Post-Endgame, Marvel fans have been left wondering, What now? Where does this story go from here? Even Marvel seems unsure of what they’re doing with these phases other than, finally, offering a more diverse selection of heroes to replace the white male originals. Surprisingly then, the MCU’s latest release Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 exceeded my expectations, broke the mold of its immediate predecessors, and concluded a beloved trilogy with heart and humor.
To me, GOTG 3 works by figuring out how to make the weaknesses of the other franchises, a strength. Not only is it a sequel but it’s also the final act of a trilogy, which can cave under the pressure to please diehard fans, be compared endlessly to the first two, and say goodbye to its main characters while honoring everything the series has built–all while telling a good story. It’s not enough that we know and love these characters, we have to feel like they’ve been given the send-offs they deserve.
To do that, the film unites the Guardians through Rocket (Bradley Cooper), who is almost kidnapped and suffers an attack that threatens his life. Throughout the film, we go back and forth between the present and Rocket’s past of trauma, experimentation, and imprisonment. It ultimately comes to a head when the group decides to split up, despite working together to save his life. And it worked because we say goodbye to the Guardians as they say goodbye to the MCU and to each other in a way that felt honest and earned, even if unexpected.
Besides saving Rocket, the other central conflict is Peter’s (Chris Pratt) unresolved grief for his girlfriend Gamora (Zoe Saldaña). After dying in Infinity War, her past self was resurrected with no memories of their lives together, undoing all of their growth as a couple. In short, she doesn’t love him and has no reason to – she has no ties to him or any of the other Guardians for that matter.
It’s painful to watch Pratt as a broken version of his usual comedic character but it’s even more captivating to watch Saldaña take shape as a different version of the Gamora we all have come to know. In many ways, she resembles the one we saw at the very beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy – tough, angry, violent, and defensive. But here, she’s also more emotionally distant and even more at odds with Peter, who wants her to return to the version of the girl who loved him without regard for her own feelings.
Their constant push and pull throughout the film and her performance as a woman rejecting a man’s expectations just made me love her more – Saldaña is the clear stand-out in the cast. Even more fascinating were the few moments when she, despite everything, does seem to flirt back with Peter, admire him, and linger her gaze on him for a little too long, as though flickers of her memory were returning. But ultimately, they decide to go their separate ways, teaching Peter a valuable lesson about letting go and solidifying Gamora as an absolute badass with a full, complex identity outside of the Guardians.
Sadly, it looks like we won’t be able to see more of her in future projects, as Saldaña announced that this would be the final time she would portray the beloved character. It’s a huge loss for those of us who need more Latina superheroes but it’s also indicative of how much she’s grown and how much, just like Gamora, she’s ready to move on.
For the MCU, it’s hard to say what that will look like, as we have many more films to go until the end of Phase Five. Besides exceptions like Wakanda Forever and Shang-Chi, I’d argue that few of the recent films have had the cultural impact we’re used to seeing from Marvel. Whether we as a moviegoing audience are tired of superhero films or the movies themselves just aren’t as good as they used to be, it’s clearly time for other MCU films to follow the blueprint of Guardians of the Galaxy. At its heart, it’s more about the group’s relationship and connection with one another than it is about punches, kicks, and blood. It’s about love, the loss of it, the fight for it, and that, perhaps, is the greatest battle of all to win.