A Cheerful Goodbye to the Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 salutes the last Marvel characters I care about—and shows what the superhero genre has been missing.

The Guardians of the Galaxy walking toward the camera with flames in the background

The best, most audacious idea of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been to present franchises within franchises, entwining various long-running series with their own internal logic and casts of favorites. The films imitate the feeling of comic books, of which people would select issues with their favorite heroes and occasionally shell out for the special ones where they cross over with everyone else. The concept has seldom worked on-screen, though—brands such as Iron Man and Captain America always felt bogged down by guest appearances and post-credits scenes setting up other heroes for the next Avengers movie. Meanwhile, the general thrust of Marvel’s storytelling feels particularly adrift this year after the latest, sludgy Ant-Man film.

However, none of these problems troubles Guardians of the Galaxy, the director James Gunn’s sci-fi action-adventure franchise about a ragtag group of cosmic warriors. Its third entry, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, will be released next week, after a six-year wait. Although the Guardians have popped up in a couple of Avengers entries, as any good Marvel property must, they have largely succeeded at maintaining their own charm. Gunn’s newest film, which has been billed as his last Guardians movie and has the air of a fond farewell, is unmistakably his own: a cheeky but sentimental salute to the misfit stars of a rewarding piece of space opera.

Still, Guardians 3 begins by dwelling on a bit of business from the Avengers movies. In them, the rascally protagonist Peter Quill (played by Chris Pratt) lost his girlfriend, Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), in a grand act of sacrifice, only to regain a new version of her from an earlier time that had no memory of, or affection for, him. The new film sums up this state of affairs neatly enough, with the kind of hurried pique that suggests some grumpiness at having to indulge a wider cinematic universe. But really, the only important info is that Quill is now drinking himself into a regretful stupor rather than working to save the universe.

He's shaken out of that reverie by an attack on his pal and partner Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a gun-toting, foul-mouthed raccoon of significant intelligence. Rocket is being pursued by the High Evolutionary (a wonderfully preening Chukwudi Iwuji), a geneticist whose cruel experimentation on animals led to Rocket’s creation. Thus, the Guardians must band together once again, to save their friend and defeat his tormentor. That conceit keeps the story stakes pleasantly personal: Yes, the High Evolutionary has soldiers and genetically modified beasties at his command, but there is no Thanos-level, universe-ending threat to defeat here.

Instead, Gunn loads the film with heartfelt flashbacks to Rocket’s life as a test subject, showing him building bonds with other cute, wet-eyed creatures, including an otter named Lylla (Linda Cardellini), as they try to survive the High Evolutionary’s experiments. It’s a bit maudlin at moments—and the film is not short, at two hours and 30 minutes—but that kind of broad emotion has always been a major part of Gunn’s Guardians movies. There’s the irreverent humor that defined his earlier work as a filmmaker (which included clever but schlocky genre fare such as Slither and Super), and there’s also unabashed sincerity.

Since their introduction, the Guardians have grown to include Gamora’s frosty sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan); the sweetheart empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff); a shifty former pirate named Kraglin (Sean Gunn, also the director’s brother); and a Soviet talking dog called Cosmo (Maria Bakalova), who round out the cast alongside original members including Drax (Dave Bautista) and Groot (Vin Diesel). Gunn has built up all kinds of profound interpersonal connections between this sizable ensemble over three movies, and in Guardians 3, he delights in indulging them, digging into all of the ways this makeshift family improves even as its members bicker.

This is probably the only remaining Marvel franchise where I truly care about the characters and what happens to them, which lends Guardians 3 a narrative weight that is a hundred times more powerful than fear of a portentous supervillain. That emotional investment has been missing from so many superhero films (and not just Marvel ones) of late: a sense of why the story should continue beyond making more money and spinning off more characters and merchandise. Guardians 3 is a cheerful goodbye to many of the studio’s best heroes, who somehow managed to get through an entire series without being ruined by the larger superhero universe they inhabit. For Marvel, that’s both a win and a problem.