When Marvel Studios was gearing up to release Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was still in its infancy. With the exception of 2012’s crossover blockbuster The Avengers, every film in the MCU up to that point had been centered on more established heroes, like Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and Hulk. The Guardians of the Galaxy, by contrast, were a relatively obscure collective in Marvel’s extensive roster of characters. The iteration of the cosmic superhero team that the film focused on hadn’t even existed in the comics for a decade. As franchise star Chris Pratt has been reminding everyone lately, many critics at the time predicted that it would be the studio’s first flop.
Of course, Guardians of the Galaxy became a massive hit for Marvel, ultimately grossing $773 million worldwide and turning the previously little-known characters into icons of one of the studio’s most beloved franchises. The film also launched the Hollywood careers of Pratt and director James Gunn, in particular, into another stratosphere. Almost 10 years later, Gunn’s Guardians story is coming to an end, as Guardians of Galaxy Vol. 3 hits theaters on Friday.
It’s been a long, strange journey for the Guardians team inside and outside of the MCU, and the forthcoming conclusion to Gunn’s trilogy was close to never happening at all. To prepare for the film’s release later this week, let’s take a look back at everything that’s happened with Peter Quill’s crew since the franchise’s last big-screen installment, spotlight a couple of the characters who are set to make their MCU debuts, and assess the end of the road for Gunn and the Guardians as we know them.
Catching Up Since Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Given that the MCU is designed to prioritize the interconnectivity of its cinematic universe over just about everything else, it’s probably safe to say that if you watched the first two Guardians of the Galaxy movies, you’ve seen the massive crossover films the Guardians are prominently featured in: Infinity War and Endgame. But if you happened to skip those two Avengers movies, you’ll be walking into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 having missed a lot since Guardians Vol. 2 was released, in 2017.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 played a big part in introducing Thanos into the larger narrative landscape of the MCU, along with his pursuit of the all-powerful Infinity Stones. And that foundational work proved to be crucial in Infinity War in particular, as the relationship between Thanos and his adopted (or, rather, abducted) daughter Gamora is integral to his ability to obtain one of the final Infinity Stones: the Soul Stone. To get that shiny, orange gem on the planet Vormir, Thanos had to sacrifice the one he loved most, his favorite daughter. (Sorry, Nebula.) Gamora’s death is a major moment in the MCU’s history, but unlike Natasha Romanoff’s similar demise in Endgame, Gamora’s was, in a way, only temporary.
The original Gamora we knew from the first two Guardians films is dead, but in Endgame, we’re introduced to a version of her from an alternate timeline. This Gamora variant hadn’t yet met Peter Quill or the original Guardians members, and, as a result, she’s still just a little rough around the edges when she meets them in Endgame. By the end of the film, Gamora has no interest in spending any more time with her would-be family of cosmic misfits (particularly the lovelorn Quill), so she leaves them behind once Thanos and his army are defeated. Thanks to the time-traveling events of Endgame, this version of Gamora lives on in the present timeline, and she’ll return in Vol. 3 having experienced several years of a new life in a different universe than the one she knew.
In Gamora’s absence, the Guardians picked up a new crew member at the end of Endgame: Thor. There was plenty of excitement and speculation about the formation of this superteam, as the so-called Asgardians of the Galaxy—not to be confused with the namesake group from the comics—brought together two major MCU franchises at the end of the Infinity Saga. As Vol. 3 approached, though, this pairing created something of a logistical nightmare. “What the fuck am I gonna do?” Gunn recalled thinking to himself after seeing Endgame, as he explained to Rolling Stone.
Luckily for Gunn, director Taika Waititi drew the task of resolving that plotline in Thor: Love and Thunder—and it didn’t even amount to all that much in the end. The team stays together for just a few inconsequential scenes over the first 30 minutes of the film before Quill’s crew parts ways with the God of Thunder again. “Taika took a bullet for me,” Gunn told Rolling Stone.
Most recently, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special brought the Guardians gang back together for a Christmas-themed story that focused on Drax and Mantis as they traveled to Earth to kidnap Kevin Bacon in an effort to cheer up Peter during the continued absence of Gamora. The special is mostly a self-contained side quest that indulges in the kind of silly absurdity that the Guardians franchise thrives on, but Gunn also took it as an opportunity to weave in some narrative and character development for Vol. 3 to build on, such as the revelation that Mantis and Peter are half siblings by way of their shared father, Ego.
“There’s a lot of stuff that we’re Trojan horsing into Guardians Vol. 3 by way of the Christmas special,” Gunn told The Ringer in November. “[Peter and Mantis’s] relationship, but also the fact that they bought Knowhere from the Collector—this is where they live; this is their headquarters. The fact that they have a telekinetic dog, who is a big part of the landscape of Knowhere. The way in which Nebula has taken on much more of a leadership role in the group. How Kraglin is a very important part of the team. We get to see all of these things in the Christmas special that then are sort of taken for granted by the time we get to Vol. 3, and I don’t have to spend a lot of time at the beginning of the movie explaining them.”
(Re)introducing Adam Warlock and the High Evolutionary
Vol. 3 will bring the whole Guardians crew back together again, but they’ll also be joined by a number of new faces. In addition to Cosmo the Spacedog (voiced by Maria Bakalova), who was reintroduced in the Holiday Special after a brief Easter egg appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy, Quill and Co. will cross paths with two figures who have ties to a strange world called Counter-Earth: Adam Warlock and the High Evolutionary.
While the upcoming film will mark the first time we properly meet him, Vol. 3 won’t be the first time Warlock has appeared on the screen.
After being humiliated and defeated by the Guardians on multiple occasions in Vol. 2, the High Priestess of the Sovereign, Ayesha, vows to destroy Quill’s team once and for all. (If you don’t remember the Sovereign, they’re the pretentious, gold-skinned aliens who are genetically engineered, pilot space fleets remotely, and have a thing for fancy batteries.) In Vol. 2’s mid-credits scene, Ayesha unveils the new breed of Sovereign that she has developed in a birthing pod and designed to eliminate the Guardians. Naturally, she dubs her creation “Adam,” deeming him to be “the next step in our evolution.”
In the comics, Warlock was similarly genetically engineered for perfection in a cocoon-like birthing chamber, but by a group of human scientists known as the Enclave. They named their creation, even more simply, “Him.” This iteration of the character made his brief debut in Fantastic Four no. 67 in 1967, but as is often the case in superhero comics, he received a significant revamp several years later, when he appeared in Marvel Premiere no. 1 in 1972.
Written by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, this issue brought Him (who had returned to his cocoon) together with the High Evolutionary, a human geneticist who transformed himself and other beings through science, often evolving animals into humanoid forms. The High Evolutionary’s most cherished experiment was Counter-Earth, an idealized planet he formed from an asteroid in the image of Earth, free from the original’s many corruptions. However, after his plan for creating a utopia went awry, the High Evolutionary bestowed Him with the Soul Stone and provided Counter-Earth with its first hero and protector.
Vol. 3 will bring back Adam Warlock (played by Will Poulter) and introduce the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) to the screen as Counter-Earth plays into a plot that explores the origins of the genetically modified Rocket Raccoon. Considering how strange and sprawling Warlock’s backstory was in the comics—as was that of the High Evolutionary (who has ties to an Inhuman scientist)—a lot of his lore will likely be adjusted in the film to better fit the Guardians agenda. But given Gunn’s tendency to lean into the strange and deeply silly, prepare for what might be his weirdest Marvel entry yet.
James Gunn’s Last Ride in the MCU
Considering all of the “creative differences” the studio has had with its filmmakers over the years, it’s unsurprisingly rare for any Marvel film series to be helmed by a single director or scribed by the same writing team. Credit is owed to cowriter Nicole Perlman for laying the foundation for the Guardians series with her work on the first film, as much as Gunn has denied her contributions in the past. But there is perhaps no MCU franchise that’s as tied to its writer and director as Guardians is to Gunn.
That notion played a major role in Gunn’s cast members sticking by their leader when Disney fired him in 2018 after alt-right personalities unearthed offensive, decade-old tweets in which Gunn made tasteless jokes about rape and pedophilia. Days after his dismissal, Pratt led the charge in the cast’s efforts to get the director reinstated for Vol. 3, creating an awkward standoff between the franchise’s stars and Disney that put one of its most popular series on hold indefinitely. Gunn was, of course, eventually rehired, but more awkward still: In the interim, the filmmaker had accepted a job with Marvel’s longtime superhero competitor, DC, as he agreed to write and direct The Suicide Squad.
Gunn’s initial work with DC prolonged the gap between Vol. 2 and Vol. 3, but it was also only the first step toward what would become a much larger role with the rival studio. As Gunn has promoted his final film with Marvel Studios in the past weeks and months, he’s simultaneously been hard at work rebuilding the rebranded DC Studios as its co-CEO and cochair. The shake-up at Warner Bros. Discovery was announced in October, leaving little room for speculation on whether Gunn would provide more work for Marvel as long as he’s partially running the show at DC Studios. Even if Vol. 3 is well-received, as it has been thus far by critics who watched it early, the film might not be enough to inspire confidence in Marvel Studios’ attempt to escape its post–Infinity Saga slump, given that Gunn is moving on. “Superhero fatigue” appears to be setting in more than ever, and as Marvel continues to churn out content at a rapid rate, it’s losing a figure who played a central role in the studio’s unprecedented dominance.
Given the cyclical nature of superhero comics themselves, it isn’t often that we get clearly defined beginnings and endings in the MCU. Even though we’ll likely be seeing more of at least some of the Guardians in the years to come as the Multiverse Saga’s Avengers crossovers approach, Vol. 3 is the end of the line for Gunn and several of his stars. (Anything can happen, but Zoe Saldaña and Dave Bautista have been vocal about these being their final turns as Gamora and Drax, respectively.) Although the first Guardians of the Galaxy helped set up the larger stakes of the Infinity Saga, the film introduced an odd, lovable crew that, for a time, existed in a universe of its own. Vol. 3 will close the loop on plotlines hinted at from the very beginning, including Rocket’s origin story. As the rest of the MCU continues to explore the concept of the multiverse and its endless possibilities, Gunn’s finale will serve as a rare conclusion to what has been an even rarer (mostly) self-contained trilogy.