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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is the best Marvel movie in years

The last of James Gunn’s Marvel movies doesn’t get caught up in the multiverse.

Chris Pratt is believed by some to be the least-liked Chris among the Hollywood Chrises. He is the face of the Guardians of the Galaxy.
Marvel Studios
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Saying that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is the best Marvel movie since Avengers: Endgame feels like a loaded statement. Maybe one that should come with multiple asterisks.

Since Endgame, Marvel’s slate has included some uncharacteristically middling movies like Thor: Love and Thunder and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Spider-Man: No Way Home is fantastic but it’s considered a Sony and Marvel collaboration. The studio has also released some extreme stinkers into the wild, like Eternals and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. It’s all led to the feeling that Marvel is in a relative rut.

When I say that Guardians Vol. 3 is the best Marvel film since Endgame, however, I mean it as a genuine compliment: The movie is great and not just the best house on a bad block.

Director James Gunn’s final Guardians chapter rips and roars with the confidence and emotions that nine years and multiple movies featuring this band of space underdogs bring. It achieves all this by, thankfully, ignoring Marvel’s grand design.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3 is about picking up the pieces and the evil of eugenics

The third Guardians movie, the first since 2017’s Vol 2., begins with rebuilding. That’s the only option when half the universe’s living beings were zapped away in 2018’s Infinity War only to come back, five years having passed, in 2019’s Endgame. Marvel’s various movies and Disney+ shows have tackled “the snap” and “the snapback” in their own ways, showing us glimpses of how people in the MCU dealt with the blip. Clint Barton found an apprentice; Wanda Maximoff got way too deep into demonic paraphernalia; Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson became bros, and Wilson became Captain America.

The Guardians, who briefly appeared in the surprisingly dismal Thor: Love and Thunder, have started to build a headquarters on Knowhere — introduced in the first movie, Knowhere is the massive, cosmic skull of the celestial being that was mined for organic matter and then became a seedy intergalactic outpost. With Thanos defeated and trillions of beings snapped back and forth between existence, Nebula (Karen Gillan), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Drax (Dave Bautista) have created a home for anyone that needs one.

It’s a full-circle moment for the Guardians, who began this trilogy as individuals, homeless and alone. In each other, this cybernetic assassin, talking tree, raccoon with genius intellect, insectoid empath, and extremely literal destroyer have found a family. And together, they’ve taken it upon themselves to give fellow space weirdos a place for comfort and relief, the way this makeshift family has done for themselves.

Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is the focus of the third Guardians movie.
Marvel Studios

The two names noticeably absent in this rebuild project are Peter Quill a.k.a. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana). Star-Lord is physically with the Guardians on Knowhere, but emotionally, he’s in a wasteland. He grieves over Gamora, the one who died in Infinity War and the currently alive time-displaced one who came back in Endgame. This new Gamora isn’t the one he loved, and she’s nowhere to be found. Quill drinks to numb the pain.

Star-Lord’s drinking and depression isn’t the main villain of the story though. The big bad is the entity known as the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a powerful mad scientist who dabbles in cosmic eugenics. The High E genetically tinkers with all kinds of beings — walruses, otters, orphan children — and possesses a grand vision of creating a perfect utopia. Each time these utopias fail, the High Evolutionary starts over, killing all his creations. He sees this as a kind of mercy for his imperfect creations.

It turns out that Rocket and the High Evolutionary have a connection, and for some nefarious reason, the High E now wants Rocket back. The bounty hunt on Rocket also introduces a superpowered himbo named Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) into the fray.

And as these pieces begin to lock into place, the third movie unfurls as part Rocket origin story and part heist. The Guardians are off to save their furry friend.

How will the team save Rocket in this infinite universe? Well, without giving too much away, in a galaxy where everyone is so insignificant, nothing is more powerful than family. It isn’t always perfect, and sometimes it hurts, but whether it’s the one you’re born into or the one you find, family is the only thing saving us in this cold, enormous expanse.

Thank god this isn’t the multiverse

As saccharine and as corny as that all sounds, it’s worth noting that Guardians Vol. 3 is a Marvel movie. Marvel’s films and the comic books they’re based on aren’t actually all that abstract, at least at their best. Marvel’s characters were created to tell stories about friendship and goodness, and teach children how to be better to one another. Gunn hasn’t shied away from that since the first Guardians movie in 2014, and now, the new movie is still tracing out these characters and the bonds they share some nine years later.

This is not only Gunn’s last Guardians movie, it’s his last for Marvel. He’s been named co-chairman and CEO of Warner Bros, which will see him become the DCU version of Marvel’s Kevin Feige. It’s not too hard to see why DC wanted to give him the reins; his Guardians franchise has been incredibly popular.

That popularity has given Gunn more freedom than other directors in the Marvel system. You can see that leeway in the way he plays with visuals.

In this film, we get genetically modified, freakishly adorable otters and walruses, a villain whose grafted skin is stretched sheerly thin over his robotic modifications, aliens chomping on skewered rodent street food, and a fleshy pink planet that’s purposely sphincter-like. The movie’s aesthetics often veer into incredibly gross and gooey, a deliberate choice each time. There’s a thoughtfulness to the physics, weight, and scale of every scene. The fight sequences, bright and bold, are choreographed with that same philosophy.

This is a planetary outpost that the Guardians (in spacesuits) land on. It’s supposed to be fleshy and gross.
Marvel Studios

There’s no mistaking Guardians for any other Marvel franchise.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, which came out earlier this year, and Guardians Vol. 3 essentially take place in the same setting: a weird alien world that doesn’t look like Earth. Still, they look drastically different (derogatory). Quantumania’s visuals had no defining qualities; they were aggressively generic. And based on the way it was shot, I’m not even sure if any of the film’s actors were ever in the same room at the same time. If Quantumania looked half as good as Guardians, it wouldn’t have been as awful as it was.

More importantly, though, Gunn’s freedom also affords Guardians Vol. 3 the benefit of not being bound to the MCU multiverse.

The multiverse, as established in MCU projects like Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Quantumania, and the Loki Disney+ series, is a concept derived from quantum physics in which there are infinite parallel worlds that contain parallel versions of ourselves. For the MCU, that means infinite versions of our superheroes and supervillains.

Now, imagine the burden of spelling that idea out every time.

Marvel itself isn’t even consistent with the multiverse rules. They seem to change from project to project — for instance, in No Way Home, Spider-Man is played by multiple actors; in Multiverse of Madness, all of the Doctors Strange are played by Benedict Cumberbatch. The studio has to deal with an off-screen controversy too: Jonathan Majors, who was arrested for domestic abuse in March, is playing multiple versions of the villain Kang.

The MCU’s timeline itself is also extremely confusing.

Loki establishes that there’s an entire agency that culls parallel timelines, and at the end of the series, Loki himself plays a part in its demise, which results in all these alternate universes sprouting up from nowhere. What’s unclear is how those events happened within the context of Multiverse of Madness, which establishes this multiple universe theory as something that Wanda Maximoff and Doctor Strange seem to have some knowledge about (despite no interactions with Loki). Nor do we know when the events of both those projects figure into Quantumania’s timeline. The multiverse is supposed to connect this next batch of Marvel movies as a throughline, but Marvel hasn’t done a good job spelling out how.

A golden retriever wearing a CCCP spacesuit.
Cosmo (voiced by Maria Bakalova) , a good dog.
Marvel Studios

Aside from the time-displaced Gamora, which the entire movie waves off as fluke time-travel, Guardians Vol. 3 has no interest in the multiverse. It’s much better off for it.

Instead of getting deep into the (variable) scientific weeds, the Guardians are allowed to live in this world with one another. That often results in these sardonic, literal, naive, and brash characters bouncing off each other to comedic effect. But in this installment, Gunn pushes his cast into more somber territory, toying with the idea that if found families help us all to grow and heal, what happens when you grow enough to be on your own? What if you’re brave enough to find your own adventure? And what does that goodbye feel like?

It turns out that answering those questions makes for a pretty fantastic Marvel movie.

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