For James Gunn, the hits keep coming and the jukebox never runs out. Much can be said about the overall quality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe lately and whether that train is running out of steam. But James Gunn keeps chugging along. There was a time where it seemed like Gunn’s version of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 wasn’t going to happen. He was fired by Disney after some older, off-color Tweets resurfaced. Gunn then made The Suicide Squad (which earned top marks from us), the acclaimed spin-off TV show Peacemaker, and was handed the reins to the entire DC Cinematic Universe. But Gunn was also rehired by Disney and got to do this send-off to his time at Marvel via his favorite misfit band of space-faring superheroes.

Vol. 3 is a sloppy film at times with some wonky script choices, but overall it is a fitting end for this version of the Guardians team and Gunn’s Marvel journey, and it shows that these films still have lots of pathos left to plunder. The film rides an emotional rollercoaster between deeply sorrowful tear-jerker moments and more of the gut-busting awkward humor that has been the Guardians signature. This isn’t always a healthy transition, threatening to veer off into tonal whiplash. Yet Gunn manages to navigate it well enough.

Likewise, the script itself can be lopsided. Characters such as the High Priestess of the Sovereign and Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) feel introduced out of obligation and were unnecessary to the story Gunn was trying to tell. Long-time characters like Kraglin are sidelined for a chunk of the film, and even the new character Cosmo the Space-Dog, adorable as she is, is left with little to do.

Yet what the film gets right works fantastically. This reviewer has often commented that the downside of the MCU is that the audience doesn’t get to experience all of the little character-building moments that happen issue-to-issue in comic books, but Vol. 3 does a great job of implying the growth that has occurred and making it feel believable. The Guardians have truly coalesced into a family unit, and the central plot thrust of the team journeying to save Rocket works really well.

The goofiness of the team is also spotlighted. These characters have often been demonstrated to show a disregard for plans or for each other’s feelings, and the film calls out the behaviors of those like Drax and Mantis. That the Nebula character is doing this, who started off as a sadistic daughter of Thanos eager to please her father, helps demonstrate growth for all of the characters in unique ways.

Much of the film’s pathos comes from these characters reconciling some of their deep-seated issues and hang-ups. It’s about characters who have long been running away from trauma learning to face that trauma and finally deal with it in a healthy manner. That the trauma itself, especially as far as Rocket goes, actually feels traumatic helps deliver these emotional arcs. Rocket’s backstory is delivered in sometimes clunky flashbacks, but the scenes themselves are wonderfully sweet and innocent, until they’re not. The violence feels violent and not cheap. Bradley Cooper does a wonderful job in his voice performance here, giving Rocket a depth of character that really helps you connect with him.

Likewise, Peter Quill’s own struggles play out. Having lost the Gamora he loved, he’s faced with a new one that has none of the memories of their time together, due to having time-traveled in the Avengers: Endgame film. Some have complained that the recent films have trivialized the concept of character death, but Gamora’s “revival” is not cheapened in this way. This is a different person, and Peter’s arc of coming to deal with the fact that he did lose Gamora and that the Gamora he sees doesn’t love him really resonates. One wishes the script spent even more time with this conflict, as the pain Peter is going through can be really tough to deal with.

As always, Vol. 3 features distinct songs that help set the mood, and Gunn’s direction works in concert with the music. This is perhaps the weakest soundtrack of the three, aiming for more of an alt-rock feel, but it still has some excellent choices. The use of “Dog Days are Over” sets up one of the film’s big emotional moments and is used quite effectively. Perhaps the entire trilogy’s best action scene comes during a single-take hallway battle utilizing “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” by the Beastie Boys. The film is bright and colorful and has interesting set and costume design that avoids feeling like the same bland sci-fi spaceship we’ve seen before.

While trimming and editing might have made this an even better capstone, Vol. 3 works really well. It has a sense of finality to it and feels like the emotional ending these characters deserve. Gunn’s films have often stood out in the MCU due to his unique sensibilities, and Vol. 3 very much bears that stamp. There are many big emotional moments that will leave you in tears, despite an occasionally awkward structure. It’s a film that will make you want to go off into the forever sky with its characters, which is a big part of what cinema is all about.

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