Guardians of the Galaxy never needed the MCU to be successful

Before James Gunn moves entirely to DC, he has one last ride to fulfill with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Gunn will premiere Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 this week, finalizing the trilogy he began nearly 10 years ago with the unexpected box-office hit and critical darling Guardians of the Galaxy. Gunn single-handedly raised one of Marvel’s most obscure teams into the mainstream, turned Chris Pratt into a star — for a while, anyway — and launched the cosmic corner of the MCU with a healthy dose of humor and an overabundance of heart.

The Guardians movies are silly and funny, with several large-scale set pieces of flashy lights and boom-boom-pows meant to fulfill the MCU quota. But there’s an emotional center to them — it’s not just a collection of characters in tight spandex jumping around, but a group of well-defined, three-dimensional figures relating to one another while saving the universe. In many ways, the Guardians trilogy is everything the MCU should be, to the point where it’s not an overstatement to say these films would’ve succeeded with or without the Marvel connection — if anything, the MCU needs them more than they need it.

Heart meets stupid

The Guardians in a prison line-up in Guardians of the Galaxy.

What was Gunn’s secret? How did he take a bunch of weirdo nobodies and turn them into the ultimate space family within the world’s largest franchise? Gunn is a master of blending pathos with absurdity, and that combo is at the heart of the Guardians’ success. More importantly, Gunn understands that audiences need to care for and relate to the characters if they are to root for them — something that many of his fellow superhero directors seem incapable of comprehending.

The Guardians as endearingly stupid. All of them, except for Gamora and Nebula, qualify as dumb and clumsy. Selfish, self-serving, and vain, they are heroes almost by accident. They are flawed, but never annoying or tiresome. Unlike other movies in the ever-expanding MCU, where one character is the overwhelming center of attention, the Guardians are a true team. It’s not just about Star-Lord/Peter Quill; Drax and Rocket get as much mileage from any given joke, while Groot steals every scene by repeatedly saying the same three words. Peter might be the stereotypical superhero hunk, but he isn’t the only hero, and as corny as this will sound, the Guardians movies are a full, beating heart split into eight parts.

That’s not to say they are perfect, but they are something that no other MCU film, let alone trilogy, can claim to be: consistent. Thanks to having only one writer and director at the helm, the Guardians films feel like a comprehensive, continuous story that gets progressively larger as the characters evolve and interact with their greater universe. It’s ridiculously dystopian to praise a trilogy for feeling like one, but unfortunately, that’s the current state of the MCU.

Great despite, not because of, Marvel

Peter, Tony, Drax, Quill, and Mantis looking in the same direction in Avengers: Infinity War.

Where other MCU trilogies crumbled under the weight of their franchise-expanding duties, Guardians survived by being mostly detached from the Earth-based shenanigans of the Avengers. Captain America got his trilogy turned into an Avengers spinoff, Thor didn’t know when to retire gracefully and ruined its own legacy, Iron Man is just outright bad, and both Spider-Man and Ant-Man got their series hijacked by the mediocre Multiverse saga.

But the Guardians have endured, resisting the MCU’s most jarring changes — from killing Gamora in Infinity War to bringing her back in Endgame to saddling the team with an obnoxious Thor in a setup that ultimately led to nothing but a gratuitous cameo. And that’s because the Guardians have never depended on the MCU to tell their stories. While every other superhero within the MCU operated within the franchise’s rules, limits, and idiosyncrasies, the Guardians hovered in the stars, wreaking havoc at their own pace.

If anything, the MCU needed the Guardians. Because, even when saddled with the obnoxious pressures of worldbuilding, the Guardians pulled it off seamlessly, especially because the Infinity Saga lived and died with them. The MCU needed the Guardians to introduce Thanos and give him any semblance of emotional development — indeed, everything that made Thanos the best MCU villain came from the Guardians’ lore. The Infinity Stones? They were introduced in the first Guardians movie. Almost everything that made the Infinity Saga work came from the Guardians’ corner.

The MCU thrived because of the Guardians, but the relationship was far from reciprocal. Because, other than the protection and name recognition of the MCU banner, the trilogy received nothing from the Marvel Universe other than storytelling headaches. If Gunn had done the first Guardians movie as a standalone adventure about a ragtag team of space bandits joining to stop a multiversal threat, the films would’ve still thrived because nothing that made them great came from Marvel. Can the MCU honestly say it would’ve worked without the Guardians?

It’s showtime, a-holes

Star-Lord leads the Guardians of the Galaxy as they walk out of a spaceship in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3Gunn delivers one final ride for everyone’s favorite group space family, and it couldn’t come at a better time. The MCU is at an all-time low, delivering back-to-back mediocrity. Gone is the franchise’s spark and unique mix of heart and originality, replaced by increasingly by-the-numbers efforts that seem factory-produced, soulless cash grabs.

The MCU desperately needs a dose of cosmic lunacy only the Guardians can provide. It will doubtless be a bittersweet moment for the cinematic juggernaut; after the Guardians retire, who will remain to rescue the MCU from creative bankruptcy? Gunn is leaving the MCU on his own terms and through the big door — not that he will have an easy time rescuing the train wreck that is the DCEU, but that’s another story. His Marvel journey will end on a high note. But the MCU will be left to its worrisome devices, without the one IP that still had any ounce of life to it.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is not only the ending of the MCU’s best trilogy, but is also the conclusion of Marvel’s age as a big-screen game-changer and cultural giant. When the Guardians fly away together into the forever and beautiful sky, so will Marvel’s last glimmer of brilliance. And all that will be left are multiple Kangs, each as problematic as the previous one. So get ready to enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3the MCU’s last hurrah. It’s showtime, a-holes.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is now in theaters.

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