The Guardians of the Galaxy have always felt just a step or two removed from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure, many of the MCU’s heroes have dabbled in space adventures, and yes, the Guardians have joined the Avengers in the fight against Thanos, but the basic tone of their films still feels somehow separate from the others. The reason for that has always come down to one element — writer/director James Gunn. He’s infused these characters and their experiences with personality, weirdness, and an always shifting blend of the sincere and the silly. Nearly a decade after the first film’s premiere — and after all manner of shake ups both on screen and off — Gunn is now closing out their journey together with Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3. And it’s every bit the goofy, tear-filled goodbye that you’re hoping for… while still feeling at odds with detours into Marvel’s bread and butter of generic CG action beats that you’re expecting.
Still reeling from Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) death (in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame) and the arrival of a past version of her that never knew the love they felt for each other, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) spends his days and nights on something of a bender. He and the gang — Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Groot (Vin Diesel) — are chilling on the skull-shaped spaceship/station Nowhere when a golden visitor named Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) arrives to deliver a beatdown and leave Rocket in critical condition. The angry raccoon’s heart has a kill switch that can only be deactivated with a passcode found in the offices of the company that “created” him, and that’s all the Guardians need to hear to set them off on one last adventure. For their friend, for their family, and for those who can’t fight for themselves.
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 unsurprisingly goes hard on the themes that have been present throughout the franchise, most notably, the importance of the family you make. Gunn’s films have always been clear that it’s not blood or labels that makes you family, it’s the moments, emotions, and actions you share with those you love and who love you. The Guardians are a motley crew rife with daddy issues, and Rocket’s origin reveals a father-like figure in The High Evolutionary (a fantastic Chukwudi Iwuji), a Doctor Frankenstein/Moreau-like character intent on perfecting life by manipulating and “evolving” animals into the best versions of themselves. His years of experimenting and the millions of lives he’s shaped and ended along the way have resulted in only a single success, and now he wants that prize subject back so he can dissect Rocket’s brain and find the secret that’s eluded him all this time. That’s the gist of the film’s plot, and it’s more than enough to motivate everyone into gear.
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 is all about family, and Gunn and company nail the topic far better than a certain other franchise that attempts the same by simply mumbling “family” again and again. We can’t choose the ones we’re born into, but if we pay attention we find the loved ones we deserve. Overcoming past traumas, opening yourself up to new people, etc… they’re not new themes, but Gunn embraces them with raw sincerity and a softness unafraid of pushback. He pairs it with some ridiculously goofy humor and cartoonish violence, but none of it weakens the emotional impact.
This is Rocket’s turn in the spotlight, and that origin story involves flashbacks to his youth spent in cages, being experimented on in gruesomely mechanical ways, and bonding with other animals “gifted” with intelligence and metal body parts. Gunn has shown an advocating affection for animals in his real life for years, so it’s no surprise to see him target proponents of animal testing who view “lower” lifeforms as disposable. What might surprise, though, is how effectively he wrings tears from viewers with his CG creations. You don’t necessarily expect an MCU film and the director of Slither (2006) to hit the kind of gut-wrenching highs found in more wholly serious animated fare like The Plague Dogs (1982), but here we are.
The daddy issues that pervade the MCU in general and the Guardians in particular — Quill and Mantis were fathered by Vol. 2‘s Ego (Kurt Russell), both Gamora and Nebula were “adopted” by Thanos (Josh Brolin), and nobody gives a shit where the monosyllabic tree came from — find similar footing with Rocket’s journey, and Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 puts the final nail in the idea that biology or expected norms take precedence over all else. You believe their shared love for each other, and while there’s no new growth here on that subject, there’s no downside to spending time with characters whose playful banter and clear affections remind favorably of your own. We do, however, get a reminder that not all dads are bad thanks to touching payoff for Drax.
Less effective are the numerous action sequences that can’t help but feel a bit samesie at times being constructed so frequently out of CG and run through the Marvel mill. Action hasn’t been a strongpoint for Marvel for quite some time despite it being a major part of the films. You’ve seen one superpowered character blast another into a wall, you’ve seen them all. Gunn does find room for personality, though, through character design, a sense of humor, and more. Having Nathan Fillion looking like the unholy offspring of the Michelin Man and Slim Goodbody doesn’t hurt either.
There’s a good chance that Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 is the last MCU film (in the foreseeable future) to reach emotional highs with characters we’ve come to love. The Multiverse Saga has found some small entertainments, but there’s a severe and debilitating lack of cohesion, character, and charisma throughout the eight films we’ve gotten so far. They offered up some fun here and there, but do you honestly feel invested in where things are heading? The Marvels? A Captain America without Chris Evans? Whoever the hell the Thunderbolts are? The struggle to create individual films while still tying them together in increasingly artificial ways has only hurt the MCU, but Gunn’s exit from Marvel admirably stays away from those obligations beyond brief dialogue callbacks.
This is the Guardians’ story, and they’re going out on their own terms. They’re together, far removed from their paternal overlord (shout out Kevin Feige!), and saying goodbye without the forced manipulation and interconnectivity of Charlie Kelly’s wall of string (shout out It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia!). You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be unmoved by the familiar action beats — look, up in the sky, it’s the MCU’s patented third-act swarm of impersonal baddies! — but Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 succeeds as a call for empathy for those around you (human and otherwise), an affecting and entertaining send off to most of these characters, and an appreciative goodbye to Gunn’s time with Marvel. Wet eyes and a smile on your face is more than most Disney blockbusters can accomplish these days, so count this as a win for everyone involved.