is in front of you,” he adds.

Chukwudi Iwuji as The High Evolutionary in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2022 MARVEL.

I wanted to love Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 but it doesn’t love me back

Guardians 3 is nowhere near a bad movie, and is certainly an improvement over more recent entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s colorful, funny, and emotional, and focuses on character rather than set up for the next film. However, the film’s incessant need to brutalize and/or unceremoniously kill off its marginalized characters holds it back from Top Tier Marvel status. One step forward, two steps backwards, I suppose. Can Mantis step into her Celestial Madonna title now?

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Roslyn Talusan is a Toronto-based culture writer and anti-rape activist. Through her work, Roslyn seeks to close the gap of empathy towards marginalized communities, using her experience as a Filipino survivor of gendered violence to uplift otherwise ignored perspectives. You can find her work in outlets such as B*tch Magazine, Refinery29, and the Toronto Star. Currently, Roslyn is focused on producing her memoir with the Bent Agency. When she’s not running her mouth on the internet, she’s eating ketchup chips and playing Pokemon like a sensible Taurus.

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