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James Gunn exits the MCU, completes ‘Guardians’ trilogy with fulfilling film

As the famous idiom goes, all good things must come to an end — or, in the words of Geoffrey Chaucer, “But at the laste, as every thing hath ende.” Of course, the so-called father of English poetry could not predict the eventual rise of undying comic book heroes and Hollywood executives eager to milk an intellectual property for all its worth. Nor did he foresee how many high school students would curse his name for writing in the London Dialect of the Middle English language.

Back to the theme of endings: If you hadn’t noticed, superheroes rarely die — and when they do die, they usually don’t stay dead. There are exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking, once a superhero is created and becomes ingrained in popular culture, they aren’t likely to be killed off by their creator. Why slaughter a cash cow?

According to Guinness World Records, the four oldest superheroes are The Phantom, created in 1936; Superman, created in 1938; Batman, created in 1939; and Captain Marvel, created in 1940. To be clear, the Captain Marvel who appeared in “Whiz Comics,” issue 2, is the one known today as Shazam and owned by DC Comics. The first superhero that is now part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Captain America, created in 1941. Most of the biggest names in the MCU weren’t created until the 1960s.

Although superheroes don’t often die, they do often have near-death experiences. One of the earliest Superman stories I read, billed as “The Last Days of Superman,” was reprinted in the “Best of DC” treasury edition published in 1977.

In the story, Superman believes he has been exposed to a lethal and incurable Kryptonian virus. Given only a month to live, he attempts to complete several tasks to secure the future of mankind while gradually growing weaker and weaker. When he collapses before completing his mission, Supergirl rallies other superbeings to tackle the remaining assignments before Superman’s death.

Spoiler: Kal-El didn’t actually contract the virus. There was a tiny nugget of kryptonite lodged in Jimmy Olsen’s camera, and Olsen, being Superman’s best buddy, had appointed himself as Superman’s caregiver and hadn’t left his side for 30 days. William Shakespeare might have accused Jimmy of nearly killing him with kindness.

Even if you aren’t a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you probably know that the franchise featured the death of a prominent superhero at the finale of the Infinity Saga. You also know that T'Challa/Black Panther died offscreen, with the circumstances of his death summarized in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” released in 2022. This death was not a planned part of the MCU story arc: It became necessary following the death of Chadwick Boseman, who portrayed the character but died from colon cancer at 43. 

In fact, dozens of Marvel characters have died, beginning with Ho Yinsen, portrayed by Shaun Toub, way back in the first MCU film, “Iron Man,” in 2008. Some have come back to life, while others continue to appear in a slightly different form. Now that we’ve stumbled into the Multiverse, who knows what will happen.

In “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” Gamora (Zoe Saldana) returns to the fold — except, it’s not exactly Gamora. The Gamora audiences know was killed by Thanos in 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War.” A variant of the character, from the past, traveled to the present in 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame.” This Gamora was never part of the Guardians, and never fell in love with Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt). Quill’s grief over the loss of Gamora plays an important role in the film.

Directed by James Gunn, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is a both an ending and a beginning. Released May 5 as part of Phase Five of the MCU, the film wastes no time getting to the action and ramping up the tension. Members of the Guardians of the Galaxy have made Knowhere — formerly a base of operations for the Collector — their headquarters. Quill is drowning himself in booze and self-pity, unable to accept the loss of Gamora. Other team members — including Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Groot (Vin Diesel), and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) — seem relatively content in their surroundings.

Their serenity is short-lived: Sent by the Sovereign high priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) attacks the base, overpowering the Guardians and severely wounding Rocket. Without medical treatment, Rocket will not survive — but the Guardians discover they cannot treat him because someone has implanted a kill-switch in him that restricts access to his internal organs.

As the Guardians race to save Rocket, the audience learns about how he came to be through flashback sequences. His memories cover a period when he was caged along with other animals for cruel experimentation. The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), the mad scientist behind the experiments, attempts to accelerate evolution artificially to create a highly evolved race with which he can populate his Counter-Earth. Think H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Doctor Moreau,” but in space.

In order to save Rocket, the Guardians have to obtain an override code for the kill-switch while being pursued by Ayesha and Adam as well as the High Evolutionary’s various anthropomorphic henchmen, such as the delightfully named War Pig, voiced skillfully enough by Judy Greer — though one wonders if anyone thought to offer the part to Ozzy Osbourne. There are many interesting voice-only cameos in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” including Troma Entertainment co-founder Lloyd Kaufman as Gridlemop.

The film is billed as the final installment in the Guardians of the Galaxy film trilogy. It’s the end. Gunn has a new gig as co-chairman and co-CEO of DC Studios. His time with the MCU has run its course, and his Guardians story arc is complete.

Audiences expect closure and finality — and that’s exactly what they get with “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.” Like its predecessors, it is wildly entertaining, amusing, big-hearted, and bombastic. Rocket’s backstory is an absolute tearjerker, delivered in an authentic, heartfelt manner that doesn’t feel forced or manipulative. Seriously, the kids aren’t the only ones who will be crying in theaters.

It also is sometimes messy and inconsistent. The fate of Counter-Earth — and the fact that no one in the film bothers to fret about it — is a little horrifying. The animal torture depicted as part of Rocket’s backstory may be necessary, but it could traumatize some younger kids. Pay attention to the PG-13 rating, parents.

And, as endings go, it’s a little sad. But it feels genuine, and relatable: Things change, people change, life goes on. And trust me: It could have ended on a much more tragic note.

Iwuji’s portrayal of the High Evolutionary easily ranks as one of the top MCU villains, joining Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, and Cate Blanchett’s Hela, among others. Unlike Killmonger and Loki, the High Evolutionary has no redeeming qualities. He is unashamedly Machiavellian in his quest to improve upon nature. His vain delusions of omnipotence allow him to look upon all lifeforms as insignificant and expendable.

Iwuji stresses the scope of his narcissism and his madness when, having been challenged by an underling, he proclaims “There is no god; that is why I stepped in.” It’s an evocative line, delivered powerfully, that challenges us to call out those who seek to advance themselves, to justify hatred and intolerance, or to judge others in the name of God.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is Gunn’s parting gift to the MCU. It’s a marvelous conclusion that resolves character arcs and allows audiences to see how this mismatched band of rogues and exiles function as a family. It’s hopeful and poignant, filled with moments of empathy and integrity. Equal time is given to spectacle, with lots of stunning action sequences and psychedelic space weirdness. It might be the last time audiences get to view this corner of the MCU through Gunn’s eyes, but I suspect we’ll see most of these characters on screen again.