Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Vol-2-trailer-breakdown-21

Is there a more instantly iconic cast in Hollywood?

I am pleased to report that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (I’ll refer to it simply as Vol. 2) is, as many of you have found out for yourselves over the past week, every bit as good and in some ways much better than even the first one. Vol. 1 was a great surprise and still the boldest movie Marvel has yet made. Vol. 2 doubles down on the world it created and the characters that inhabit it, losing the freshness a little (which is being overstated as a complaint) but managing to improve on those few significant weak spots the first one did have.

One of those is the way certain characters were shorted much of an arc as the plot took over the movie. In Vol. 2 this never happens and no character, and there are so fucking many of them, gets shorted. They all have satisfying arcs, even Kraglin (Sean Gunn), wisely depending on interactions with each other. For people who like Marvel movies and fans of The Fast and the Furious franchise, this will feel familiar. It’s in pairings, parallels and polar opposites, that juggling so many characters and arcs becomes possible. Vol. 2 pulls this off with aplomb and manages to weave through tonal shifts, some of which are pretty shocking and risky. A stronger commitment to the sadness and loss hinted at in Vol. 1 is also demonstrated here, giving this goofy space movie an emotional core that is hard to find even in serious dramas. If I could compare that to something, it’d be a Pixar movie, where they definitely understand that the juxtaposition of light heartedness, humour, and fun against deeper, darker, and unresolved feelings provides a strong base for engaging drama and characterization. Not only this, but James Gunn managed to infuse this one with some pretty heavy existential and philosophical weight, which I’ll get to later on. I didn’t expect that.

All the way back when testing revealed that Vol. 2 was the MCU’s first movie that scored 100s (whatever that means), the hype has been real. There’s already a pretty misguided mini-backlash against this movie, fixated on gags that don’t quite land or the way the second act dismisses the overarching plot in favor of briefly becoming a shaggy hangout movie, but this stuff seems nitpicky to me. At the same time, I totally understand just how hard it is to deal with a movie as anticipated and hyped up as this one was. Your mind always wants to find that one thing wrong with it, so I take these nitpicks as a great sign personally. If the worst someone can say is that the space fruit ripeness joke feels a little forced then this is one helluva movie, right? It so is.

null

Drax (Dave Bautista) gets so many scenes like this, laughing all the way through ’em.

We rejoin the Guardians as they are wrapping up a job for a gold-skinned species of pompous assholes called The Sovereign. Though they have become something of a famous group of heroes-for-hire, they are still a bickering family of giant egos, painful backstories, and neuroses (particularly daddy issues, as some have remarked, this is kind of Daddy Issues: The Movie). They are far from a well-oiled hero machine, in other words, and therefore instantly recall the fractious but well-meaning differences that drove the Avengers apart in Civil War. That said, the Guardians are not the Avengers, being far more familial. It’s clear that writer-director James Gunn, on his second time out with these characters he largely recreated and defined from their origins, is much more interested in that element than in the somewhat loftier and more abstract “what is a superhero even?” type of questions that define the Earth-bound Marvel heroes.

Anyway, these issues sort of drive the mischief and ego-centrism of stupid choices these people make throughout the movie, and the question is far more about whether they can resolve this stuff as opposed to whether they can save the galaxy or what it would mean if they did. People hoping for a more conventional adventure might be disappointed by this sequel’s emphasis on character development over spectacle and large stakes action (though both are hugely, ridiculously present anyway) but I think that’s misguided. Vol. 2 is really the best synthesis of the whiz bang escapism we all see these movies for, and a deeper more meaningful story, that MCU has yet produced and this alchemy has kind of become their specialty.

gallery-1486478080-guardians-of-the-galaxy-vol-2-ayesha

The design of the locations in Vol. 2 are far more informed by the 60’s flavour of psychedelic space opera than pretty well anything produced recently. The colors and geometry are striking.

Rocket (Bradley Cooper) steals some of the precious batteries the Sovereign initially hired the Guardians to protect from an extra-dimensional monster. He does this to spite them, because they are stuck up super snobs, and also just to be a pest to Peter (Chris Pratt) and the others. He claims it’s greed, but we learn throughout the film that he’s really just pushing people away before they can do the same to him. I can relate. Meanwhile, Nebula (Karen Gillan) was part of the deal with the Sovereign and Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) plan to make her face justice for the events of Vol. 1. Naturally, the two of them also have major issues to sort out and thankfully this does not happen off screen as Gamora’s character arc mostly did in Vol. 1 (one of the aforementioned weak points of that movie).

The ensuing space chase with the Sovereign’s fleet of drones leads the Guardians to crash land on a forested planet just after being rescued by a mysterious dude surfing on a space ship. By the way, all the scenes with the Sovereign drone pilots, which are basically like a big arcade, fucking rule. The Sovereign, despite being a huge annoyance more than a really dangerous villain (which is entirely the point), offer so much rich and delicious commentary and symbolism that I could spend a whole other review-length piece just talking about them.

guardians-of-the-galaxy-vol-2-trailer-breakdown-70

The mysterious spaceman is… Kurt Russel!

Even as the Sovereign dispatch the Ravagers, still led by Yondu (Michael Rooker) who is facing a sort of existential crisis, to find the Guardians. Yondu jumps at the chance, in spite of a dressing down he gets from an old friend and fellow Ravager captain (Stakar Ogord, played by none other than Sylvester Stallone). It appears that the Ravagers were once more than mere space pirates and kidnappers, and Stakar reminds Yondu of what that means just as the lovable blue bastard doubles down on the shitty choices he has made. There’s a brief scene just before Stakar shows up where Yondu is buttoning up after apparent fraternization with a sex bot and it shuts down, its job done, and he looks at it with such loneliness and resignation that Rooker immediately gets us on Yondu’s side even though we’re gonna find out he has been part of some very heinous shit.

On the forest planet, the mysterious ally catches up to the Guardians. A grey-bearded dude comes out of a beautiful egg-like ship and claims to be Peter’s dad. Ego (Kurt Russel) turns out to be a Celestial, a kind of cosmic entity who wrapped a whole planet around his cosmically scaled and cosmically powerful brain. Ego wants Peter back, has been looking for him, and all of a sudden the daddy issues are super ignited. But this is also Peter’s chance to have a family, the one he always dreamed of, even if it’s at the expense of his found family among the Guardians. Gamora literally tells him that she had thought he’d found it already, but that’s mostly the crux of Peter’s story and many daddy issue stories in general: once we meet our dads, they tend to disappoint us.

guardians-of-the-galaxy-2-kurt-russell-chris-pratt.jpg

The movie is completely and totally aware of what it’s doing here, too, and never shies away from recalling the touchstones of North American absentee “cool dads” as an archetypal character. Kurt Russel is perfect at this, to the surprise of no one.

While Rocket, Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), and Nebula stay behind to fix the ship, Peter takes Gamora and Drax to Ego’s planet. His body is a manifestation and needs to return from time to time, as his assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff) explains. Mantis, by the way, is the character in Vol. 2 who likely has the thinnest storyline and least attention in spite of the fact that she is heavily involved in both exposition (which might be unfortunate, depending on how you look at it) and developing Drax’s poignant but terse story. I think you could argue that Mantis’s character development happens in parallel with Drax’s, with their bonding (watch for the scene where Mantis accesses Drax’s painful memories of his wife and daughter… just holy shit) serving to propel Mantis from Ego’s side as she begins to experience a conflict in her loyalties.

At this point in the film, the second act breaks a few steps away from the typical superhero formula and becomes something like a Richard Linklater film. When I say “shaggy hangout movie”, I mean when plot takes a backseat and conversations, reflection, and characters being introspective takes over. Most of Vol. 2‘s second act is like that, and it really slows the movie down. Again, this is something people might be disappointed by but I’d say what Gunn is doing here is not only rewarding to people who care a lot about the Guardians. And also for people who like their superhero movies to offer something more to chew on than spectacle, particularly the obligatory spectacle that most superhero movies have hard-coded into their DNA and usually struggle somewhat to justify. Marvel is getting better at this, and it really shows in Vol. 2. When the third act kicks in, it’s among the best the MCU has done and that’s really good news when third acts and villains are two of the things they’ve had the hardest time getting right.

lead_960.jpg

Speaking of Ego…

Villains. Let’s stay on that for a bit because it’ll allow me to transition to talking about the thematic weight I think Vol. 2 has. There are really three villains in this movie, and because Gunn knows how to differentiate between the kinds of villainy and threat they pose, it never feels overstuffed or distracting. Ayesha and the Sovereign are more annoying than existentially threatening, playing a part that feels like an inversion of the Nova Corps. from Vol 1 while also serving many of the needs of the plot, including offering a hint of what’s to come in Vol. 3. Taserface (Chris Sullivan) and the more evil ravagers are a foil for Yondu, Rocket, and Baby Groot specifically, their paths dovetailing with the rest of the cast at specific moments. Taserface and Ayesha are minor villains and while they’re memorable, fun, and get plenty to do, they are not the highlight here.

Kurt Russel’s Ego is probably the best villain in the MCU. Yes, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has finally been eclipsed. It will be hard for the Russos to top Ego for Avengers: Infinity War in my opinion, as so much of what Thanos (Josh Brolin) probably will be as a villain is overshadowed and precluded by Ego. I hope I’m wrong about that, but time will tell and I can always talk about that when it does. For now, why is Ego such a great villain? I think it has a lot to do with a few really specific features of the character and his position in this story. For one thing, there’s the personal villainy in what he does and did to Peter. Another key part of it is his overall motivations, which are at once so huge and terrifying that they befit a cosmic pseudo-deity, but are also so petty and small and human that you almost feel sorry for him even as you look on the eons of bones of all the children he sired before Peter, murdered for being disappointments but really for not being Ego. The last piece is what Ego represents thematically. Vol. 2 is not a very subtle movie, I mean there’s literally a bit where Ego summons a ball of light and proceeds to play catch with Peter, a reference to Peter’s earlier, somewhat childish desire for a relationship with a dad which can be symbolized by something so arbitrary but at the same time so wholesome and elementally American.

gotgv2-gallery-1-206140

Star-Lord is who Peter pretends to be, more than most MCU characters he embodies the themes of the “secret identity” that are classic in comics.

Ego is considered by many schools of thought, spiritual traditions, and branches of philosophy to be an illness of the mind. Though Freud popularized the actual term we use, the destructive self-absorption of the “I” is well understood, even though we have many cultural practices, traditions, and institutions that reward us for feeding our own individual egos and the collective ur-egos of things like nationalistic pride. In its trademark unsubtle fashion, Vol. 2 presents the physical manifestation and embodiment of these ideas in Kurt Russel’s character. A guy who seems well-meaning but is ultimately, to such an extent that it’s kind of mind-blowing, all about himself. This is so literal that his universe-threatening plan is to literally make everything into himself, an Ego so fragile that it will only suffer itself to exist. This gets at the heart of how people react poorly to differences in others, particularly differences in opinion and practice. I recognize this shit in myself and how difficult it is to push down those urges to correct others, to safeguard my own interests and opinions ahead of anyone else’s, often in a manner that is obnoxious or potentially destructive. We are all guilty of that and it’s a constant struggle because not only do we do it to others, but the reactionary and aggressive instincts of our egos often also feel like the first and most powerful or sensible defense of that inner core self, that ego, that feels so threatened by others. Ego, the character, is the ultimate spoiled brat manbaby. Because he thinks life is disappointing and can only filter it through his own perspective, he’d prefer to replace it all with his self-image rather than deal with the harder path of actually understanding anything. This is also why it’s so rich and meaningful that his assistant is an empath. Empathy is one of the ways we kill our ego.

Beyond the very cool psychological themes Vol. 2 is doing, and even if you don’t care about the more abstract ego stuff, it’s still brimming over with psychological commentary on how families (dys)function and what it means to reconcile, to reach out, to see the self reflected in the eyes of another and to therefore recognize both selves (master-slave dialectic is pretty much the whole subtext of Yondu and Rocket’s relationship, but it also permeates all the relationships in Vol. 2). I think Vol. 2 should finally put to rest the silly claims that the DCEU movies are where people go for the “rich psychology”. What a crock.

null

Yondu is where Vol. 2 gets really fucking earnest. Uncomfortably earnest. Uncomfortably real.

On top of all that stuff I just said, the Ego stuff in Vol. 2 also works as a prong of the movie’s subtle and not so subtle criticism of religion and specifically the central Christ myth of Christianity. Ego is an obvious stand-in of the god of Abraham. He’s New Testament affable, charming, and maybe even loving. But he’s also the kind of guy who puts tumors in peoples’ heads and deprives sons of mothers for reasons that aren’t as mysterious as they are petty and self-serving. He’s also Old Testament spiteful, jealous, and terrifying. This makes Peter’s eventual spurning of martyrdom and deification so meaningful. Ego taunts him that he’ll be ordinary and he asks “what’s so wrong with that?”. We could use a Jesus more like Peter Quill.

Ego is an excellent criticism of the poorly examined implications bound up in the mythology of god. What that unchecked power really means when it’s used to do such bizarrely petty shit. Likewise, the Sovereign are more jokey and ribbing criticism of the pretentious opulence of not only the Catholic church but of the newer brand of evangelical Christian prosperity nonsense, ie: the superchurches and riches sucked from poor people duped into buy their way to their own fortunes and everlasting glory. You would not expect this kind of biting criticism from a Marvel movie, and I think it’s so well hidden and well constructed in exactly the way that fundamentalists tend to miss that Gunn ultimately gets away with it. I don’t know what Christian audiences will make of this stuff but I’d be curious to hear about it.

gallery-1486478520-guardians-of-the-galaxy-vol-2-rocket-and-yondu

People have talked about the “troubling” violence and tone of this scene, so I guess I will too!

There’s a pretty spectacular sequence in Vol. 2 where Yondu wipes out hordes of ravagers with his arrow. A lot of comment has been made that this is a weird sequence because it is essentially gleeful mass murder. I’d argue that killing loads of bad guys for thematic and cathartic reasons is just a norm in our entertainment and as long as it isn’t just empty spectacle, then it probably serves a higher purpose and has narrative value even if we would abhor such violence in real life. Movies are visual and often reduce complex psychology and philosophy to visual spectacle and violent, chaotic imagery. To wit, the complexity of the conflict between Peter and Ego is visualized as a dramatic cosmic super-battle. Here, Yondu’s break from the Ravager he was and the evil he did (unwittingly in service of Ego) is visualized as a massive act of destruction. He isn’t just killing Ravagers and blowing up ships, he is thematically and symbolically killing that part of himself and committing to long-suppressed instincts of heroism and selflessness. He is actually overcoming the damaged part of his own ego, alongside Rocket, so he can go save someone else instead of serving just himself. Rocket’s motives are bit more questionable since he “wants to kill some guys” but the scene is really all about Yondu.

Now, this might not convince anyone that such wanton and gleeful violence is okay, but I’d argue further that violent images serve a purpose. Unlike the thesis of Westworld which criticizes this whole concept (“these violent delights have violent ends”), I think civilization means intermittent progress toward humans, especially men, suppressing and thereby altering their instincts toward physical aggression and violence. At the same time we do have violent thoughts and urges, and cinema (all fantasy/escapism really) can provide us with a potentially harmless outlet and means to momentarily indulge the catharsis and release provided by doing so. That’s just an opinion I have about this, because I’ve thought a lot about how to reconcile my own personal tendencies against violence with the fact that I do enjoy violence in fiction that I would never enjoy witnessing or participating in outside of that realm. It’s maybe a weird topic to get into in a Guardians of the Galaxy review, but the fact that this is a Guardians of the Galaxy movie with a scene like the Yondu vs. Ravager scene in it is what brings this up anyway. I say great, it’s always fun to rethink and revisit one’s opinions with recent and meaningful examples and scenarios to draw from and bounce off of.

landscape-1486383186-guardians-of-the-galaxy-vol-2-cast

The finale is incredible. It’s awesome, sad, funny, and awesome.

Ultimately, I think Vol. 2 is one of the MCU’s biggest successes. It is definitely their single most successful straight sequel, even more so than Winter Soldier which many say is the MCU’s best overall film. Comparing MCU films to each other is like comparing your kids, fun but also kind of fucked up. Usually when I think back and go, “what were the best movies this year?” I tend to shuffle superhero movies into kind of their own category, but in 2017 we have not one but two superhero movies that break out of their mold quite a bit and aspire to be more, and about more, than the average. That means both Logan and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 are already some of the best films we’re likely to see this year, and they are certainly so good at just being comic book superhero movies that fans of them will get everything they want and more.

It would have been easy to make this review a listicle cataloging all the best moments and funniest lines in Vol. 2. If I didn’t talk about the comedy much it’s because I think that this movie is straight up hilarious kind of goes without saying. There’s so much here that you barely have enough time to process a visual gag, line delivery, or bit of character humor before it’s on to the next one. Many of these are not even meant to be caught on the first viewing, but will reward subsequent viewings. Basically, it’s a more confident and consistent version of the comedy of Vol. 1. It’s a lot like other MCU movies, undercutting serious or earnest moments with a tension-defusing (and ironically aware) joke or line, but it has something special that I think James Gunn and the amazing cast have created together and is unique to this franchise. And part of that is what allows this movie to end on such a sad note, which I assume many people didn’t expect.

That’s more clever, I think, than people realize. A lot of fuss gets made about sequels being able to recapture the magic of a solid first chapter and I think Gunn wrote Vol. 2 with a lot of awareness of that issue, especially as an issue of audience fixation more than a real storytelling problem. A clear choice was made to focus on character over plot by placing both the powerful and vengeful Sovereign and the universe-threatening machinations of Ego a notch under resolving deeply personal and resonant character arcs in emphasis. Likewise, a choice was made to end the movie on the sadness and redemption of Yondu’s death and the recognition that follows. This is the real surprise, the way Gunn tried to wield audience expectations like Peter wields his father’s light. I think when Peter says the review quote, “I’m gonna make some weird shit”, we’re hearing James Gunn through him. I am so glad he’s already working on Vol. 3.

guardiansofthegalaxy2-babygroot-detonator1

Wasn’t gonna end the review without a Baby Groot parting shot. What do you think I am?

Advertisements