Photo courtesy Marvel Studios

“Guardians of the Galaxy” was a heat-check for Marvel. They had already enjoyed tremendous success cobbling together the Avengers, but was there any way people would go to a movie set in space that featured a cast without any major movie stars, a raccoon with a Philly accent and a walking tree that only said the same three words over and over again?

It turns out people loved the movie, the Guardians became essential figures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and are now helming their third stand-alone film.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” hits all the quirky, comedic and heartfelt notes that made the first two movies such a blast.

Especially when compared with the slew of mixed-bag Marvel movies that have come out since “Avengers: Endgame,” “Vol. 3” feels like a breath of fresh air as it overwhelms you with competency at being entertaining, visually impressive and emotionally resonant.

Much of it has to do with the film’s structure and that it stands on its own without being beholden to a larger cinematic universe.

The story is simple: our friend is in trouble and we have to go get the thing that will help them.

As it always has, the story centers around Peter Quill, aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt, who has always done the most he can to channel Han Solo), an earthling who leads a ragtag group of aliens to fight the good fight across the galaxy.

Over two movies the group has grown to include Rocket (voice of Bradly Cooper) an ill-tempered raccoon, Drax (Dave Bautista) a dim-witted warrior, Groot (voice of Vin Diesel) everyone’s favorite dancing tree, Mantis (Pom Klementieff) a sweet but naive manipulator of emotions, the caustic Nebula (Karen Gillan) and her sister Gamora (Zoe Saldana) with whom Peter has a complicated romantic relationship.

“Vol. 3” leans heavily on Rocket’s backstory and introduces us to a compelling new villain The High Evolutionary (played with megalomaniacal perfection by Chukwudi Iwuji), a scientist obsessed with genetic engineering as the means to build a perfect society.

There are many other friends and foes the Guardians encounter as the movie circles back to the theme of celebrating “found family” that beats at the heart of all these films.

Most of the credit for the success of “Vol. 3” goes to writer/director James Gunn who imbued these movies with his B-movie, genre-mashing, punk-rock origins and was never afraid to be too funny or too gross or too bizarre for a Hollywood blockbuster.

Gunn’s next move is to become the head-honcho at Marvel’s superhero rival D.C. and it will be interesting to see how his sensibilities will fly in the stomping grounds of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

In the meantime, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is the perfect capper to this trilogy and while I’m sure we will see most, if not all, of these characters again, there is a sense of closure here that feels pitch perfect.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, strong language, suggestive/drug references and thematic elements.

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