In 1957, a life-form orbited the Earth for the very first time. The mission, conducted aboard the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 2, was a monumental feat in space exploration that paved the way for humans landing on the moon. But while the expedition was hailed as an invaluable scientific achievement, its participant didn’t exactly consent to it. The life-form in question was Laika, a young Moscow street dog chosen in part because of her calm temperament. Laika was never meant to survive this ordeal and died of overheating mere hours into the flight—one small step in humanity’s cruel, and ongoing, history of mistreating animals for our own gain.
As it happens, the heartbreaking story of Laika is one way to tap into the emotional core of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, the final entry of writer-director James Gunn’s celebrated trilogy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For one, Laika herself is alluded to with the film’s inclusion of Cosmo (voiced by, of all people, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’s breakout star, Maria Bakalova), a talking canine who developed psionic abilities after being sent into space by the Soviets. (It goes without saying that Cosmo is a very good dog.) What’s more, Guardians 3 homes in on the previously unexplained backstory of Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), the anthropomorphic raccoon, who was subjected to inhumane—and legitimately harrowing—testing by the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a mad scientist obsessed with engineering the perfect species. Rocket might have escaped the High Evolutionary’s clutches, but the trauma of those experiments lingers. (In a moody tone-setter for the rest of the movie, Guardians 3 opens with Rocket listening to Radiohead’s “Creep,” another standout in the long line of the franchise’s killer needle drops.)
While the animal-driven plot of Guardians 3 is a new development for Gunn, it aligns nicely with one of the defining preoccupations of the filmmaker’s career: an affinity for outcasts overcoming adversity and punching above their weight. (See also: the Suicide Squad, the Mystery Inc. gang.) Gunn’s ability to channel this underdog spirit within an enterprise as all-consuming as the MCU underscores the impressive authorship he’s maintained over the Guardians trilogy, a rarity among directors working for Marvel.
Of course, the kind of creative leeway Gunn’s been afforded in the MCU might become even rarer now that the filmmaker is transitioning to his new role as the cohead of DC Studios. As Warner Bros. Discovery’s closest equivalent to Kevin Feige, Gunn will oversee the launch of the rebooted DC Universe (or DCU) in addition to writing and directing a new Superman movie. Marvel will miss Gunn more than Gunn will miss Marvel, even if Disney hadn’t briefly fired him from Guardians 3. But if there’s any way for the MCU to get out of its current funk, then Guardians 3 should be the blueprint: a film that embodies the charm, sincerity, and irreverence possible in the superhero genre, as long as these blockbusters are allowed to be the best versions of themselves.
Guardians 3 begins on Knowhere, a city that’s formed inside the skull of a deceased Celestial—one of the godlike cosmic entities introduced in Eternals—and that our heroes now call home. Out of nowhere (pun unintended), the group is attacked by Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a powerful, golden-hued being who splits the difference between Superman and the Oscars statuette. While all of the Guardians take a serious beating from Warlock, Rocket suffers life-threatening injuries that are compounded by the group’s inability to heal him without access to the High Evolutionary’s tech. From there, Guardians 3 jumps back and forth between the gang’s mission to save Rocket’s life in the present and the character’s heartbreaking origins as a test subject in the past.
The present-day timeline is where Guardians 3 indulges in some of Gunn’s schlockier instincts that were absent in the previous films, as highlighted by a bizarro heist inside one of the High Evolutionary’s research stations, which happens to be made out of organic matter. The result is an aesthetic mishmash of sleek Silicon Valley tech spaces and the gooey filmography of David Cronenberg that is way more visually appealing than it has any right to be. It’s also during this stretch that the Guardians themselves deliver the movie’s best laughs, none better than Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) repeated attempts to woo Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), who has no recollection of their romantic past after the events of Avengers: Endgame and is even less inclined to like him every time he opens his mouth. (Pratt’s stock has fallen in recent years, but Guardians 3 is a helpful reminder that the actor is best served by roles that lean on self-deprecation.)
Guardians 3 really shines, however, when the humor gives way to genuine pathos. The Rocket flashbacks are some of the most affecting sequences in the entire MCU and, depending on the audience’s tolerance for CGI animal cruelty, downright unbearable to watch. But while these moments could come across as emotionally manipulative in the wrong hands, they exist to serve one of the underlying themes of Gunn’s trilogy: heroes reckoning with trauma inflicted by fathers (or father figures) by leaning on the support of their found family. After all, the Guardians have spent much of the series running away from the horrors of their respective pasts. There’s Peter losing his mother to cancer before being abducted by aliens as a child, to say nothing of reuniting with his megalomaniacal father, the aptly named Ego (Kurt Russell), in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; Peter’s half sister Mantis (Pom Klementieff) spending much of her life in servitude to Ego; Gamora and Nebula (Karen Gillan) having both literal and figurative scars from being raised by the maniacal Thanos (Josh Brolin); and Drax (Dave Bautista), who is initially driven to avenge the death of his entire family at the hands of one of Thanos’s intergalactic enforcers. (Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel, is one notable exception, though it’s hard to develop a rich backstory for a sentient tree with an extremely limited vocabulary.)
In other words, Rocket was long overdue to not only get his time in the spotlight but also confront the trauma he’s carried throughout the trilogy with the help of his friends. Still, that’s easier said than done, especially when the Guardians’ journey to save Rocket puts them on a collision course with his sadistic creator. It’s a testament to Iwuji’s intentionally showy performance that the High Evolutionary may be the single most loathsome villain introduced in the MCU: a scientist trying to satisfy his god complex through twisted eugenics experiments on innocent creatures. (I know a few people, including me, who raced home to hug their pets after watching Guardians 3.) What’s even more intriguing is that Rocket is the High Evolutionary’s greatest success story—and biggest source of torment. He can’t figure out what makes Rocket so special, and why his other creations haven’t lived up to expectations. Rather than show any pride in Rocket’s accomplishments, all the High Evolutionary can dwell on is his own perceived failure to replicate his experiment. From his perspective, what’s the point of celebrating Rocket’s genius if it can’t be copied at scale?
I doubt it was Gunn’s intention (not that he would ever admit it), but the High Evolutionary’s existential dilemma is not unlike the one facing the MCU, which is mired in the worst creative rut of its 15-year existence. Marvel has taken all the wrong lessons from its commercial and cultural supremacy, having placed such an emphasis on continued expansion that individual projects are treated as stepping stones to larger crossover events, instead of being appreciated on their own terms. The last MCU entry, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, is one such example, stripping away all the charming idiosyncrasies of the earlier Ant-Man films in favor of setting up Marvel’s next major antagonist for the years to come. As a result, Quantumania’s underwhelming box office performance felt entirely self-inflicted. (Another complication for Marvel is that Jonathan Majors, who plays the villainous Kang the Conqueror across several projects in various stages of development, is a suspect in multiple reports of assault and abuse.)
While it remains to be seen how Guardians 3 will fare at the box office, it holds many of the qualities that recent Marvel films sorely lacked: humor, heart, and ingenuity in a story that’s refreshingly self-contained and that reflects its director’s irreverent sensibilities. (After valid complaints about the shoddy CGI of recent MCU projects, it’s also worth noting that Guardians 3 is the most visually striking Marvel movie in ages.) The solution for Marvel going forward shouldn’t be attempting to recreate Gunn’s unique style, but allowing other filmmakers the same freedom to march to the beat of their own drums.
Most of all, Guardians 3 has something the MCU has long avoided: an actual sense of finality. Gunn’s departure to DC necessitated Marvel pulling the plug on the Guardians franchise—at least in its current form—but that shouldn’t be considered a bad thing. The Guardians of the Galaxy might have run their course, but not before establishing themselves as the MCU’s unlikely crowning achievement: D-list superheroes who won over fans through a sheer abundance of personality and the sincere affection the characters hold for one another. I can honestly say I’ll miss the Guardians, and while it’s hard to say goodbye, it’s better to admire what the franchise has given than find ways to prolong it. Hopefully, the rest of the MCU will take note.