Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 Is the Best MCU Movie in Years

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The following story does not contain spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.

THE ROAD to the third installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe‘s Guardians of the Galaxy sub-franchise has been a long and winding one. It was always a plan for the first Guardians movie (2014) and Vol. 2 (2017) to, essentially, do two things: operate largely in their own section of Marvel’s expansive universe, and lead audiences right into the events of the massive Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019).

It was successful at all of the above. After Endgame, the plan was originally to (creatively and literally) cash in quickly with a third Guardians film. But when a bad faith social media campaign resulted in writer/director James Gunn’s removal from his role with Marvel and the third Guardians film, DC quickly realized Marvel’s mistake, snatching him up to write and direct The Suicide Squad for the rival studio. When stars like Dave Bautista and Chris Pratt said they wouldn’t return for another Guardians film without Gunn aboard, Marvel rectified things and brought him back.

But the timeline had totally twisted—and, as a result, perhaps Marvel’s most talented filmmaker had become enmeshed with its primary competition.

As a result, the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy has become a nearly decade-long affair, and, with Gunn now serving as the co-CEO of DC Studios and architect of a new DC Universe (he’s writing and directing Superman: Legacy among other projects at the studio), it’s fair to say Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is the end of an era. And what an end to an era it is.

world premiere of marvel studios' "guardians of the galaxy vol 3"

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The strength of the Guardians films has always come from two specific sources: the absolutely picture-perfect cast, and the fact that the movies are coming from the singular voice and vision of someone who just knows how to write for this world and these characters.

After a messy few entries in the MCU, it’s an absolutely welcomed relief to see “written and directed by James Gunn” in the opening moments of the film. If Marvel is making smart investments going forward, it should abandon the “script by committee” approach, and go forward more in the Gunn model: creators who know exactly what they want to do and how they want to do it. More movie-making, less meddling.

While it’s been six years since the last Guardians film, we’ve still seen these characters many times since—two Avengers movies, a couple moments in Thor: Love and Thunder, and last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special—and we find them in quite a precarious place. Peter Quill (Pratt), having discovered the truth about his evil father before kind of losing the love of his life and his accompanying anger nearly wiping half of humanity off the earth, is not doing super well. He’s drunk all the time, and even the likes of his half-sister Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and the ever-cheery but dim-witted Drax (Bautista) can’t cheer him up.

Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is also in a not-great place. In the opening scene of the movie, we see him singing along (!) with the first of the movie’s many excellent needle drops, an acoustic version of “Creep” by Radiohead; he sees that Quill is not doing great either, and they’ve got a kind of bad vibe shared between the two of them.

guardians of the galaxy vol 3

Marvel Studios

Cooper’s energetic take on Rocket has been a true asset for the MCU, as he’s been a valuable piece not only of the Guardians movies but in movies like Avengers: Endgame as well. Rocket is the beating heart and soul of Guardians Vol. 3; when he’s placed in a potentially life-threatening situation after an encounter with the all-powerful Adam Warlock (the exciting new addition Will Poulter), we get a series of flashbacks into the life of young Rocket, learning how he entered this world, who created him (the villainous High Evolutionary, played by Gunn’s Peacemaker star Chukwudi Iwuji), and how he ended up where we first met him. And it is both touching and heartbreaking.

Iwuji, as two eras of High Evolutionary, is effortlessly good here. It’s a character that doesn’t need too much explaining—he’s a classic mad scientist. And Gunn has little issue getting the audience to hate him, after seeing him experiment on and torture adorable little creatures like Rocket and his friends (including one voiced by Linda Cardellini, now doing double duty in the MCU after also playing Clint Barton’s wife, Laura).

guardians of the galaxy vol 3

Marvel Studios

Which is all to say: if you’ve ever been a fan of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films before, it’s hard to imagine that you wouldn’t be a fan for round three. The laughs remain there, and the romantic threads between Quill and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) are both engaging to watch and undeniably frustrating.

Saldana is wonderful here, playing a more-hardened version of herself who never had the experiences with Quill that the Gamora in the first two Guardians movies did; seeing that shell maybe break once again is hopeful and shows the true chemistry between these two performers. There’s even the MCU’s first-ever F-bomb, which, well, it sure is something.

But part of the reason why this movie’s emotional beats hit so well—and I should mention at this point that I cried somewhere in the range of four times during this movie—is because having spent so much time with these characters over the course of now nearly a decade, it all feels so very lived in. We don’t need much convincing to believe that Quill and Rocket care about each other. We don’t need to go out on a limb to wonder why any of them would want to save their friend. And perhaps most impressively, we believe just about everything that the deadpan Nebula (Karen Gillan) wants to do for good—a true feat, considering she entered the series as an antagonist.

guardians of the galaxy vol 3

Marvel Studios

As Mr. Gunn prepares for his big move to DC, it’s reasonable to think of this as the end of a major chapter in the MCU. And, like Endgame, the movie does a good job of closing the threads that need closing (while giving just a few hints for what could come more).

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, at the end of the day, is a win-win for both Marvel and DC; Marvel gets back on track with what very well could be their best, most cohesive, and most emotionally resonant movie since Avengers: Endgame, and DC gets to see the full scale of what their head man in charge can do.

If these two rival studios can bring the best out of each other, it’s going to be a really good time to be someone who likes watching superhero movies.

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Evan is the culture editor for Men’s Health, with bylines in The New York Times, MTV News, Brooklyn Magazine, and VICE. He loves weird movies, watches too much TV, and listens to music more often than he doesn’t.

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