Guardians of the Galaxy was nearly a perfect trilogy

When Guardians of the Galaxy debuted in 2014, part of the appeal was that it felt like such a breath of fresh air for Marvel and largely existed in its own corner of the universe. Sure, Thanos and the Infinity Stones had a presence, which helped set the stage for future events. But that all pertained to the characters and plot of the individual movie. For the most part, it was the kind of film that any fan of fun sci-fi adventures could walk into the theater and enjoy without any baggage, whether or not they’re into Marvel or even the superhero genre at all. Vol. 2 only doubled down on that, this time with zero connections to the broader Marvel franchise whatsoever.

With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, James Gunn delivers an emotional trilogy-capper that impressively ties a bow on the story he began almost 10 years ago. It’s such a satisfying ending, in fact, that it might ordinarily lead to discussions about whether Guardians of the Galaxy stands among the greatest trilogies in film history, right up there with Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. But it will likely never be in that conversation for one disappointing reason: Because of the way the Marvel universe operates, Guardians of the Galaxy fundamentally does not work as a trilogy. Yes, I’m talking about the handling of Gamora’s death and return.

Think about it: How weird is it for one of the main characters of the Guardians franchise, whose dynamic with Peter Quill was one of the driving forces of the first two installments, to die in an entirely different series of films? By killing Gamora in Avengers: Infinity War, it is no longer possible for future viewers to watch the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy as a standalone unit. It is just assumed coming into Vol. 3 that you know Gamora died and came back as an alternate version of herself. Sure, there’s dialogue to catch you up so you’re familiar with the basic events you missed. But so much of Peter and Gamora’s story in Vol. 3 will simply not connect emotionally for anyone who has not witnessed this for themselves. Besides, anyone who skips from Vol. 2 to Vol. 3 won’t even see a single scene of Peter and Gamora being an official couple, so how could the full weight of their story in the latter film register?

Sure, you might be thinking it’s not unreasonable to assume viewers have watched Infinity War and Endgame given they’re two of the most successful films of all time. But the concern is less about audiences being able to follow the film now and more about how these movies will stand the test of time. Let’s say fans want to recommend the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy in the future to people who have never seen a single Marvel movie before, or perhaps show them to their kids who haven’t even been born yet. Are these future viewers expected to watch Infinity War and Endgame in between Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Vol. 3? Even that doesn’t really work because they then would not understand 90 percent of what’s going on in the Avengers movies since the Guardians are only one part of them, and saying they need to watch the whole MCU to enjoy the three Guardians film is a big ask.

This isn’t necessarily a Guardians specific problem, as many of Marvel’s individual franchises won’t completely make sense without the Avengers films. Try to watch the Tom Holland Spider-Man trilogy without Infinity War and Endgame, for instance, and you’ll miss Tony’s Stark’s death, which ends up being a crucial plot point in Far From Home. But that feels less egregious given the Spider-Man movies were pitched from the beginning as films that would be heavily tied into the larger MCU. With Guardians, which joyously does its own thing and stands even further apart from the rest of the MCU with Vol. 3‘s shocking violence and dark tone, killing one of the series’ main characters in another Marvel movie feels like a betrayal of that promise.

Part of the reason this is such a bummer is because of how well Vol. 3 otherwise works as a conclusion, much more so than any of Marvel’s past trilogy cappers. Indeed, it’s remarkable how Gunn manages to give every one of his characters an ending that concludes the arc they’ve been on since we first saw them. Peter Quill, who began his journey fleeing Earth to avoid the pain of his mother’s death, finally stops running, Rocket accepts who he is, Drax becomes a father again, Nebula finds a new home, and Mantis learns to value herself and stop simply following orders from others. If the movie doesn’t quite rise to the level of its predecessors, it’s because it can at times feel too grim and mean-spirited in a way that makes it hard to have as much fun as we did the first two times around. And did we really need to end a movie about the horrors of animal cruelty with a celebratory action sequence about killing a bunch of animal creations? Still, the conclusion itself is a perfect ending that understands it’s possible for a story to reach a satisfying final note without being a bloodbath.

Given the cards he was dealt by the Avengers films, Gunn also does handle Gamora’s return rather well. He should be commended for committing to the finality of the Infinity War death, not attempting to retcon it or get Gamora and Peter back together in a way that would essentially reset the status quo. This allows him to deliver an affecting metaphor about moving on from a breakup and being haunted by the ghost of a past relationship instead of having Marvel explore grief yet again. It’s a powerful story. It’s just a shame that future viewers who don’t experience the MCU in the order we did may find it significantly less powerful, and we’ll be forced to tell them, “You had to be there.”

To be sure, the MCU has been such a success partially because everything connects, so audiences feel like they should watch every movie to stay up with the larger universe. But Marvel has to be careful to take that too far by making each film so intertwined that following the franchise starts to feel like homework. That becomes even more of a problem when you add the Disney+ shows into the mix. It’s worth making sure franchises within the MCU still function reasonably well on their own, give or take some small references to outside events. And when you have a trilogy with as much humanity and heart as Guardians, it deserves to live on through film history as more than just a piece of a larger Marvel puzzle. Seeing the Guardians’ story continue in the Avengers films might have been exciting at the time, but maybe what was always best for the trilogy’s long-term health was to let Gunn play his own song. 

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