No one expected that the one about the tree and the raccoon would be a highlight of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but so it proved with the first Guardians. After a weaker second instalment and a fun Christmas special, director James Gunn closes out his four-part trilogy with a triumph: a big, scrappy mix of humour and terror boasting a heart as big as Drax. The result may be a little too chaotic and sprawling to match the pace of the first film, but it’s packed with great moments and far more emotionally resonant.
This time, the danger is not some amorphous threat to life all across the galaxy but a personal crisis: one of the Guardians’ own is put into serious peril after a disastrous attack on their Knowhere home. The rest must find the key to saving Rocket (Bradley Cooper), with the clock ticking and their own emotions at the limit. The resulting quest involves teaming up once again with Gamora (Zoë Saldaña), who has no memory of their time together, and facing a new and terrifying adversary in Chukwudi Iwuji’s High Evolutionary. To say he has a god complex undersells it; having found the universe lacking, he seeks to remake entire civilisations to his own design – including, it turns out, the Sovereign we saw last time, and their immature creation Adam Warlock (Will Poulter, excellent despite limited screentime). The Evolutionary is also tied to Rocket’s origins, which it turns out are every bit as painful as Mantis (Pom Klementieff) once suggested.
Iwuji’s Evolutionary is not Marvel’s showiest villain, but he’s a great adversary for the Guardians, a gang of imperfect, damaged people driven by their own grief and pain to save others from both. What could be more at odds with their outlook on the world than someone obsessive about the perfection of all things? The strength of this cast has always been in their weaknesses, the failures and emotional scarring that meant they relied on one another just to get through the day, never mind guard the galaxy.
This film allows the Guardians of the Galaxy to face their fears and abandon the status quo, even if that means saying some painful goodbyes.
Having established that his heroes are in this surrogate family for a reason, Gunn smartly looks at what might happen if they dared to look beyond it and actually deal with their trauma rather than hiding from it in the acceptance of one another. So, we get flashbacks to Rocket’s genesis, witness Gamora’s anger as she struggles to reconcile the person she is with the stranger everyone else seems to remember, and see Star-Lord trying and mostly failing to imagine life without her. If Nebula (Karen Gillan), Mantis, Groot and Dave Bautista’s superb Drax remain much as ever, that’s only because they were perfectly formed to begin with. But all their attempts to move forward result in a dramatically satisfying and remarkably grown-up approach to a comic book movie, especially one with this film’s wild visuals (giant organic space stations! Bat people! A Ravager merman who communicates with emojis!) and blinding colours.
This isn’t perfect. There’s bagginess around the middle, thanks to a welter of new characters and a laudable determination to give each member of the ensemble something worthy of their considerable talents, plus a couple of fight scenes are cut so fast as to be little more than brightly-coloured blurs. Then there’s the all-too-common superhero thing where monumentally horrible things happen only to be brushed aside for another quip, another scrap, another heart-to-heart. But the love that Gunn has for these characters is overwhelming, and that carries it through the rougher and slower patches. He successfully balances his tendency towards occasional snark by letting that love shine through every frame, to often heartbreaking effect.
That’s why it feels right that this film allows the Guardians of the Galaxy to face their fears and abandon the status quo, even if that means saying some painful goodbyes. The High Evolutionary succeeded better than he knew. He forced our favourite bunch of A-holes to grow, and become, perhaps, slightly better people, and that should give us all hope.