Out of all the Marvel movies, Guardians of the Galaxy may be the most un-Marvel. Don’t get me wrong, Kevin Feige and his buddies at Marvel have built a good foundation for storytelling. Marvel films are action packed, have great characters, big laughs, and bigger spectacle. They’ve taken classic storylines and timeless characters and made them shine on the big screen. What’s unique about the Guardians of the Galaxy characters is that before these movies they were nothing.
Guardians of the Galaxy was a second rate comic book in the early 70s that no one gave two quatloos about. That was until James Gunn. There was no great template to build upon with this team, there barely was a team. Yet Gunn saw potential. He drew from various random Marvel characters of different eras and infused them with his own brand of snark. He set epic shootouts and spaceship dogfights to 70s bubblegum pop and somehow, convinced a studio that Michael Rooker–most famous for the title role in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)–would be someone kids would want as an action figure. Needless to say GotG is Gunn’s baby. These movies feel more Super and Slither than Thor or Iron Man
The film begins with a flashback to 1980 with Starlord’s mom Meredith (Laura Haddock) and dad, a de-aged (Kurt Russell), cruising through rural Missouri to the sounds of “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass. Babyface Kurt leads Meredith to the woods behind a Dairy Queen (now I understand that GotG promotional Blizzard campaign) and shows her a weird space plant. “What does it mean?” We’ll find out. But more importantly, “How do they do that thing where they make old actors look young?” I read up on it.
First, a bunch of makeup is applied to the actor’s face, then a bunch of tracking dots, then a look-a-like comes on set and does the scene again mimicking the first actor’s movements. Then, the actor’s skin is fused to make a young face. It sounds like a lot of work but if this is what it takes to make Harrison Ford look 39 again and not 139 in a prequel Indiana Jones I’ll take it.
In modern day, the Guardians are on a mission to protect super batteries from a crazed space alien for a race of people who look like Academy Awards. If you’re expecting an epic shootout, you’re half right. Because for the first three minutes of this battle we are treated to Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) dancing to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while the rest of the Guardians battle in the background. It seems like it’s a recurring gimmick in these films to pivot away from expectation. Whether it’s cutting from an epic battle for a joke or ending a dramatic speech with a snappy one-liner, Gunn leaves constant reminders that this is all in good fun.
With the super batteries safe, the Guardians meet with Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), leader of the Academy Awards aka the Sovereign Race who hands over Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) murderous cyborg sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) for their service. A job well done, until the Academy Award people notice Rocket (Bradley Cooper) has stolen some super batteries. A space battle ensues with Starlord’s (Chris Pratt) ship and a fleet of Sovereign drones. It’s a nice touch in a film when actions have consequences. I had no idea the Sovereign race would stick around long in the movie and I enjoyed their obsession with perfection, their unwillingness to pilot their own ships and their queen’s distaste for non-carpeted ground.
In the heat of battle, the Guardians are rescued by a bearded space drifter. The drifter leads them through a wormhole and they take a pit stop on a planet to introduce themselves. It turns out, the space drifter is none other than Starlord’s dad Kurt Russell who introduces himself as “Ego” a celestial being who is also a planet and can terraform using pure energy. Ego is accompanied by his sidekick Mantis (Pom Klementieff) a humanoid alien with antennae who has trouble understanding emotions and yet has empathy superpowers. Mantis bonds with Drax (Dave Bautista) despite him finding her hideous and puny and the two develop a humorous chemistry.
The casting of Kurt Russell is inspired. Like Pratt, he’s the perfect balance of blue collar charm and American tough guy. It’s disappointing that most of his time is devoted to exposition–apart from a speech about the pop song “Brandy”–but it never feels laborious or confusing. Ego unravels the plot slowly and clearly–and later on with weird clay-like animations. Hey, visual storytelling is the most effective form of storytelling. Ego offers to show Starlord his planet along with Gamora and Drax while Rocket, Baby Groot, and Nebula work on repairs to the ship. Which leads to one of my favorite sequences later with Rocket.
On the other side of the galaxy, Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his ravagers are hooking up with alien chicks on a snow planet. Ego runs into his old Ravager buddy Stakar (Sylvester Stallone) but the meeting goes sour. It turns out Stakar exiled Yondu after finding out he was trafficking children to Ego and no longer considers him a ravager. This awkward encounter leaves Yondu’s crew reluctant of Yondu’s ability to lead. Especially after letting the Guardians go. Ayesha shows up not long after and hires Yondu and his ravagers to go after the Guardians with extreme force.
I will say that Michael Rooker, with his tough guy persona and raspy southern drawl, has really grown with this character. Yondu is the definition of anti-hero and the film does a good job of showing him in both lights. As for Stallone, he doesn’t add more than a recognizable face. I don’t blame Stallone, all he does is recite the names of ridiculous planets and other alien babble. It definitely feels like a last minute decision to throw in a cameo more as a joke than finding the right actor for the role.
The Guardians arrive on Ego’s planet and are treated to a pastel utopia with the promise of greater things if Peter learns to control his celestial powers. Back on the forest planet where the ship is still out of commission, Yondu’s ravagers approach the Guardian’s ship only to be blindsided by Rocket and his arsenal of traps. Men are shocked and blown up all while Glen Campbell sings “Southern Nights.” It’s slapstick and action and music all in one.
I’m realizing that I’ve been following the movie beat by beat here, so let’s speed this up. Yondu decides to team with Rocket and Groot after his ravagers–led by “the dumbest character of all time” (James Gunn’s words, not mine) Taserface (Chris Sullivan)–mutiny and go rescue Starlord from Ego. This is because Yondu knows Ego’s darkest secret. Ego is a big BAD planet dad.
Turns out Ego has been planting his literal “seed” over thousands of planets for many years. And he’s been hooking up with all sorts of space women to try and find an heir who would carry the same celestial powers. Starlord being the first to inherit the power all his other interplanetary brothers and sisters were killed after failing Ego’s test. So with the combination of space seeds and half-planet son, Ego can have more of himself all over the galaxy. Get it, because his name is Ego.
It’s tough seeing Kurt Russell as a bad guy. He’s always had that cool dad or dad’s cool friend vibe, but the twist was inevitable. I don’t know if it makes sense for Ego to reveal all his plans and bluntly mention that he killed Starlord’s mom after millions of years of planning, but I don’t care. I don’t care because it is actually an original and creepy setup. Usually, villain plots in superhero movies are boring and generic world/universe domination plans involving magic stones or beams of light. The first movie fell prey to a generic villain plot, but this feels new.
GotG2 has the freedom to operate outside the overarching Marvel plot that no one cares about. Yeah, I’m talking about those damn infinity stones. So it can be its own standalone story fully focused on growing its established characters and having fun. With that being said, I’ve come to the conclusion that I like this more than the first installment. I mean it’s close, but GotG2’s cool dad villain and stone-free plotline puts it over the edge.
No matter which film is better, or whether it even matters, GotG films stick with me. Constantly, I’ll find myself humming all the songs and remembering all the jokes and laughs from the films. It’s a special franchise that took a bland source material and injected it with humor and enthusiasm. Earlier I said this movie was the most un-Marvel but leave it to Marvel to allow someone like James Gunn to make this kind of movie in the first place. Truly it is a dream factory.