The Guardians trilogy is the closest Marvel has come to hangout films—stuff you’d watch even if it was just the characters sitting around talking. Whenever the Avengers were put around the table, the results were dismal; you could sense the desperation of writers trying to figure what superheroes sound like off-duty. Whereas the Guardians bickering and correcting each other feels right after all these films because James Gunn never lost sight of the fact that this is a bunch of misfits and malcontents who don’t think of themselves or each other as heroes. They stay grounded because there’s always someone on hand to call them a stargazing moron.
Official word is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is the last time we’ll see the gang. This lends the film a wistfulness that mists the edges of the screen. It’s a goodbye film from the moment Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is gravely injured in a fight with Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a literal golden god sent by The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), whose villain name needs some work, and whose cruel experiments on Rocket recur as flashbacks through the film. The remaining Guardians—Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Groot (Vin Diesel)—set out to find a passkey that will override the kill switch built into Rocket. Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), now a Ravager, returns to the fold, though without any memory of her former friends.
Of all the directors making superhero movies, James Gunn has the lightest of touches. It isn’t the flippancy of the Spider-Man films or the filler banter of the Avengers films but genuine screwball timing, aided by a cast in total sync. At the same time, his work has a surprising emotional charge: he manages to bring out something touching in the orneriest characters. His Del Toro-like tenderness for misshapen, uncoordinated, forsaken beings is an antidote to the airbrushed quality of the rest of the MCU. The endlessly sympathetic Mantis, whose niceness plays so well off Drax’s and Nebula’s bluntness, is his philosophy made flesh.
Having said that, Gunn’s touch isn’t quite as light in Guardians 3. Perhaps it was the thought of having to part with the characters that made his career. Maybe his new responsibilities at DC were a distraction. At any rate, the whole business of an override code implanted in a evil scientist’s head has the aura of something scribbled on the back of a napkin. The central idea of an evil father figure retooling his offering as a freak was done more resonantly in the second Guardians. The Rocket backstory doesn’t have the same horror as the Thanos-Nebula-Gamora one; Gunn has to resort to cute talking animals to try and sell it. And the image of a spaceship as a kind of Noah’s Ark has also been done better in an earlier Marvel film, Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok.
There are no cameos from the rest of the Marvel universe, which is a relief. The Guardians were always best as a self-contained unit off on their own adventures. There’s a beautiful image every so often (the leap into space in brightly coloured suits) or a memorably weird one (the outside of a ship like an exposed scalp). And there’s a bunch of one-lasts: last time Yondu’s arrow is whistled into murderous flight, last time Rocket snaps at someone for calling him an animal (my favourite was Thor addressing him as “Sweet rabbit” in Avengers: Infinity War), last time the group walks in slo-mo towards the screen as some reliable ‘70s riff plays. Gunn may not have wrapped up his Marvel career with the best Guardians film. But it’s a sweet, heartfelt goodbye.