Steel yourself for ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’

Images courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

7/10 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is more intense than it is good. It’s very well made and there’s a lot of value that you wouldn’t be expecting as a natural extension of the series, but plenty of people are going to be disappointed in this.

Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a superpowered artificial being created by an artificially designed race called the Sovereign, crashes into the Guardians of the Galaxy’s headquarters in Knowhere to kidnap Rocket (Bradley Cooper). The other guardians fight him off, but Rocket is critically injured, with an estimated 48 hours to live without medical assistance, which they can’t give him because of a kill switch embedded in his heart by the people who surgically altered him that will go off if anyone unauthorized opens him up for surgery. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and the rest of the guardians take off toward a desperate faceoff with the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), creator of Rocket, the Sovereign and countless other races hoping to find override codes so they can save Rocket.

The glee is still there in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 in spurts, but the sense of adventure from prior films in the series is muted – they don’t have time for fun new characters and tons of locations, Rocket’s about to die!

As he lays on life support, Rocket flashes back to his creation at the hands of the High Evolutionary, but the transitions between flashbacks and action are graceless, often the joyful needle drops simply matching on cut right after a scene of Rocket being tortured. The film feels for a good stretch like a pile of unrelated scenes. A better version of this film would be closer to three hours long with transitions between these scenes allowed to breathe properly, and the movie’s sense of urgency drawn from the normally gleeful Quill’s permanent scowl.

An early obstacle is no one knows off-hand how Rocket was created because he won’t talk about it, another subtle but extremely honest way this series treats trauma and human behavior.

Many of what might be comedy beats, especially between Nebula, Drax and Mantis (Karen Gillen, Dave Bautista and Pom Klementieff), are in ugly screaming matches that start to make the movie painful to watch. Between Vol. 3 and the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, which depicts Drax and Mantis kidnapping Kevin Bacon to gift him as property, series writer/director James Gunn seems to be focusing more on the fact that the Guardians are all pirates with no moral compass. Even if their stance on refugees and foundlings is solid, they’re not great people.

Even the series’ iconic needle drops are often cut off and nowhere near as memorable as usual. Like all musicals, Guardians of the Galaxy’s songs are a mixture of diegetic – within the film world – and non-diegetic – not playing in the film world and only heard by the audience. Vol. 3 has far more diegetic songs than the other two, many of which are turned down by a character partway through or turned on by mistake. They seem vestigial and no longer the point – they don’t have time for needle drops, Rocket’s about to die!

There’s significantly less color than we’re used to from these Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Vol. 3 is more interested in mostly black or mostly white images, especially the searing overhead God lighting in corridors of the High Evolutionary’s ships that tend to obliterate everything under them. They create a lot of shocking chiaroscuro compositions with the main subjects blown out by these angry white lights with cold, black technology, often medical equipment, lurking in the background. This lighting is also present in the medical bay on Quill’s ship where Rocket spends most of the film, so we see him grasped by the High Evolutionary’s lighting the entire time he’s having his flashbacks. On the other end of the spectrum, we get a ton of shots from inside Rocket’s cage of the High Evolutionary, backlit so he appears as a shadow against a black background, looming over him.

It’s really spectacular character-as-set from production designer Beth Mickle, because you can just glance at any of these images and know exactly what the High Evolutionary is all about. This guy is a kind of naked, unabashed evil that the MCU has never approached before, even in prior Guardians of the Galaxy movies that explicitly deal with genocide and racial superiority.

The villains in the MCU typically want to make the world a better place, and the problem is they’re willing to kill people to do it. Thanos, as the key example, wants to destroy half of all life in the universe so that the remnants can thrive with twice the number of natural resources. There are so many holes in this logic and methodology that it’s obvious he’s just scratching for excuses to force a population theory he thought up in middle school on everyone, but he at least pretends to value life. The High Evolutionary does not value any life, not even the life he creates. He doesn’t even seem to understand life outside of himself exists.

The charitable reading is that the High Evolutionary doesn’t recognize the humanity in his creations, many of whom, to be fair, are animal test subjects, but that obviously still carries a whole lot of problems. 

As they race toward their confrontation, Quill and company travel through Counter-Earth, the perfect world the High Evolutionary has built to house his perfect creations, and they see it has fallen into a crime-ridden simulacrum of suburban America. As Quill points out in as many words, the perfect society probably doesn’t include meth trafficking – but actual society does. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and the entire series, is a brilliant examination of all the beauty and sin and freedom the High Evolutionary’s worldview has no room for.

What really sets the High Evolutionary apart is his cruelty, narcissism and absolute disregard for everything around him. Like the Guardians, he is constantly screeching, but in his case, it’s orders and insults that border on psychological abuse. Iwuji said both he and Gunn were committed to not giving the character any sympathetic traits at all, and they nailed it. A self-styled god screaming “how dare you think you had a purpose other than to serve me” at a creature he surgically altered who he considers his property and wants to dissect is, philosophically and psychologically, an awful lot, and Iwuji makes it an awful lot.

There’s obviously a ton of real-world concepts at play here, including nihilism – the search for meaning without “serving God” as fallback answer that Nietzsche was actually talking about, not the edge-lord stuff – and the usefulness of religion, particularly religions with creation myths where humans are intelligently designed, to fascist and imperialist movements, but the film cuts most directly to how we as a society measure intelligence and otherwise evaluate an individual’s worth. The High Evolutionary is trying to instill life forms with not just physical but social functionality, the kinds of instincts that emerge in social animals over several thousand years. We can guess without evidence that he considers queerness and disability grounds for extermination, and we know from human history that intelligence is very difficult to measure and any attempt to measure it reveals more about what the measurer values. We can see this plainly in the High Evolutionary’s own behavior, because what he values is completely arbitrary and seems to shift during the runtime.

In addition to all the other ways he is blind, the High Evolutionary cannot consider any of his creations as unique. He sees Rocket as indicative of a population of surgically altered raccoons, but that’s a population that does not exist. Rocket was a one-off, and he never tries to recreate him. He never has the very basic “I should see if that happens every time” scientific method thought process. Even as he proclaims his own godhood, builds interstellar industries around the idea of genetic superiority and sacrifices everything to get his hands on this one unique raccoon, there’s no room in his worldview for even that small a degree of individuality.

The High Evolutionary is obsessed with Rocket because Rocket demonstrates creativity that none of his other subjects ever have, and while Rocket is very imaginative right after his modifications, creativity is a skill that takes years to develop. It’s not easy exactly, but we’ve got methods to build it over time that start in primary school, but this guy isn’t exactly pinning his star-children’s finger paintings on the refrigerator door. If they aren’t perfect right out of the womb, they’re failed experiments.

Though his conflict with Rocket is more dire, the High Evolutionary is actually a foil for Quill. They are both running from Earth’s imperfections, but for very different reasons.

This is all made explicit in the character of Adam Warlock, who is referred to as a baby, and a premature one at that. He explicitly does not know right from wrong, and he does a full 360 within the runtime when he begins to learn it. He, like all of the High Evolutionary’s creations, behaves very differently when he isn’t literally still incubating, and he deserves to forge his own destiny.

Cross-referencing everything, what the High Evolutionary is doing wrong is very simple – he wants his creations to immediately display intellectual skills that take years to develop, and when they don’t, instead of letting them grow into rounded, conscious beings who will probably show the complex skills he’s seeking, he’s murdering them. He would have accomplished his stated goals long ago if he’d just stop murdering them. Despite naming himself “the High Evolutionary,” there is no room in his worldview for personal evolution, either for him or for anyone else.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is scary. It’s harsh and not always pleasant to watch, like staring out over the edge of a cliff into the villain’s unrefined, unrestrained god complex, but it’s directly to the point Gunn has been trying to make with this series. These movies are all about found family, which is measured against abusive parents in Vol. 2 and now measured against a divine creator in Vol. 3, one infused with all the vileness, vanity and vulgarity of such a station. In his search for whatever he describes as perfection, he cannot conceive of a universe in motion, full of booze and rock ‘n roll and indecision and crapshoots and the wild, one-in-a-trillion freaks who bring it all to life. 

There’s no room for in his worldview for the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at 

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