'Guardians of the Galaxy' and the Virtue of Knowing When to End
Vol. 3 is a good movie. It's also a good place for the Guardians to stop.
Though recent Marvel movies have disappointed me, I’m happy to say that I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. It can easily hold its own among the great run of pre-Endgame MCU films.
As far as this series within a series goes, the first Guardians of the Galaxy remains the strongest, but Vol. 3 is a good movie that brings the series to a satisfying conclusion. Knowing exactly when to end is a virtue, even though studios seem to view it as a wasteful vice.
I’ll avoid any major spoilers, but proceed at your own risk if you haven’t seen the movie yet.
Director James Gunn went in knowing this would be his final Guardians of the Galaxy movie (even if some characters show up in later MCU films). He and his crew don’t get sidetracked trying to set up a new threat for the Avengers to face later on. Rather, they focus on wrapping up this story. And they pull it off in such a way that fans can retain fond memories of the series as a whole and want to revisit it in future years—unlike, say, the final season of Game of Thrones, which retroactively ruined the otherwise-excellent early seasons.
That should be anyone’s mantra when creating a final installment of anything: “Don’t be Game of Thrones season 8.”
Part of the problem with Game of Thrones is that it rushed across the finish line, as if people had lost interest and were eager to move on. If anything, the new Guardians has the opposite problem. The pace is a little too leisurely at first, and the story doesn’t pick up as quickly as it did in the first two movies. If I had to choose, too slow is better than too fast—it’s generally a good sign when people want to spend more time with their story.
Once it gets going, though, there’s a lot to like.
Every major character and even some minor characters have their own arcs and their own moments to shine. Vol. 3 juggles a large cast as masterfully as earlier Marvel movies. If none of them ever returned, this would be a fitting farewell for each character. (But at least one will return, according to a post-credits note.) Nebula (Karen Gillan) has progressed the farthest of the bunch. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) got, let’s say, disrupted during the Avengers movies, but Gunn and Saldana do a fine job of salvaging the character here.
Marvel movies often benefit when they incorporate compelling themes and ideas. Avengers: Infinity War, for example, explored Thanos’s philosophy of population reduction and juxtaposed that with the Avengers’ focus on the value of each individual life. But if you wanted to turn your brain off and simply enjoy a fun team-up movie, it worked on that level too.
Here, we’ve got the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) and his quest to create the perfect society; the origins of Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) tie into this. This brings up interesting ideas, such as how ego inherently corrupts any utopian aspirations, and how utopians always seem perfectly willing to sacrifice other people to achieve their paradise. The movie tackles these themes without climbing aboard any soapboxes, but it does take us to some dark places.
However, plenty of thrilling action and amusing character moments balance things out, sometimes bringing us to some rather silly places as well. While the movie skews toward a more somber atmosphere overall compared to its predecessors, it retains strong tonal agility, another key Marvel ingredient.
The soundtrack provides the best indication that this is the right stopping point.
In the first movie, the soundtrack had a brilliant in-story reason for existing. The songs are all part of a mixtape that Peter Quill’s mother made for him before she died, and this tape is his only real connection to her and Earth. The songs that we hear are the songs that Peter (Chris Pratt) has been listening to over and over on his walkman. This turns the soundtrack into a symbol and adds emotional weight to the whole movie. It also limits the song choices to a particular era, which helps establish a unified feel.
In the second movie, the songs are part of a second mixtape Peter’s mother created, so the concept still works there.
Before the third movie, though, the Guardians had visited Earth during Avengers: Endgame, so now they’ve got access to much more music, including recent music. And more characters have caught the music bug. It’s not just coming from Peter, and the playlist no longer represents a single individual.
This results in greater diversity of music but also a less focused playlist. Granted, music is the most subjective aspect of the whole movie. I prefer to listen to music from the ’60s through ’80s, so the more recent songs weren’t to my personal tastes, but I did appreciate the inclusion of an Alice Cooper deep cut as well as a more popular song from Heart. (Gunn has consistently done a great job of selecting a mix of well-known hits and lesser-known gems.)
In the course of three movies, the soundtrack concept has completed its journey from inspired to obligatory. It’s still fun, but it’s also just something a Guardians of the Galaxy movie does now.
Of course, something else comes after obligatory, and that would be stale.
So, it’s best to stop here. I wouldn’t quite call these movies a trilogy, because Infinity War and Endgame are essential viewing (otherwise, “Why is Gamora?” would become a genuine question and not a throwaway joke). But as a sort of trilogy-plus, it’s a great series that I’ll enjoy watching again in future years.
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