It’s not easy being on top.

There’s a lot of history and backstory behind the upcoming release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. However, most of that backstory wasn’t on-screen; it’s the behind-the-scenes intrigue and online discourse driving the context here. At present, it feels like a distant memory that James Gunn was originally fired as director of this project, as Disney had succumbed to pressure from conservative commentators to sack the crude filmmaker for controversial jokes made years ago on his Twitter. Dave Bautista would spearhead a campaign to re-hire his director and friend, a crusade that would prove successful, even if Disney took their sweet time to reverse the decision. In the meantime, Gunn would use the termination as an opportunity to helm Warner Bros./DC’s The Suicide Squad. Gunn’s commitment to the rival studio has only deepened since, shepherding season one of Peacemaker, and now finding himself as the Kevin Feige equivalent for Warner Bros.’ upcoming slate of TV shows and movies. I think that now makes him the 56th, and counting, ordained “savior” of the DC universe, if my math is correct.

Meanwhile, Marvel Studios has had an interesting time trying to follow up on the success and acclaim the Marvel Cinematic Universe enjoyed during the 2010s. When Avengers: Endgame descended in 2019, after a decade of build-up and hype, it felt in the moment like the apex of the MCU’s pop culture footprint. It also felt, perhaps too well, like a conclusion of sorts, at least for a specific era of Marvel franchise building. Ideally, such a story capper would be followed up with a small hiatus, one that would not only allow fans to decompress from such a thrilling Phase 3, but also elicit a longing for the next set of Marvel films. People can’t miss you if you never go away. Yet, the realities of corporate commerce made any significant hiatus an impossibility, as only the effects of the pandemic enacted any significant delay in Marvel’s release schedule.

Thus, Phase 4 picked up quickly where Endgame left off, only to a much more mixed critical and fan reaction than the franchise had become accustomed to. Films like Eternals and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania garned some of the worst Rotten Tomatoes scores in Marvel history. Thor: Love and Thunder was accused of not taking its subject matter seriously enough. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness failed to leave a lasting impression. An industry wide controversy broke out over how movie studios, Disney being the most brazen offender, have treated VFX artists, which in itself came about due to the poor reception of the CGI in many of these movies. A glut of seemingly never-ending Disney+ shows, some good and some bad, would prove to dilute the franchise’s quality, and instilling in many fans that they didn’t need (or even want) to see every single Marvel project.

Amidst all of this developing uncertainty, here come the Guardians to deliver their swan song during a still ongoing transition period in the MCU. That should be a cause of celebration – this ragtag group of space goofballs became unexpected fan favorites in 2014. The original Guardians of the Galaxy followed up on the screwball comedy and fast-paced dialogue that Iron Man (2008) and The Avengers (2012) rode to success. Yet, Guardians of the Galaxy also relied on pop music nostalgia, along with an emotion and sincerity that was mostly missing from the lampshading humor in Joss Whedon and Jon Favreau’s works.

As a result, the Guardians have their own identity separate from the Avengers, or various solo stars. Part of that identity is the personal creative touch that Gunn has imprinted on the series. But will Vol. 3 live up to that reputation and deliver a thrilling conclusion to the trilogy? The hope is that although Marvel has been in a transition period since Endgame, that the chemistry of cast & crew that has been developed since 2014 will prove fruitful for the concluding (?) chapter. The latest trailer, likely the last trailer, is our final peek to see if we can still count on old reliable:

Yep, they’re still petty jerks.

Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is once again pining after his love, Gamora (Zoe Saldana). Yet, not really his love, but an alternate timeline of the character that has no memory of their prior relationship. So, Star-Lord’s arc this time around will put into question whether he can salvage the bond he built with Gamora, or if their multidimensional differences are too much to overcome. Also hanging over the story is a sense of finality, as there’s a possibility that multiple characters are up for their retirement from the MCU. Bautista is already practically jumping out the window, he’s so ready for the last day of work here. Which means we are saying goodbye to Drax in some capacity.

However, where things get really interesting is the movie’s choice of antagonists. High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwudi) is all over this trailer, and is positioned as a cruel and callous Big Bad. It’s alluded to that he is responsible for the traumatic experimentation suffered by Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper). In the comics, the High Evolutionary is a scientist obsessed with genetic manipulation, no matter the ethical boundaries he must break to achieve his goals. Seeing Rocket’s torture on-screen, and how that may be the rallying cry for our protagonists, will be quite the emotional rollercoaster to go on.

In addition, Adam Warlock’s (Will Poulter) long anticipated MCU debut makes him something of a wild card. A cosmic powerhouse in the comics, Warlock will likely be aligned with the High Evolutionary early on (we’ll see if that lasts). The two have been allies in comic lore, and Gunn/Feige may even see to depart from the lore by making Warlock a creation of the High Evolutionary, perhaps even the scientist’s “greatest invention.” I expect Warlock to be the villain’s muscle, but for High Evolutionary to ultimately be where the conflict starts and ends.

This choice of villain is in line with Gunn’s thematic arcs for these movies. The Guardians are each a product of their environment, and Gunn explores their damaged psyche by way of the parental figures, or beings of authority and power, who have governed over our protagonists. This applies to Thanos, Ego, Yondu, and now the High Evolutionary. It’s why that mixtape isn’t just there for cheap nostalgia; it’s therapy for the characters and audience. In the end, Vol. 3 will be successful if it can stick the landing on this unconventional family coming together to amend all the wounds that have been inflicted upon them.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 goes on one more tour, in theaters everywhere May 5th, 2023.