Volume three of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” saga is not the most unique of the series, but it’s undoubtedly the most emotional.  Writer/Director James Gunn understands what made the first movie special and sharpens those elements in this conclusion to the trilogy of ragtag intergalactic heroes.

Music has always been a significant staple in the GotG films, but never has it carried more weight than it does in this movie.  The knee-jerk thought is that it’s Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) who is most attached to retro music.  But upon rewatching the first two movies, it’s actually Rocket (Bradley Cooper) who loves it more than he does.  During the opening credits of Volume 2 Rocket is more focused on setting up the sound system for their epic battle than anything else, and upon his escape from the mutinous Ravengers, he is quick to secure a copy of Star-Lord’s music.  Volume 3 opens on a bittersweet note, with most of the inhabitants of Knowhere happy that the Guardians have made it their home base.  Drax (Dave Bautista), Groot (Vin Diesel), and Nebula (Karen Gillan) are doing great, but Star-Lord is drinking himself to death, mourning the death of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) during the Infinity War.  A younger version of Gamora returned in “Avengers: Endgame” but it’s a version that never met Star-Lord and is appalled at the notion that they had a relationship.

It’s against this backdrop Rocket queues up the first song of the movie, an acoustic version of Radiohead’s “Creep.”  It’s a heartbreak ballad that amplifies what we already know about our favorite furry sidekick.  He is arguably the smartest, and most gifted in the group, but hates himself so much he pushes everyone away that he loves.  As the line “I wish I was special” hangs in the air the team is suddenly attacked by an unexpected foe, and Rocket is dealt a mortal blow.  For most of the rest of the movie, the remaining Guardians will fight to find a way to save Rocket’s life.  This journey leads them to the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a megalomaniac who is obsessed with creating the perfect race.  He’s one of those great villains who thinks he is doing something honorary, but has zero qualms with torturing animals and the mass extinction of “lesser life forms.”

Thematically, Volume 3 is the darkest by far.  It features the first (hilarious) F-bomb in MCU history, contains disturbing animal abuse, and a few shocking moments of violence layered on top of the usual sci-fi action we expect.  I’d argue these moments are earned and do aid the story, but this will make the movie less accessible to some audience members.  Thankfully the movie does balance these dark moments with equally touching moments of love, acceptance, and character growth.  The dark points in the film aren’t just for shock value, they are a contrast to the positives in life.  Those who have experienced trauma, and made it to the other side, value love more than those who have never had those negative experiences.

At one point in the movie, a character tells Rocket “This has been your story all along.”  It’s practically a throwaway line that reframes how we see the trilogy as a whole.  In ensemble films, it’s easy to pick out the leader of the group as the main character, but that’s not always the case. While this movie does an excellent job of giving each main character a mini-arc that contrasts their perceived faults with their true gifts, it’s Rocket that has the biggest, most impactful arc over all three films, and all the individuals he has interacted with.

Marvel has been stumbling for a while now, and Volume 3 might not reach the unique creative heights of Volume 1, but it is without a doubt the best Marvel film in years and one of the most emotionally engaging movies in the MCU.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3