‘If I speak from the heart, they’ll listen to me!’ shouts Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the leader of the Guardians of the Galaxy, in the midst of a heist gone inevitably pear-shaped. It’s a line almost immediately proved false in the film itself but, as an ethos for the film’s writer-director James Gunn, it’s a perfect encapsulation of why his Guardians films have always felt so much more meaningful than the rest of the MCU. In taking a D-List comic book team and imbuing them with everything he himself finds funny, moving, or just enjoyably weird, he has managed to craft a series that doesn’t feel beholden to the wider universe around it, and Guardians of the Galaxy 3 is a mostly wonderful conclusion to this story.

We last saw the Guardians in the woeful Thor Love and Thunder, but Gunn swiftly does away with the wider universe noise. The Guardians are set up as the resident heroes of alien-skull-space-station Knowhere, though Peter is rather AWOL as a leader, drinking the pain away after the loss of his Gamora (Zoe Saldana), whose alt-universe counterpart from the final battle of Endgame has little interest in him. The gang is forced into action, though, by a raid from the ultra-powerful Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a golden god from the same species as Elizabeth Debicki’s villain from the second film, that leaves Rocket (Bradley Cooper) in a near death state.

To heal him, they need to remove an anti-interference device from his heart, which brings them on a collision course with Rocket’s creator, the sadistic experimenter The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji, bringing a Shakespearean grandeur to what is otherwise Marvel’s grossest and silliest series). It’s a plot that seems simple enough on paper but has very little room to breathe in practice, stuffed to the absolute gills.

It’s not often that I’d want a 150-minute comic book movie to be a bit longer, but you do get the feeling that some relatively important stuff, at least just pacing-wise, was left on the cutting room floor here. Luckily, though, this is a problem that is very easy to forget about – though at its worst Guardians 3 is undeniably jumbled, at its best it is easily the most emotionally effective film the MCU has ever produced and is ever likely to produce. The High Evolutionary is the most purely hateful villain in the series’s colossal back catalogue of baddies and you cannot wait for him to get what’s coming to him.

With Rocket comatose for a lot of the movie, you might worry that you’ll be losing out on, arguably, the trilogy’s emotional lynchpin, but that’s not the case. Instead, we’re finally granted access to the cyber-raccoon’s origin story in consistently devastating flashbacks to his time in The High Evolutionary’s lab. These segments of young Rocket are just wrenching, especially in his interactions with his fellow lab-rats (who have been augmented in ways reminiscent of Sid’s experiments in the first Toy Story), all of whom are adorable. I wanted to go into the screen and help these little guys (a smart and hopeful otter, a mechanical-legged rabbit, and a walrus pup with wheels), and Gunn squeezes enormous amounts of pathos out of every scene with them.

The experimentation scenes here are properly *nasty* too, and Gunn brings his Troma experience to bear in less upsetting ways too, from a space station made of bristle-haired flesh to some hugely cathartic demolitions of groups of baddies. After the idiotic saga of Gunn’s firing and rehiring, it feels almost like Marvel are running an apology lap here, letting him get away with the sort of gruesomeness that, whilst no worse than anything in, say, Lord of the Rings or Pirates of the Caribbean, feels genuinely novel in today’s sanitised blockbuster market. He even gets the free rein to drop the MCU’s first F-bomb, giving it to Quill in a line relished by Pratt.

All the performances here are great, everyone having a tremendous amount of fun with Gunn’s best-in-franchise writing, from Karen Gillan completing maybe the MCU’s best single character arc as Nebula to Poulter playing Adam Warlock as the galaxy’s strongest man-baby. Hell, even Vin Diesel gives his best Marvel performance yet here voicing Groot – you can really hear the Vin this time out. This is most ensemble-y the Guardians have ever felt; even with the Rocket origin focus there isn’t a *main character* as such here, and it’s nice to see them all handled with such care. It does come at a price of a lot of plot points suddenly just sort of happening or stopping without much warning – and the iconic Guardians soundtrack comes across as much more of an obligation than a joy most of the time that the music kicks in – but I think it’s ultimately a price worth paying.

Perhaps the greatest praise one can pay to Guardians 3 is that it really feels like just the third Guardians movie, not the 32nd MCU movie, even managing with the dead-Gamora/new-Gamora story strand from Avengers that Gunn clearly didn’t want. As the finale winds down, you’re left with the same sort of satisfying yet bittersweet conclusion that we used to get with actual trilogies in the pre-cinematic universe era of blockbusters, saying goodbye to real characters rather than waiting to see which toybox they’re going to be shoved into next. It’s a fantastic culmination of all of Gunn’s uniquely individual and affecting work in the MCU and by god is this studio gonna miss him.


Written and Directed by James Gunn

Starring; Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper, Karen Gillan, Chukwudi Iwuji, Will Poulter

Runtime: 150 mins

Rating: 12