The summer box office season kicks off this weekend with the release of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” a movie that, as an installment in the suddenly struggling Marvel Cinematic Universe, is facing plenty of scrutiny. Ultimately, its success will hinge on whether fans enjoy learning Rocket’s origin story and the resulting word of mouth.
MCU films aren’t just expected to be blockbuster hits. They’re expected to be the biggest hits of the year. But after “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” flopped with less than $500 million grossed worldwide, there’s a question of whether the critical and commercial struggles of that film will continue to sap Marvel of its pull on audiences and keep future titles from reaching the $750 million-plus benchmark that all of last year’s Marvel films were able to reach despite less-than-stellar receptions.
As the final installment of a trilogy centered around some of the more popular characters in the MCU canon, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” should have a good chance of box-office success. What’s not as certain is whether this threequel can reach the $863 million that “Guardians Vol. 2” reached in 2017 in a market where Chinese interest in Hollywood films has all but vanished and ticket presales are softer than expected.
Currently, “Guardians Vol. 3” is projected for an opening weekend of $120 million-$130 million. That would be the second-highest opening of 2023 behind only “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.,” which opened to a three-day launch of $146 million. That $146 million total is also what “Guardians Vol. 2” earned in its opening weekend six years ago.
The film isn’t going to get much help from early reviews, which are generally positive but not overwhelmingly so with a 78% Rotten Tomatoes score. At the same time, that score isn’t going to hurt casual audience interest in the way that the decidedly tepid critical reception for “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” contributed to the worst second-weekend drop in Marvel Studios history.
So like all the post-“Endgame” Marvel movies, the long-term fate of “Guardians Vol. 3” will come down to audience word of mouth, and that word of mouth will likely be shaped by how moviegoers react to the origin story of Rocket, the genetically engineered raccoon who proves to be the heart of both the Guardians and this film.
“Guardians” trilogy director James Gunn, who will be shifting full-time to his new job as co-head of DC Studios, has made it no secret that his plans for the Guardians always led to the team discovering the truth about the painful past Rocket had kept secret from them for so long. “Vol. 3” fulfills that promise with multiple flashbacks to Rocket’s traumatic creation at the hands of the egomaniacal High Evolutionary.
The majority of reviews have praise Gunn for using Rocket’s past as the basis for a film that leans even heavier into his filmmaking style than past films, mixing bizarre gross-out imagery with a heartfelt story of found family and healing from the scars of abuse. But the film has also drawn criticism for tugging a little too hard on the heartstrings with unflinching displays of animal cruelty by the High Evolutionary and his minions.
Those scenes may or may not be dealbreakers for a large swath of adult moviegoers. But it’s likely that “Guardians Vol. 3” might be seen as too intense for families with younger kids. “Super Mario Bros.” may lose premium format support this coming weekend, but if “Guardians Vol. 3” doesn’t peel off moviegoers from every demographic, it may leave the Illumination film with a lane to keep legging out among kids and parents.
That said, “Guardians Vol. 3” is still meant to be a fond farewell to a group of characters that have gone from the most obscure in Marvel Comics to blockbuster icons. If the audience buzz surrounding the film is about the emotional satisfaction of that farewell rather than the disturbing actions of its villain, then “Vol. 3” may still be able to buck the MCU’s post-“Endgame” reputation for diminishing returns and keep audiences coming in throughout the month of May. The opening weekend figure will be important, but the CinemaScore grade and the PostTrak results will be even more so.