in Retrospecticus, Review

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Original Review: “Your Eyes Could Steal a Sailor from the Sea” (four stars)

I’m 99% positive I’ve written this before (and if I haven’t, I’m sure it comes through in my writing), but the media I love the most are the ones that put me in worlds I want to be in with characters I want to spend time with. That is a big part of why the MCU resonates so well with me, serialization breeds investment by making worlds more complex and characters deeper. I’m aware that’s not enough for some people, who expect when they go to the cinema to see something new, inspiring, or provocative. Critically, where I’m interested most in character, others would put a greater emphasis on storytelling, or originality, or craftsmanship (I especially ignore this one, rarely thinking to write about the technical side of film). Every once in a while, though, you get something truly sublime. Something at the nexus of all taste, something new, and moving, and built on continuity. Something so profound it instantly becomes an iconic part of the culture. Something like a talking raccoon tearing up as spaceships set off colorful fireworks to Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son.”

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 earns that moment, but it takes a while to get there. I actually find some aspects of the early goings a bit grating – like how Drax is constantly, boisterously laughing at things or how suddenly everyone is obsessed with Quill’s music. Thankfully, the further we go, the more confident the storytelling gets. That’s because this is a movie about people who are already strong learning to overcome their emotional trauma or personality shortcomings to finally embrace their family and accept themselves. To put it more plainly, it’s about weirdos figuring out that it’s OK being weird.

Picking up shortly after the Guardians saved Xandar from Ronan the Accuser, we see that the team has grown even closer thanks to the responsibility of co-parenting of baby Groot. As is always the case, that closeness has bred some tension. Peter Quill, the self-proclaimed Star-Lord, is acting even more immature, whining about petty issues like Gamora using guns because that’s “his thing” or Rocket claiming to be a better pilot. This is especially grating to Gamora, the ultimate loner, who has just about lost her patience with everyone. Drax, having achieved his goal of revenge, seems to have evolved from being totally literal into a directionless, near suicidal fool. And Rocket, still insecure about his identity, is self-sabotaging, turning the Guardians against him by acting with a selfish, reckless abandon.

All of these arcs are advanced in beautiful ways. Quill’s immaturity comes from losing his mother at a young age, so he finally gets to meet his dad, an ancient being who is rather pointedly named Ego. This Celestial tells Quill that he’s basically an immortal god, capable of immense power, and asks him to help take over the universe. With everything on the line, Quill realizes that he’s not above everyone else and that sort of superiority complex is what led Ego to killing Quill’s mom. So he chooses to save the galaxy again, costing him his eternal lifespan and his beloved Walkman. Of course, this is a comedy, so in the end he is rewarded for making the mature choice and receives a Zune with more songs than a hundred cassettes.

Like Quill, Gamora is also forced to deal with a brutal reality. She’s a badass cyborg assassin who has always relied on herself and tried to make the universe a better place. From her point of view, she’s a hero, so her annoying sister Nebula constantly attacking her is just one more annoyance in her life. But when Nebula finally corners Gamora, she uses to chance to unload the reason for her hatred: Thanos, their father, who take her apart every time Gamora beat her in a fight. She hated Gamora for letting Thanos abuse her so much when she could have easily let Nebula win at least once. Gamora was so in her own head, so obsessed with her own well-being, it never occurred to her that her sister needed her help too. So she finally learns that self-reliance can be selfish, and apologizes to her sister.

Drax’s arc is a little subtler. Aside from all the laughter and violence, he begins to open up to the other Guardians about how much he loved his wife and daughter, obviously still a sore spot for him. Unlike the rest of the team, Drax is free of insecurity, openly bringing up his humongous turds and the details of how his father impregnated his mother. It’s being around Mantis that really changes our burly hero. The naive empath becomes a bit of a surrogate daughter to Drax, who teaches her about trust and courage. It all comes full circle during the final battle, when Drax is about to be swallowed by the planet. In that moment, he lifts the unconscious Mantis above his head, using the last of his strength to give her a chance at survival. They both live, with Drax now fully dedicated to protecting his new family instead of just mourning his old one.

Rocket Raccoon is the heart of the movie. The poor, little fella is just so certain everyone is going to abandon him eventually. His best friend Groot did just die, after all. So while he wants to be with the Guardians, he can’t help pushing them away. Luckily for him, the universe throws him a bone and puts him in the same room as Yondu. Like Rocket, Yondu is someone who has used his machismo to push everyone away. His team abandoned him years ago, and his current crew distrusts him because he can’t admit that he sees Quill as a son, not an enemy. It’s too late for the blue dude, he loses his crew, his ship, and, ultimately, his life. But he also makes his regrets clear to Rocket, and the raccoon hears him. At Yondu’s funeral, he sees first hand that forgiveness is possible, that the universe is not a hopeless place after all. And it breaks his heart, because he’s found his family, and they’re not going anywhere.

In Quill’s big speech in the first Guardians of the Galaxy, he tells the team he thinks they are bonded because they are all losers. The thing is, they’re not all just losers, they’re survivors. Quill was abducted after his dad killed his mom, Gamora and Nebula’s dad abused them, Drax’s family was murdered, Rocket’s body is mutilated from the experiments of the scientists that created him, even Yondu was sold into slavery by his parents. I love that this movie dived headlong into such messy territory, and found so many different answers for dealing with that trauma. Because, yes, Quill forgives Yondu and Drax and Rocket learn to move on, but the movie also makes it pretty clear to guys like Ego and Thanos have got to die, there’s no forgiving them. If only James Gunn could have known that one day “Thanos did nothing wrong” would be a thing.

All that said, I do have one reservation about the movie’s handling of abuse. For how seriously it takes everyone elses’ pain, I found it strange that Mantis’ abuse is played for laughs. Ego is basically her father, and she’s terrified of him, so part of her arc is the team helping her stand up to him. That works. But also there’s the stuff where Drax is negging her about being ugly, which is obviously having fun with the fact that she’s played by a pretty actress. That’s just not a very good joke? Later, she gets smashed by a chunk of debris, knocking her out, after which Drax yells, “Mantis, look out!” I guess that’s a callback to Drax saying he has fast reflexes in the other movie, but it also is not that good. I could have done without these things.

So what does this colorful, funny, astounding movie bring to the MCU? Hard to say! The ending shows some other, older Guardian characters, Stakar Ogord (Sly Stallone), Martinex (Michael Rosenbaum), Charlie-27 (Ving Rhames), and Aleta (Michelle Yeoh). In addition to those guys, one of the mid-credits scenes reveals that The Sovereign are creating Adam Warlock. But who knows when or if we’ll actually see those guys or that silly space super hero in action, since Guardians 3 was delayed a fair bit in the whole James Gunn firing fiasco. Can’t wait to find out!

MCU Power Rankings: It’s better than the first one.