Throughout the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there have been two subseries that have been my absolute favorites, namely Black Panther and Guardians of the Galaxy. The two are vastly different in terms of tone, story, and character, but at their absolute core, they kept the same high points throughout. More than anything else, it comes down to the direction each set of films has had. In the former, Ryan Coogler focused heavily on the symbolism of the Black Panther as not just a hero but as a leader, and the entirety of both films revolves around that weight. In the latter, James Gunn has always known to focus on the fun of the adventure, seen through the lens of the space-faring misfits who all act as audience ciphers, reacting the same way that many of us would were we in a similar situation. Despite the fact that only one member of the team is from Earth, there’s always been an emphasis on the humanity of the cast, which allows for some pathos to go hand-in-hand with the silliness of the comedy.
And of course, in an age where Kevin Feige and his team of ghouls work tirelessly to commoditize the audience rather than tell a compelling story, both of these branches of the MCU have stood as hallmarks of how to do the superhero stuff while largely staying out of the so-called grand narrative. Yes, there are references (T’Challa debuting in Civil War, a post-credits scene where Bucky gets a vibranium arm, Gamora and Nebula literally being Thanos’ “daughters”), but for the most part, these movies are their own, as self-contained as possible within an interconnected universe, with the crossover material kept to a reasonable minimum, either being used for tossed-off jokes with no relevance, or explained properly within the context of the story that the filmmaker is telling in their own film, rather than setting up the next 12. As the likes of Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Loki, Ant-Man, and many others get pulled into the vortex of suck that is corporate synergy and a demand that you watch all the bullshit on Disney+ in order to understand what’s happening on the cinematic side (you know, the literal “C” in “MCU”), the Black Panther and Guardians films have stood as bastions for independent — and compelling — thought within this machine.
It was with those high-minded hopes in my brain that I trekked down to see Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3, the last MCU film on the docket for which I had any enthusiasm. The project was almost scuttled years ago when Gunn was temporarily fired from the project in a massive overreaction to some major bullshit, but bringing him back didn’t mean he wouldn’t be on a tight leash, and the studio could have easily stuck its fingers in the soup so much that he would have been a director in name only. Also, given developments outside of the standalone films, what implications would there be for our beloved ragtag group of people with impeccable musical tastes? They had their moments in Infinity War and Endgame, with the dangling mystery of Gamora’s involvement after the death of the one we knew from two movies, replaced by one from an alternate timeline who didn’t have her history with the others. We then saw how they were wasted in an extended cameo in Love and Thunder, and in a move that certainly worried me, they did put out a Holiday Special on the streamer, giving me some slight fears that Gunn had indeed succumbed to the Disney grinder.
Thankfully, not only did Gunn avoid the pitfalls of the latter-day MCU, he delivered on the long-term promise of these characters and this series, giving us the perfect capper to the trilogy, the best of the three, and perhaps the last good movie Marvel will ever put out (give or take Deadpool 3). By the time it was over, I was wholly satisfied that I had seen a completed saga, and if we never see anything from it again, I’m perfectly okay with that. The idea that there could be *gasp* an ending to something in this universe is not only shocking, but welcome.
A lot of the focus in this particular chapter is on Rocket, once again voiced by Bradley Cooper. The origins and backstory for the genetically-modified raccoon (who always insists that he’s not a raccoon) have been hinted at throughout the series, but here they get primary attention. At the command of the High Evolutionary (a deliciously evil Chukwudi Iwuji) — a psychopath who believes in both eugenics and genocide, seeing life as just a variable to perfect and solve for — the Sovereign’s High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) unveils the supersoldier Adam Warlock, whose creation was teased at the end of the last film. Instead of an overpowered killing machine, however, he was taken out of development too early, to the point where he’s a very strong, morally confused man-child played by Will Poulter. Either way, he’s sent to destroy the Guardians and kidnap Rocket, as the High Evolutionary was the one who engineered him, and he wants his “specimen” back (at minimum his brain) for research into his next devious scheme.
Now, I’ve heard from some fans of the comics that they don’t like this interpretation of Adam, as it’s a major departure from the source material to make him, well, something of a doofus. And while I can understand that, I take his presence here the same way I think of Jack Nicholson’s version of Joker in the 1989 Batman movie. In most of the comics, Bruce Wayne’s parents aren’t killed by the man who would become the Clown Prince of Crime. Instead it’s Joe Chill, who, depending on the story, either murdered Thomas and Martha Wayne as part of a random mugging or a targeted hit. Sometimes he’s caught, sometimes Bruce never finds out it was him. But in the film, it’s a young Jack Napier, who becomes Joker, and it works because in killing Bruce’s parents, Joker inadvertently creates Batman, and by accidentally knocking Napier into acid, Batman creates the Joker. For the purposes of that movie’s story, it makes perfect sense because of the tragic irony of it all.
When it comes to Adam, I admit I know basically nothing about the character other than what I’ve been told, which is very little. I’ve never read any Guardians comics, to be perfectly honest, mostly because if the movies tell a good story, I don’t need to. This goes back to the same issue I have with the MCU’s current model of driving traffic to Disney+. If your story is good enough on its own, you shouldn’t have to force your audience to consume other media. If they want to, awesome, but it should never come off as a requirement, especially if the audience isn’t aware that they’ve got homework. So when I see Poulter as Adam, and watch as Debicki explains his mannerisms and shortcomings, I’m engaged enough with the character as he stands to go along with it, especially because he becomes an active element in the absurdity with which James Gunn has carried the entire trilogy. He may not be the comics version of the character, but he fits right in with how the others are depicted in the films.
Anyway, Adam attacks, leaving Rocket gravely wounded and clinging to life, his past flashing before his — and our — eyes as we see how the High Evolutionary mutilated and altered a helpless baby raccoon into becoming the supremely intelligent tech wizard and shit-talking pilot we all know and love. He’s part of a program to build a Counter-Earth, an artificial planet that looks exactly like our world, but is a utopia in the High Evolutionary’s Dr. Moreau-esque eyes, where hybrid animals live a perfect existence. Rocket (identified only by his serial number by the Evolutionary in a heavy-handed but thematically appropriate example of his God complex) is the most successful experiment thus far, able to help the Evolutionary figure out why other groups of modified animals fail to shed their more aggressive instincts once he anthropomorphizes them. In between torturous tests, Rocket spends time in a cage with three other semi-advanced animals — an otter who eventually names herself Lylla (Linda Cardellini), a walrus on wheels called Teefs (Asim Chaudhry), and a rabbit with a bear trap jaw who decides on Floor (Mikaela Hoover) for her name, because it’s her favorite thing to lie on the floor and talk with her “friends.”
It’s amazing how well Gunn handles the material here, just as he has from the very beginning. Because, if you know basic cinematic plot structure, especially one that divulges a tragic backstory, you know these flashbacks won’t end well. However, in spite of all that, the pathos is still fully earned because enough time is spent getting to know these furry companions in a way that never feels cheap. It’s all used to inform Rocket’s character, especially his sense of loyalty and devotion to justice. It’s a means to an end, but it’s treated with enough respect to make it feel like something more, the same as the redemption of Yondu (Michael Rooker) in the last film.
Anyway, as Rocket struggles to stay alive, it’s up to the rest of the team to fly to the corporate lab where he was created in order to save him, as he has a proprietary kill switch programmed into his body that prevents anyone other than the High Evolutionary from operating on him. The cynic in me wonders if this is a mildly coded jab at Feige and the rest of the suits at Disney and Marvel, and knowing Gunn’s style of humor, it very well could be. But cleverly, the focus shifts deftly between the major characters to keep anyone suspicious from paying attention to it for too long.
The entire gang is back, led by Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), and the team acts like the perfect blend of a cohesive unit and a dysfunctional family. Nebula (Karen Gillan) is more jovial than before, but still quite assertive, never missing a chance to comment on Mantis (Pom Klementieff) being too emotionally soft or Drax (Dave Bautista) being too dumb. Groot (Vin Diesel) is fully grown after his regeneration from the end of the first film, and he’s got a lot of new features for the fight scenes that are just a ton of fun. Yondu’s former #2 Kraglin (Sean Gunn, James’ brother) serves a similar role with the group, trying to master the whistle to control Yondu’s red arrow, and the gang have also picked up a former Soviet space dog called Cosmo (Maria Bakalova). The only one missing is Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), who has joined up with the Ravagers, led by Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone). She reunites with the crew to help them infiltrate the lab (with Nathan Fillion heading up their security team in a fantastic cameo), and insists that she is not the same Gamora that had a relationship with Quill.
All of this may seem like an absolute overload of character and story, and in lesser hands, it would be, but James Gunn orchestrates things about as perfectly as possible. First and foremost, the motivations of the plot make complete sense based on the precedents set in the previous movies. Part of the reason I hated Multiverse of Madness is because everything that was teased at the end of the first Doctor Strange movie was just thrown out to make way for the insulting story we got. Here, if there’s something that needs a callback, like the creation of Adam, it’s given proper attention, even if the result is absurd. If it doesn’t matter, it stands as an Easter Egg, like the fact that the Guardians now use Knowhere (the home of the Collector in the first movie) as their base of operations. Again, there’s a fine degree of respect paid to what was done before without explicitly pandering to it for fan service.
Even the inclusion of Cosmo or the offhanded reveal of Mantis’ relationship to Quill is done properly. These events apparently happened in the Holiday Special, which like all the other Disney+ content, I haven’t seen. Maybe I’ll watch it one day, maybe I won’t. The important thing is that there’s nothing truly crucial in it that affects this film. So they got a dog? Okay, cool. She’s a fun character used for a few bookend scenes and sporadic jokes, and ultimately has no bearing on the outcome. Gamora’s with the Ravagers now? Okay, cool. However it went down, to me it just happened off screen, and it’s wholly logical for this Gamora to forge her own path given the events of Infinity War and Endgame. Mantis and Quill are half-siblings? Okay, cool. The whole group acts like an adoptive family anyway, so it doesn’t really change the dynamic, and given all the time that Mantis spent with Ego before the events of the last film, it certainly tracks that she could be his offspring. All of this is interesting information that, if you know it going in because you watched other stuff, it might enhance your enjoyment just a bit. But ultimately none if matters in the grand scheme of the plot. It’s extra credit, not the core curriculum.
Going further, Gunn, like Coogler with Wakanda, has an almost hardwired affinity for these people and this world. Part of that comes from being the only true auteur to hold the reins from the beginning. He’s grown with the characters, as well as the cast. One of my chief complaints about recent comic movie fare is in how franchises that were previously comedic in nature tried to inject higher stakes with much darker themes than what had previously been established (Quantumania and Fury of the Gods chief among them). The problem is that these movies made a huge tonal shift for the sake of the shared universe rather than for any reason germane to the stories they had already told, and their less capable directors couldn’t commit to one idea over the other, and ended up sucking at both.
To contrast, Gunn has always treated this subset of the MCU as a true comic book come to life, with a solid mixture of seriousness and pure laughter. He’s always been able to balance both sides of the dramatic coin, giving equal weight to both the laughing and crying theatre masks. There’s a dedication to the inherent human nature of everyone involved, warts and all, which makes it believable that someone like Drax could mourn for a lost family while still offering unfiltered commentary about his own feces. This is how Gunn introduced us to these characters, so it remains justified and true to see them act both morose and mirthful, which is why this film, while much darker than the previous two thanks to Rocket’s dire situation, still feels like a natural next step rather than a jarring overcorrection. It is this prioritizing of our basic shared humanity that also resolves Gamora’s arc in a way that’s completely natural without backsliding into tired romance clichés.
Once you’ve got these crucial elements solidified, everything else just falls into place. The jokes land, the action becomes exciting, the more cartoonish CGI ends up being a feature rather than a bug because it plays properly into the motif we’ve set up. And of course, the soundtrack continues to kick copious amounts of ass. Hey, any way we can get the kids to hear “Badlands” I’ll gladly support. It should go without saying, but it’s somehow lost on so many voices, regardless of talent, when they’re brought into the MCU. Get the story and the characters down first, THEN worry about all the stuff on the periphery, including the brand integration disguised as interconnected narratives.
James Gunn has always understood that these films should feel like a fun road trip with your friends. They’re goofy, unexpectedly emotional at times, frustrating, and ultimately feed your soul. From the very beginning he got us to care about this motley bunch of outsiders who shoot the shit first and then save the universe for fun, to the point that we can not only laugh at the sheer stupid joy of it all, but also feel legitimate sadness and concern for a raccoon on his deathbed. This is what the MCU should have always been, and for a while it was with a fair amount of consistency. But since Endgame, it has dispiritingly lost its way, to the point where a movie like this has become a special treat rather than the norm. I’m grateful to Gunn for what he’s been able to accomplish here, for the performances he’s been able to get out of a large (and game) ensemble for so long, for the genuine giddiness that he’s inspired through this madcap action, and for telling a story that brings fans in rather than tells them how to feel and then bills them for it. As he goes off to DC, he leaves behind the last vestiges of quality for the MCU, ending a trilogy that was epic largely on its own terms, and making us wonder if this is indeed the time to amicably cut ties and go off to a new adventure.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Is this the end of the MCU for you, or will you continue on (or have you already jumped ship)? How were the Howard the Duck cameos not even in the top 30 weirdest things about this series? Let me know!