Producer: Kevin Feige   Director: James Gunn   Screenplay: James Gunn   Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn, Chukwudi Iwuji, Will Poulter, Elizabeth Debicki, Maria Bakalova, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Rosenbaum, Stephen Blackehart, Nathan Fillion, Nico Santos, Daniela Melchior, Linda Cardellini, Asim Chaudhry and Mikaela Hoover  Distributor: Walt Disney Studios

Grade: C

For his finale to the “Guardians of the Galaxy” trilogy that’s served as a mini-franchise in the MCU, writer-director James Gunn pulls out all the stops.  The third volume, as it’s called, is, of course, aimed first at wowing the audience, so it has tons of action, pyrotechnics and CGI critters.  But it’s also designed to include the jocular patter that’s characterized the two previous pictures.  This time around, though, you must accept a heavy dose of schmaltz in the mix, since much the plot concerns a team member whose life hangs in the balance, a fact that allow for a backstory centering on abuse and exploitation intended to wring some tears and outrage rather than elicit laughs.

And since this is a Marvel movie, it must also make room for the inevitable all-powerful madman who aims to destroy—or, from his perspective, perfect—the universe.  Move over, Thanos.

Given all this, it’s no wonder that the movie is overstuffed and chaotic, veering wildly from tone to tone and winding up as a lumbering conclusion to a series that began as a comparatively light-footed part of the MCU.

It begins at Knowhere, a busy settlement where the Guardians have settled after the events of “Avengers: Endgame.”  Their leader, arrogant smart-aleck Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), is drinking heavily, grief-stricken over the death of his girlfriend Gamora (Zoe Saldaña).  The antenna-bearing Mantis (Pom Klementieff) has befriended strong but none-too-bright Drax (Dave Bautista).  Nebula (Karen Gillan), Thanos’ daughter, still has trouble controlling her temper, while Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) has grown in size, but not vocabulary.  On the fringes are psionic dog Cosmo (voiced by Maria Bakalova), who bickers with Kraglin (Sean Gunn), the nerdy former Ravager who’s desperately trying to make his weapon, a telekinetically-controlled stick, work properly.  And finally there’s tough-talking anthropomorphic raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper).

The action begins when the settlement is attacked by powerful, if childlike, metallic warrior Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), created by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the Sovereign priestess with a grudge against the Guardians.  They fight him off, but not before Rocket is gravely injured. 

His fellow Guardians find, however, that to save Rocket they must first deactivate a kill switch implanted within him, a process that requires a passcode.  To get it, they must infiltrate the realm of The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a Dr. Moreau-like scientist intent on creating a perfect species—a hybrid of human and animal—through evolutionary experimentation.  Rocket, it’s revealed, was one of his creations—indeed, a very special one—but he escaped, as is recounted in periodic flashbacks to his development and incarceration with other animal subjects, most notably his closest friend Lylla the otter (Linda Cardellini).  And they learn that the passcode might be found in the memory of the High Evolutionary’s nervously submissive secretary Theel (Nico Santos).

The infiltration involves interaction with the Ravagers led by Ogord (Sylvester Stallone), and the integration into the group of a new version of Gamora (also played by Saldaña), who reignites Quill’s love though she does not reciprocate, as well as an encounter with a snarky security guard (Nathan Fillion, in an extended cameo).  These encounters provide grist for dollops of juvenile humor, as does the stream of banter about Drax’s lovable stupidity.  The group also visits the High Evolutionary’s alternate earth, populated by hybrids played by actors wearing elaborate animal masks, some more convincing than others—all of whom their creator apparently intends to destroy since they do not meet his standards of culture and pacifism—and his teeming pens of test subjects, animals and children both. 

The final third of the picture goes into overdrive—as if what preceded hadn’t been hyper enough—and it becomes more and more difficult to be certain where things are happening and why.  Rocket is saved and comes to the High Evolutionary’s ship to help in freeing the imprisoned animals from experimentation that would enrage the SPCA and PETA, while the perplexed Warlock changes sides as huge explosions devastate the alternate earth (apparently annihilating its hybrid inhabitants, though that isn’t specifically mentioned), as well as the villain himself.  For some the confusion might provide an incentive to see the movie repeatedly to clarify matters, but a second and third viewing would amount to an endurance test one might be well advised to avoid for sanity’s sake.

Nonetheless there is much here that will undoubtedly please fans looking for a flashy finale to the Guardians saga, however overdone it might be, as well as a few quirky touches that will intrigue even those immune to the series’ charms (the truly weird interior of the High Evolutionary’s operational headquarters—courtesy of production designer Beth Mickle—is a case in point). 

Among the performances, Pratt’s Quill is getting irredeemably irritating (a final caption card indicating that Star Lord will return, despite the fact that by then the squad has been reconfigured, presumably with an eye to future sequels, is rather dispiriting, as are the inevitable but dull closing-credits interruptions), but Bautista makes Drax a likable lug, and Cooper endows Rocket with a plaintive note (the character’s animation is also first-rate).  Except for the nondescript Gunn and Iwuji, whose turn would be overripe even in an opera, the others are fine, with Poulter engaging enough to suggest that a stand-alone chapter for Warlock might not be out of the question.

Technically the film is up to the usual Marvel standard, with Judianna Makovsky’s costumes sometimes amusingly imaginative and Henry Braham’s cinematography reasonably adept at capturing all the mayhem, though the fights aren’t always ideally shot or edited (by Fred Raskin and Greg D’Auria, who really can’t be blamed for the bloated running-time; the picture moves well enough, it’s just crowded with too many characters and too much incident).  John Murphy’s score is predictably high-decibel.                                      

This Vol. 3 will undoubtedly be a hugely successful conclusion Gunn’s “Guardians” trilogy as far as box office receipts are concerned, but it represents an overinflated end to an MCU entry that started out as a pleasantly lightweight contrast to the usual Marvel bombast.