When the Guardians of the Galaxy first debuted in 2014, they were a band of relatively obscure heroes served up as an amuse bouche between the snappy spectacles of Iron Man and pals. Writer-director James Gunn had done a few splattery horror movies, an ultra-violent, indie comic book adaptation, and two Scooby Doos. And leading man Chris Pratt was known primarily as the goofball off of Parks and Recreation. But here’s the thing about being an outlier: you have nothing and everything to prove, and Guardians of the Galaxy taught every future comic book movie that there was no limit to how funny and dorky but still deeply sincere you could be with your heroes.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 is a farewell to the franchise (at least from Gunn’s perspective, as he’s since hopped over to DC), that’s really a reminder that they always represented some of the very best Marvel has to offer. What Gunn’s done here isn’t even rocket (raccoon) science – he’s just crafted well-drawn, textured characters in a story told with care and commitment. And it’s a story told in a world that continues to feel distinct and almost entirely self-contained, something safely quarantined away from the wider narrative of the MCU. Vol 3 contains both Marvel’s very first f-bomb (landed with perfect timing) and a heist on a fleshy satellite in which the Guardians bounce around in primary-coloured, 2001: A Space Odyssey-style space suits.
Gunn, who also wrote the film’s script, had repeatedly said that his trilogy finale would focus on one member of this intergalactic crew – the Bradley Cooper-voiced, eternally cranky Rocket Raccoon. That’s certainly true in one sense. Here, the majority of the action revolves around the Guardians’ quest to uncover Rocket’s true origins, which are linked to experiments conducted by galactic eugenicist the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji, who makes for an exquisitely grandiose but sinister villain). We get flashbacks a-plenty to baby Rocket – watch out Grogu, your merchandise empire is about to fall – and the de facto family he finds amongst his naive, severely traumatised fellow experiments, voiced by Linda Cardellini, Asim Chaudhry, and Mikaela Hoover. It is, as you might be able to guess, sob-inducingly moving.
However – and this is frustratingly rare in comic book films – Vol 3 is fully invested not only in how its core characters have evolved so far, but how they can continue to evolve. No one is sidelined. No one is wasted. It is, on top of its main plot, a break-up movie about the hollow feeling of bumping into an ex and realising they’ve moved on. Although in this case Star-Lord (Pratt, reminding us that he can be extremely charming when the role calls for it) is having to deal with the fact that his ex, Zoe Saldaña’s Gamora, is actually an alternate-universe version with no memory of him.
Vol 3 is also about realising the friend that’s the butt of every joke is a complex person whose life still has worth and meaning (true in both cases when it comes to Pom Klementieff’s gremlin-souled Mantis and Dave Bautista’s overly literal Drax – their friendship is the funniest and sweetest element of the film). It’s also, finally, about the pressures of being covered in gold and absolutely shredded – Will Poulter’s Adam Warlock, created to be the perfect man, actually turns out to be the pouty toddler to Elizabeth Debicki’s flustered mum Ayesha.
It doesn’t matter who these characters are, whether they’re aliens, psionic dogs (the Maria Bakalova-voiced Cosmo) or adult men who haven’t emotionally moved on from the Eighties. The Guardians films have always been about the fact that many of us are like putty – shaped not by where we’ve come from but where we are and could end up. Vol 3 should make audiences thrilled about what comes next for Gunn in his new position as co-head of DC Studios. As for Marvel – well, it’ll be their loss.
Dir: James Gunn. Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn, Chukwudi Iwuji, Will Poulter. 12A, 150 minutes.
‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3’ is in cinemas from 5 May