It’s hard to overstate how much James Gunn has meant to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His Guardians of the Galaxy movies are among the few MCU films that feel truly authored, with a unique aesthetic and sensibility of their own. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther films are their only real counterpart: Both mini-franchises were allowed to claim distinct corners of the MCU, and both filmmakers were compelled to make those corners as visually distinctive as possible.
Across three movies (and a holiday special), Gunn has cashed in on his increasing clout and goodwill to take his Guardians to stranger, brighter, more colorful places. He has moved from generic cosmic threats to Oedipal monsters, and brought his beloved superheroes into thornier emotional territory, where they’re just as likely to argue about hurt feelings as they are to punch supervillains.
And now he’s saying goodbye.
Gunn’s trilogy-capping Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 begins on a maudlin note, with Rocket (Bradley Cooper) muttering the lyrics to the acoustic version of Radiohead’s “Creep” as it plays on the Zune he borrowed from expat Earthling Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). Meanwhile, cinematographer Harry Braham takes the audience on a swooping camera tour of the new status quo. The Guardians have set up shop on Knowhere, the city inside the skull of a dead Celestial, which was first seen in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. They’ve gone legit, with an office, a neon sign, and everything. But they don’t feel so legit.
Rocket, for one, seems kind of depressed. Quill is definitely depressed, regularly drinking himself into a stupor because he can’t get over the fact that Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) is not the same Gamora he fell in love with, after the time-travel hijinks of Avengers: Endgame. This new Gamora, by the way, is missing — as a version of the character plucked from 2014, she hasn’t experienced the events of the previous Guardians movies, and has no attachment to the team. (The confusing nature of this swap is the subject of a pretty good extended joke midway through the film.)
Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) is angry, but that’s pretty normal for her. That leaves Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Groot (Vin Diesel) to hold down the fort. Unfortunately, no one really takes those three seriously.
The plot arrives violently in the form of Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a very powerful, extremely petulant being who crashes onto Knowhere to abduct Rocket, and winds up mortally injuring him. The Guardians launch an emergency mission to save their friend, only to realize how little they know about him.
Structurally, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 switches back and forth between the Guardians’ mission to save Rocket and flashbacks to Rocket’s origin, where viewers learn that he was created by the film’s antagonist, the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a mad scientist attempting to engineer the perfect society through cruel eugenics experiments.
Rocket’s origin story is the most affecting part of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. It’s an Island of Misfit Toys-esque fable that slowly supersedes Gunn’s irreverent sci-fi. In an inversion of his usual formula, where earnest, broken characters quietly hide in the bluster and noise, Vol 3. front-loads its emotional core, letting the jokes come later. Gunn’s script needs viewers to understand the Guardians’ pain first, so they can embrace the question of whether, if these characters are lucky, they can finally heal. It’s fitting for a film that’s both an ending and a farewell for Gunn. He doesn’t hold back.
This is a movie with a planet-sized laboratory made of flesh and held together by bone, where data is stored in capsules covered in pus, and a private security force led by Nathan Fillion wears hideous Power Rangers-esque body armor that looks like hard musculature. It’s a movie where a Russian cosmonaut golden retriever has telekinesis, and a family of humanoid vampire bats serve the heroes blue soda in an otherwise picturesque Norman Rockwell-ass home. In other words, it’s a film filled with genuine imagination, with real and odd sets and costumes and makeup, with gross-out visual humor and more than a little horror.
Gunn indulges himself in some ways here — the film’s third act drags, some of the jokes are just characters yelling instead of speaking, and the script tries so hard to resonate with the audience emotionally that you can feel moments where the film is holding for tears the way a comedian might hold for applause. Vol. 3 connects more than it misses, though, bolstered by a blockbuster environment (and an MCU) that so rarely wears its heart on its sleeve that resisting this kind of emotional pull requires real effort.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a Marvel film of unusual conviction, where every character beat is given the same weight, whether it’s the climactic battle against the villain, or perennial goofball Drax quietly explaining that someone hurt his feelings. Studio PR efforts often sell James Gunn’s superhero films in the broadest way possible, focusing on the quippy, off-kilter, and rude elements. It’s easy to forget that the experience of watching them is quite different.
In spite of their well-trod narrative grounding within a found family of misfits, the Guardians of the Galaxy movies have succeeded because Gunn and his cast are so devoted to diving into the specifics of this found family. Each successive film has pushed each character into pricklier territory, where no one reacts well to being vulnerable, and everyone’s first impulse is to push everyone else away — until they realize that no one understands them better than their own team members. Gunn’s Guardians are, all told, a collection of memorably sad characters, collectively running from their individual traumas while poorly projecting how Over It they are.
Vol. 3 is a wonderful showcase for how developed these characters have become. Bradley Cooper’s vocal performance as Rocket remains an undersung MCU triumph, an irritable mix of impatience and deep sorrow. Chris Pratt still hasn’t found a blockbuster role that suits him as well as Peter Quill, a little lost boy who knows on some level that he needs to finally grow up, but is never sure how to manage it. Pom Klementieff fits so well into the group dynamic as Mantis that it’s like she was always there. And Karen Gillan’s fury as Nebula has degrees of subtlety that shine through layers of prosthetics and paint. Even Drax, traditionally the series’ most one-note character not named Groot, has an emotional beat that reminds viewers how much Dave Bautista has grown as a performer over the course of his three returns to what was once his first big movie role.
James Gunn isn’t just leaving his Guardians, he’s leaving Marvel — in the last year, he’s taken up a new role as co-head of DC Films, overseeing the rebuilding of another comic book film slate, where he’ll be writing and directing a new Superman movie himself. His career arc has been a bit like the careers of his Guardians — an odd duck from the world of no-budget gross-out Troma horror movies is now being entrusted with an entire multibillion-dollar cinematic universe.
But none of his forthcoming DC projects will be quite like the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy, a set of films about obscure characters whom Gunn was able to reimagine as his own strange, prickly creation. This gang of misfits truly doesn’t fit in unless they’re out there in the grossest parts of the universe, barely holding things together, wondering out loud whether they know what love is and whether they have it for each other. They’re loud and annoying, yes, but they’re undeniably earnest.
Marvel owes a lot to James Gunn, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a hell of a send-off — one that shows how vibrant and strange the MCU can be, but only when it’s also painfully personal. The trilogy’s end and Gunn’s departure leave behind an icky void, one that Marvel’s current offerings don’t seem capable of filling, or willing to fill. Gunn specializes in surprising audiences by inviting them to connect with unexpected things, from a gross fleshy planet to a group of backwater bounty hunters to a traumatized raccoon. The current MCU rarely finds the kinds of connections that define the Guardians series. It merely expects you to bring your own.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 opens in wide theatrical release on May 5.