Guardians of the Galaxy 3 proves what a loss James Gunn is for Marvel

James Gunn
(Image credit: Rodin Eckenroth / Stringer)

Guardians of the Galaxy 3 is James Gunn’s Marvel swan song – and what an exit it is. Rounding out a stellar run for one of the MCU’s best-loved teams, the conclusion to the trilogy is an achingly heartfelt, hilarious, and enjoyable adventure. It also signifies a painful goodbye, and not just to our beloved bunch of A-holes.

After 10 years helming one of the key franchises at the heart of Marvel, Gunn is off to DC Studios to kick start their new phase of storytelling with producer and co-CEO Peter Safran. It’s a big loss for Kevin Feige and co. as Gunn is behind one of the most cohesive pieces of storytelling in the MCU oeuvre to date.

Signs of the impressive ripples Gunn would cause at Marvel have been there since the first film released in 2014, featuring a group of relatively unknown heroes and upheaving expectations of a superhero movie. With its meticulously selected needle drops, quip-heavy dialogue, and character risks (what other movie features both a straight-talking raccoon and a repetitive tree?), this was no ordinary origin tale. Before it, Iron Man, Captain America, and Avengers had been very enjoyable but had by no means reinvented the wheel the way that Gunn did with his weird motley crew. 

This brilliance only continued with Vol. 2, which is maybe the most underrated of the three, but continues the story in a very satisfying way. With Quill’s questions of fatherhood at the center and, of course, Baby Groot, it may not have lived up to the dizzying heights of the first movie, but it was a great jaunt deeper into this world. Now as the third movie graces the screen – and may even be the best one yet – the Guardians of the Galaxy is one of Marvel’s rare complete stories. 

Character first

Guardians of the Galaxy 3

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Part of its success lies in Gunn’s tendency to look inwards first when crafting his characters. Yes, the team plays a big role in defeating Thanos while Gamora and Nebula’s past is inextricably linked to their father, but the true heart of the Guardians movies has always been the core gang, putting character first above Marvel references and cameos. Guardians 3 isn’t really setting up anything new, it isn’t really looking ahead to the next project, and it isn’t introducing a random new character you won’t see again for 10 movies in its final moments. It’s all been about putting this team first and telling their complete story.

This is best exemplified in how it handles Rocket’s story. Gunn doesn’t hold back when we finally get to see the High Evolutionary’s unhinged experimentation on the tiny, baby raccoon as the horrific villain kills his friends in cold blood and Rocket all but claws his face off, it’s also delayed storytelling at its best. Gunn has been planting the seeds of Rocket’s traumatic past since his first movie when Bradley Cooper’s brash raccoon heartbreakingly says, "I didn’t ask to get made." I’m not sure I can think of a more satisfying throughline for a Marvel character in the universe to date. 

Marvel’s inability to finish stories has often proved its Achilles heel in recent releases too. Take Thor: Love and Thunder, which while good fun, is the fourth outing of Hemsworth’s Viking god without a clear end in sight. Then there’s Ant-Man, both critically and commercially panned for its third movie, yet they’re already talking about bringing it back. Neither film offered any kind of denouement for their heroes, leaving you wondering where are they actually going with these characters – and, whisper it, do we even care anymore?

Sure, there’s an argument that Guardians can’t quite let go either. In the post-credits scene at the end of Guardians 3, we’re teased that "the legendary Star-Lord will return." But Pratt’s comments on this to us are apt: "It would be strange to continue Peter’s story without James". Because really what are these characters without Gunn?

Time to reflect

Guardians of the Galaxy 3

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

As the director leaves for DC, it’s a fitting moment for Marvel to take a moment and learn from Gunn’s work as it might just help bring back the sparkle amid the superhero fatigue. Primarily, entrusting a storyteller with multiple movies is a great way to start. The Russo Brothers did this with the Avengers, and Taika Waititi does this pretty well with the Thor movies – but consistency of storytelling and tone can do wonders for character development.

Then there’s the pesky matter of letting things go. Marvel has made way in recent years by introducing new characters to replace old and we’ve had our fair share of painful goodbyes too (although these often feel tinged with an implication that they could come back at any time). But as Gunn shows, goodbyes don’t have to mean death. You can just finish a character’s storytelling in a satisfying way – and leave them alone.

This isn’t a one-way relationship either. Gunn’s transition to DC could do well to head his time on the other side. While he’s got a proven pedigree at the studio – Peacemaker was one of the best shows of last year and his The Suicide Squad reboot brought fun back to the much-maligned DC project – I hope he brings his art of creating comprehensive stories to the new role. 

Maybe we think we don’t need another Superman movie or another Batman movie, but if he can help infuse them with some of the fun and thrills of the Guardians, it might just be what DC needs. At least with him at the helm there should be some cohesion in tone and (hopefully) quality across DC’s new Chapter One: Gods and Monsters line-up.

Naturally, a lot of skepticism follows his transition, especially after some of the projects announced feature the weird and wonderful side characters of DC. And yes, we’re not exactly sure who Creature Commandos are either, but do you know who we also didn’t know a decade ago? The Guardians of the Galaxy. If Gunn can bring that underdog energy of proving people wrong to DC, the MCU might need to watch its throne.

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Fay Watson
Deputy Entertainment Editor

I’m the Deputy Entertainment Editor here at GamesRadar+, covering TV and film for the Total Film and SFX sections online. I previously worked as a Senior Showbiz Reporter and SEO TV reporter at Express Online for three years. I've also written for The Resident magazines and Amateur Photographer, before specializing in entertainment.