When Avengers: Endgame burst into the cinematic history books in 2019, part of its cultural footprint involved the well orchestrated goodbyes for Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. Yet, their successful send-offs overshadowed the vestiges that were left behind. Black Widow’s stage left exit was executed and received awkwardly, especially as many already knew of her planned solo film. The likes of Thor and Ant-Man remained on board, despite feeling firmly planted in the very era that Marvel had just closed the book on, calling into question what would even be left for them to do. The same question could be levied at the Guardians of the Galaxy, the ragtag group of C-list heroes who inexplicably became fan favorites in 2014. But with no Thanos to act as an endpoint for all involved, in addition to an increasingly expensive cast of A-list talent within the group, it seemed inevitable that the next Guardians film would be a swan song for the actors involved, as well as director James Gunn as he has entrenched himself as the head of the Distinguished Competition.

That makes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 feel like an epilogue to Endgame’s closing chapter. If the Guardians, with their blend of uncompromising childhood trauma mixed with sophomoric humor, represented the soul of the last decade in the MCU, then they deserve a solo to close out their final tour. Finality is a core theme, as Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) is targeted by a supremely powerful, genetically engineered Adam Warlock (Will Poulter). But Warlock’s mission is but a cog in a scheme conducted by the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwudi), a mysterious and viciously callous being who feels he has been ordained with the ability to “fix” all living beings.

This makes him something of a genetic coder who has the power to create entirely new planets and civilizations – but will not hesitate to annihilate a population that doesn’t fit in his grand vision for life. However, for Rocket, it’s deeper than that – the High Evolutionary is his former abuser, and the cause for all the trauma the mouthy Raccoon still feels afflicted by. As Rocket’s story plays out, including all the necessary table-setting via flashback, we begin to see a parallel between Rocket’s origin and the story of the Guardians as a whole. As a wise person once said, it’s good to have friends.

But with friends like these, who needs enemies? Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a mean, loud, sentimental, yet also nasty movie. In fact, this may be the nastiest entry in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For a film franchise that seems very santatized, at times feeling closer to a PG experience than PG-13, it’s refreshing to see James Gunn turn the dial up on the aggression, the violence, the innuendo, and the profanity. It’s not vulgarity for the sake of it. This is what happens when you bring together a litany of characters who all have traumatic pasts but are not yet mature or good enough communicators to address the wounds that are very much still open. They were all hurt by unfair circumstances in their pasts, ran away from those problems without looking back, but the damage done manifested into a group of douches who feel unwilling to address the hurt bubbling under the surface.

Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is the poster child for this cycle, a pre-teen earthling who did most of his growing up (I use that phrase loosely) in outer space. Yet, in Avengers: Endgame, did Star-Lord see his brief return to earth as a chance to re-connect with his home planet? Instead, he put his energy into the new Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who shows up again here without any of the memories of their prior relationship; thus she sees Peter Quill’s affection as an obstacle for her independence. The flexibility of the strong chemistry between Pratt and Saldana is on display here, as they must get us invested in an entirely new dynamic between this former couple. It’s at the point where no matter if you’re rooting for them to get back together or remain apart, their interactions on-screen remain fascinating as their relationship evolves. Peter Quill is still immature and inconsiderate, but he’s learning to be… not as much?

In fact, this entire movie is basically James Gunn’s dissertation on empathy, expressed through a story about how a team of assholes became found family. We’re used to seeing Star-Lord be a narcissistic hothead who shot first and asked questions later. In this movie, in a moment where he could choose violence over communication, Star-Lord implores a group of strangers to trust him, or they’ll all end up dead. The confidence in which he relays this message shows the growth and education of the character. We’re used to seeing Nebula (Karen Gillan) be an unsympathetic dick as a way of coping with the abuse enacted on her by Thanos. It takes a long time for her to notice her stubbornness in refusing to wear her heart on her sleeve. A similar psychology for Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who hide years of pain behind constant bickering and unrelenting criticism of their peers.

However, Drax and Mantis’ penchant for pranking each other works as their therapy, their chance to make true connections built off of friendship and love. Not that they would ever admit that. These themes run parallel with James Gunn’s instincts as a storyteller. This is a man with a dark, edgy sense of humor who also happens to care very deeply about a series of movies featuring a sardonic Raccoon and a talking tree. The juxtaposition between the man who was fired from this very movie for offensive tweets to the auteur who used his second chance to make a story about pulling the kindness out of a cast of heroes whose tragic backstories have made them all very cynical and hateful. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is about massaging that hate and hurt, creating a more empathetic person on the other side – scars and all.

The guy who ties all these arcs and revelations together, if it wasn’t already clear, is Rocket Raccoon. A top-tier voice-acting performance from Cooper, Rocket’s dissatisfaction with his past and present bleeds through the theater speakers. What is heart-wrenching to watch is the ordeals that a baby Rocket goes through. Even as that baby sounds like Scrappy Doo did the fusion dance with Alvin & the Chipmunks, it’s still effective as the emotional backbone of the film. The setpieces here are the trilogy’s best work. One of my favorites involves the Guardians voyaging into the ether while wearing colorful spacesuits, looking like a bunch of Saint Seiya Skittles. That is just the beginning to one of the film’s strongest stretches, including some timely cameos and great office humor that balance perfectly with the Guardians’ more outlandish antics.

The soundtrack features tracks from Earth, Wind & Fire, Radiohead, The Beastie Boys in what will go down as one of the most outstanding action scenes of the year, and of course Redbone. In the previous films, Star-Lord received his emotional super powers by way of his Walkman. Here, there’s a lot more characters following in his influential footsteps. The fight scenes and set pieces, while not revolutionizing the industry, are far more violent and thrilling than your typical Marvel smackdowns. This is partially due to Gunn’s maturation as an action director, but you can feel more of a brutality that’s often missing from these bloodless cape films.

But there are also cracks in the foundation that hurt the movie’s overall impact. Adam Warlock has very little to do here. I realize there may be future plans for the character, but you need to leave a strong first impression, or at least let him be cool! The film has some pacing problems, particularly early on, and there’s a few moments where Iwudi is just over-acting for the sake of it, in what is an otherwise excellent villainous performance. But these quibbles don’t detour a good time, the type of ride that Marvel fans want these movies to deliver on a consistent basis. There’s a lot of reasons why Phase 4 didn’t entirely work, but Vol. 3 succeeds because it’s a cast and crew that have worked on these movies for nearly a decade and know how to deliver the goods as if they’re riding a bike. I don’t want to see the version of this movie where James Gunn remains fired, leaving a creative vacuum for some new voice to attempt to fill.

Gunn’s curtain call from the MCU is the best movie he’s ever directed. It’s not only his most confident work, but the movie that best exemplifies the themes and ideas that the director has wrestled with throughout his career. If nothing else, he’ll be a voice who is missed on the Marvel side, and just maybe he’ll make a Superman movie where the title character is allowed to display the emotion of empathy rather than passive aggression; imagine that. As for the characters that he leaves behind, this is less a shutting of a door and more of a bittersweet goodbye. It’s entirely possible we do see some of these characters again, but it won’t be the same. This is still the end of an era for Marvel’s most unexpected success, in a time period where it seems like no franchise ever goes away. So, to see even a sliver of the MCU try to say goodbye, with dignity, is very rare. It’s weirdly apropos that a trilogy where the joke is all the heroes are even more rude than the villains, that their farewell would feel like one giant hug.