When James Gunn stepped into the Marvel Cinematic Universe back in 2014 for the original Guardians of the Galaxy, the franchise looked much different than it does today. Whereas now we are used to about three films and various Disney+ projects per year, back in 2014, Marvel was still finding their footing with releasing more than one film a year. On top of that, Guardians of the Galaxy had the unique challenge of being the first non-Avengers film of the larger franchise; it had virtually no ties to anything Earth-bound and was widely considered to be a niche-property that had people wondering “why are they adapting this?” – but as everyone knows, James Gunn immediately proved the worth of the Guardians and the stories they had to tell. After a successful sequel (which remains my favorite MCU movie to date), pivotal appearances in the last two Avengers films, cameos in Thor: Love and Thunder, and even their own Holiday special on Disney+, James Gunn returns to draw the curtain on his trilogy.
Finality is such a tricky word when it comes to Marvel, not only because of the popularity and cultural impact of the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself and state of Hollywood consistently rebooting/going back to old properties, but also because the very nature of comic books negates the idea of true closure as new interpretations of classic characters always persevere, no matter how final of a death or sendoff they have. With that being said, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 feels determined to give these characters a proper send-off, at least on his own terms. Regardless of what Marvel and Kevin Feige and co. decide to do with them moving forward feels almost irrelevant, because this is truly a farewell for James Gunn’s use of these characters and the stories he’s telling throughout them; that’s where the real magic lies, and that’s what makes the whole thing feel so bittersweet.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 picks up sometime after the events of Avengers: Endgame with Peter (Chris Pratt) still reeling from the loss of Gamora. However, when a new threat emerges and threatens the life of one of their own, they rally together to complete a mission so critical that it could cost the lives of millions, as well as potentially the end of the Guardians as we know them. Throughout this, we also get quite a bit of insight into the origins of Rocket (voiced again by Bradley Cooper) and how exactly he came to be. Rocket’s origins has always been kind of vague and hinted at in previous films, with Rocket deflecting any questions about them. Without giving too much away, we see his history with the villain of the film, The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) and how everything he did shaped Rocket into who we know him to be today.
The origins of Rocket and the relationship between him and The High Evolutionary is by far one of the most compelling aspects of the film for me. I was really floored with how outwardly emotional, raw, and genuinely dark a lot of this material got at times. Chukwudi Iwuji’s performance as The High Evolutionary is really great and pretty terrifying; I’d even say he ranks high when compared to other villains in the MCU, not only due to Iwuji’s performance, but also because of how personally connected he is to Rocket. All of the best villains spawn from somewhere personal, regardless of if they themselves are related to the heroes’ past or their main goal directly comes to odds with that of the hero. The High Evolutionary represents the worst of what Rocket has been through, but also a guy who represents everything the Guardians fight against; a tyrannical mad-man who wants nothing but perfection and discards of those who don’t fit his standard. I really, really loved his role here and how personal it all felt. Through this arc with Rocket, it genuinely solidified him as one of my favorite characters in the MCU, as well as having one of my favorite character arcs in recent memory; so beautiful!
It almost feels like I’m a broken record when saying that the rest of the Guardians are also fantastic and shared some really wonderful chemistry with each other, because that is literally the foundation of what everyone loves about this franchise. But even with that being said, I thought a lot of the core cast members turned in even greater performances than usual this time around. Quill is clearly still yearning for Gamora, and Pratt plays off this wonderfully, as there’s always been a bit of darkness behind Quill despite his best nature always shining through. But when Gamora comes back into the picture as a much different Gamora than the one we remember, Pratt and Saldana have a really unique, different chemistry that I admired and I found the conclusion to this to be really satisfying. Dave Bautista as Drax also turns in some really solid work here, getting to hit some more emotional beats again – a lot of which are shared with Pom Klementieff’s Mantis, who is equally fantastic. Karen Gillian also continues to grow as Nebula and solidify her as such a great villain-turned-hero.
Gunn’s direction and writing is really the main star of the film, though – as it is with any of his projects. From the moment the film begins, it’s evident that he poured his heart and soul into this one and truly tried to make a deeply personal and emotional send-off for his time with these characters and this universe; there’s just so many various sequences that really feel like a shot to the heart, especially for those like me who have been fans since seeing the first film back in 2014. He also really leaves the MCU on a high-note direction wise as well, as this film delivers some really exceptional set-pieces and one-shots that blew me away; it stands toe to toe with the last two films as being the most visually impressive and staggering films that Marvel has to offer.
There’s perhaps a case to be made that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 might have a bit too much going on at once, but considering how I wasn’t too impressed by Quantumania or the latest Shazam! film, and find myself getting more and more fatigued with the genre as each year passes, I’m more than delighted to see a film that is slightly overstuffed and a little messy but is mostly just brimming with heart and ideas; I’ll take this much passion and love over something that feels manufactured any day. This represents the best of what Marvel has to offer and is something that all comic-book films should aspire to; a character-focused story that puts heart and humanity before everything else. This trilogy is nothing short of a triumph.