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Though James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy revitalised the Marvel Cinematic Universe (henceforth MCU) in 2014, by the time its second sequel arrives, the never-ending superhero saga feels annoyingly bloated and unappealing. Each one of these movies still makes close to a billion dollars worldwide, but that doesn’t match Disney’s expectations of cashing in on another billion. Since Avengers: Endgame (2019), the reviews for all MCU movies have been dire, the audiences lukewarm, and every entertainment publication has written at least one opinion piece about superhero fatigue in pop culture. 

The solution? Bring in Gunn and his team of ragtag misfits. Gunn has always enjoyed more creative freedom than the other MCU directors, so he has delivered the most exciting films in the studio. The first in the Guardians series was such an improbable success and cultural achievement that it set the tone for subsequent Marvel films. 

Then something strange happened as Gunn’s influence in the studio grew. The second Guardians was another success, his influence shaped other films in the cinematic universe, and his voice would be the saga’s future. But the action of a group of alt-right trolls on social media scared the then head of Marvel Films, who sacked Gunn while he was writing the third Guardians. The rest is history: Gunn was hired by rival DC, where he is now head of its cinematic universe, the executive who fired him got the boot, and Kevin Feige, the mastermind behind the whole Marvel Films behemoth, rehired Gunn for just one last ride around the block, to finish his trilogy. 

There’s a point to this background, and it fills in the gaps in this review, enabling me to write without spoiling most of the plot. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3(henceforthGuardians 3) is Gunn’s swan song with Marvel, and to really plant his footprint on the studio’s history he goes all in with a bleak, violent, intense epic that doesn’t just round up the arc of all of the characters but also reveals the continuous thematic thread of this trilogy. 

The story follows the Guardiansteam, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper), Drax (Dave Bautista), Groot (Vin Diesel), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) in the aftermath of the events of Endgame. Quill drinks too much, Rocket mopes around listening to Radiohead, and the others try to keep things together. When the team is attacked by a new foe, Adam Warlock (Will Poulter on top of his game), Rocket is knocked unconscious, kickstarting a race against time to find the man who created and tortured him, The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji, as one of the best villains in the MCU). On the way, they recruit the help of Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), previously Quill’s romantic interest, but this version is from the past, so he doesn’t remember meeting her and … look, that part is a bit complicated and requires too much background, so for the sake of brevity Gamora and Quill used to be in love, but now she doesn’t have any memory of that time. Let’s go with that. 

It sounds complex in that comic book way of including a lot of luggage to support an understanding of its context – in this case, 31 films and 8 tv shows). But none of that is essential for appreciating what Gunn is doing. He hits the right emotional beats that everyone can understand without context. You are watching a film about a group of friends crossing the universe to save their friend, and one has to work with his amnesiac ex-girlfriend. Everything else is nerdy noise. 

And that’s why Guardians 3 works. Gunn brings his A-game, making the best of his creative freedom to push the boundaries. There’s an f-bomb, body horror, and a horrible scene of animal torture. People die, and characters shout in despair. The tone set by the first song – Radiohead’s morose ode to sentimental ennui Creep– seeps through the whole film. There’s a piece of gory make-up beauty so deranged I’m still impressed it passed Marvel’s family-friendly censors. 

Yet it’s all balanced by Gunn’s corniness. In another situation, this would evoke eye rolling, but Gunn has perfected that Spielberg trait of balancing visual and emotional shock with a rewarding and straightforward sentimental payoff. 

What I found surprising is realising that all Guardians have the same thematic thread: questioning authority. If the first chapter saw a group of misfits challenging the authority of society’s pressures, and the second the roots of paternal authority, this third chapter sets its aim at divine authority. Not religion, but the notion of facing our creator. It’s a very simplistic Nietzchean take, but I’ll accept a basic-philosophy take on my blockbusters any day over an absence of ideas. 

At the end of the day, Guardians 3 is the only MCU film I’ve enjoyed since Endgame, and will probably be the best of all 30-plus MCU films. I doubt it’ll get better than this. 

Sadly, with Gunn moving to DC/Warner Bros., this is the last we’ll see of him in this cinematic universe, and I hope he doesn’t live to regret the move. With Marvel, he benefits from standing out as the outlier misfit. As the new brain behind all future DC films, he risks becoming one thing that he has avoided so far: mundane.