2023 | PG-13 | starring Chris Pratt, Karen Gillan, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Pom Klementieff, Chukwudi Lwuji, Sean Gunn, Will Poulter, Elizabeth Debicki, Miriam Shor, voices of Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Maria Baklalova, Linda Cardellini, Judy Greer | directed by James Gunn | 2h 30m |

After 2 stand-alone movies and appearances in the Avengers Infinity saga and Thor: Love & Thunder, writer/director James Gunn brings his scrappy team of space misfits (and his time at Marvel) to a close with Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3. If the first film was an introduction and the 2nd was a self-aware victory lap, the third show’s how comfortable and confident Gunn is, letting the characters breath, the emotional stakes play out and delivering an endlessly imaginative new corner of the universe for them to discover. In an age of superhero fatigue, where Marvel movies haven’t raised a pulse for it’s entire phase 4 (?), Guardians 3 molds all of it’s ingredients into an uncommonly terrific movie that lets the characters lead.

The movie opens following Rocket (Bradley Cooper) walking through the spaceship/planet Knowhere, where in one scene we get a slowed-down tone, the headspace Rocket is in and where all the other characters are now. Golden Adam Warlock (Will Poulter, the new Jesse Plemons) crashes onto the scene trying to capture Rocket, leaving him near death at which time Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) learn that Rocket has a kill switch planted in him to prevent saving. The Guardians set out on an adventure through rocket’s past, the company that made him in an attempt to make a Counter-Earth of anthropomorphic animals and the self-professed High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Lwuji, John Wick 2) seeking to create a perfect world.

Guarians 3 is the work of a writer very comfortable with his characters and confident in his world. It’s endlessly inventive as James Gunn films tend to be, as funny and creative as his The Suicide Squad (which hit my 10 best list for the year), but flows much smoother. Gunn’s universe has a bizarre new creature or world that it’s built with each new set piece sometimes as campy and bouncy as an episode of Doctor Who and sometimes the grungy lived-in world Star Wars tries to convey. But rarely, is it a typical Marvel movie and as someone who has balked at the assembly line quality of the Marvel formula, this movie is a breath of fresh air. It doesn’t feel like something that battle scenes were animated years before the director was hired. I do not know how James Gunn got the power that he does, how he is able to come back from cancellation, command the DCU universe and have Marvel trembling at his feet to be able to make the movie he wants. Guardians 3 feels as close to an indie movie as a big budget blockbuster gets. It breaks the rules nobody else is allowed to break.

And oh how Gunn loves these characters. Indulgently so. There are at least 3 hero shots of everyone lined up in the frame running or walking in slow motion toward the camera. He begins and ends the movie with it. But he also does what Avengers movies regularly do well, balancing each character stories well so everyone gets their moments. Nebula is challenging Mantis’ optimism and Drax’s intelligence. Quill is struggling to connect to the alternate dimension Gamora (Zoe Saldana) who was pulled into the timeline in Avengers: Endgame. But the film centers around Rocket. While it’s a trope to explore a character’s “back story”, Gunn does so here in a way that parallels the present story beautifully, dipping back into flashbacks of adorable young Rocket in a cage with other animals being experimented on that propel things forward instead of stalling them. Gunn excels at the challenge of making us care about what on-paper is the silliest thing. Just as he crafted a touching scene where Ratcatcher 2 flooded the streets with disgusting rats in The Suicide Squad, the plight of an animated otter in this movie effectively tugs at the heart strings.

Parts of the story feel unnecessarily convoluted and there are probably a few too many characters in this cluttered ensemble, but Gunn tracks who he needs to. As a villain the High Evolutionary is one of the better ones. It’s unclear why he’s doing what he’s doing but he has a sociopathic passion for doing it. The ending also seems somewhat tacked on. Peter’s sudden desire to stop running from the death of his mother and return home isn’t threaded through the rest of the story and comes out of nowhere. Still, I loved this movie start to finish. It’s a big sci-fi blockbuster that beats with the quirky heart of an indie film. The smoothest Guardians of the Galaxy movie and the best thing Marvel has put out since Endgame.