The greatest friendships are built on a foundation of laughing at others’ misfortune.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been likened more to a mega-budget serialised TV show than a bona fide film series. Each installment juggles the task of telling a story of its own, while both relying upon and providing story elements from the movies before and after. This has the advantage of being able to tell longer stories with characters already familiar to dedicated audiences, in a fairly consistent world sprinkled with references and in-jokes. However, there is a significant weakness in this narrative lattice insofar as it can make the films inaccessible to casual viewers. This is an issue largely avoided by the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, easily the most remote films in the MCU. Because of their extraterrestrial setting, the original and the newly-minted Vol. 2 have the space to tell their own outlandish tales, and feel complete and self-contained. Under the direction of a filmmaker like James Gunn, they have a distinctive and irreverent style, and stand-out as satisfyingly original with a cinematic universe that can sometimes feel increasingly homogenous. Spoilers ahead.
Detached as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is, it is still a sequel and thereby beholden to its predecessor. This is an undeniable strength, and not just because that story featuring a foul-mouthed raccoon-man and his deciduous hetero-lifemate turned out to be a hugely endearing and genuinely thrilling smash hit. Having been introduced to the ragtag crew of the Milano and their various friends and foes, we understand who they are and can now experience a new chapter in their respective arcs. Quite where the most compelling of these evolutions lie is a surprise, but a pleasant one. The film is much more of an ensemble piece, separating the team for much of the running time and allowing different dynamics to play out. Peter Quill (a.k.a. Starlord, a.k.a. Chris Pratt) is still central to the main conflict with the humanoid living planet Ego (Kurt Russell), though this is arguably the least interesting thread in the narrative. This is not particularly a slight on the primary plot, simply an acknowledgement that some of the secondary ones are even more effective.
Quill’s encounter with his Celestial father is a very familiar, almost to the point of outright cliché. An absent father returns full of excuses and promises to do better and, after a brief and joyous honeymoon period, turns out to be exactly the kind of deadbeat who would callously abandon his offspring for decades. Where the novelty lies is in the peculiarly mythological nature of Quill’s origins. His stuff is literally the stuff of legends, son of a mortal and a god, blessed with incredible powers and, despite his mundane beginnings, thrust into the world of magic and monsters. If he knew his classics better, he might have suspected that his longed-for dad was an insane megalomaniac. Ego’s intergalactic philandering and casual mass-murder would make Zeus proud, and probably sexually jealous. The tension between a father and a wronged son might be difficult to ever resolve. Complicated further by a mortal, moral perspective and divine, solipsistic genocide, and it is no surprise that this family reunion ends just like so many others; in a superpowered battle to the death.
The movie is full to bursting with daddy issues. Quill’s ill-fated discovery of his true father is the least of it, though it is the only one that threatens to cover countless populated planets with glowing goo. He also grapples with his volatile relationship with his abusive alien foster-dad Yondu (Michael Rooker). Yondu has treated Quill abominably, but betrays a genuine affection for him, so far as his harsh manners and Ravager street-cred allow. Unexpectedly, he undergoes one of the most dramatic character arcs in the film, thanks to a surprising and welcome focus on his redemption buttressed by Rooker’s guarded vulnerable and (for lack of a better term) human performance. Yondu in turn has his own daddy drama with Stakar (Sylvester Stallone). A single scene between the two conveys how Yondu has failed as a surrogate son as well as a surrogate father, and his story is largely driven by his fight to redeem himself in both roles. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) have a twisted and tumultuous hate-love relationship precisely because of their appalling treatment at the hands of their brutal father/kidnapper Thanos. Even Rocket (Bradley Cooper) suffers the after-effects of his “parents”, the mad scientists who created him in the first place.
The complex relationships between fathers and children are a pare of the movie’s wider themes of family, particularly artificial families. The film argues strongly for the notion that water is thicker than blood, that your family is who you choose, not to whom you happen to be related. The Guardians themselves are the prime example, a squabbling bunch of dysfunctional individuals brought together by circumstance and kept together by their deep fondness for one another. Yondu, for all of his failings, is the real father to Quill because both choose that, albeit almost too late. Quill’s tragically hilarious eulogy for his late adoptive father is nevertheless affecting because it recognises the bond that the two shared, one that both struggled to confess existed before the end. This is not the say that every patchwork family is simply superior. Newcomer Mantis (Pom Klementieff) is a kind of daughter to Ego, but one that he treats as little more than a servant, kept around for her unique empathic abilities and their utility to him. Worse, Gamora and Nebula have a heartbreakingly painful connection. They are trapped between the sad camaraderie they feel at being the only ones who can truly appreciate the terrible ordeal that they both underwent, and resentment at being both victims and perpetrators of that pain. There is hope that the two can reconcile but both, Nebula in particular, bear indelible scars of abuse. It is possible to understand why the other acted the way that she did, but to forgive is much harder.
Emotional sincerity and maturity notwithstanding, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is still a hell of a lot of fun, from the subversive and slapsticky “Mr. Blue Sky” opening credits to the five mid-credits stinger scenes, which mainly opt for hilarity over egregious sequel-baiting. Drax (Dave Bautista) threatens to run away with the movie almost every time he appears on screen, whether he is engaging in suicidal heroism or blithely insulting his friends in his own inimitably oblivious manner. (He can also boast one of the best scenes of silent story-telling in the film, sitting peacefully while Mantis bursts into floods of tears as she empathically feels the hidden pain of the loss of his wife and daughter.) Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) is not as central as he might have been, and his adorable antics never become grating. In less judicious hands, he might have become a Minion-like irritant, more mascot than real character. The bright colour palette perfectly complements the weird and wonderful universe of bizarre creatures and the sense of Silver Age silliness is never lost, even when things get heavy. A massive aerial assault by the gold-skinned red herring villains The Sovereign is conducted by means of drones controlled by video arcade stations, complete with bleeping ’80s sound effects and childish grandstanding. A murderous Ravager mutiny is almost brought down by the merciless mockery by Rocket of the imbecilic usurping leader Taserface (Chris Sullivan) (it’s metaphorical!). The fate of the galaxy is decided in an epic battle that briefly includes a colossal stone Pac-Man.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a worthy successor. There is a debate to be had over whether it is an improvement, but it is certainly just as good. Marvel’s most screwed-up heroes are still the most lovable and funniest in their roster, and the MCU finally has a villain to rival Loki in Gillan’s excellent Nebula. She may now be more of an anti-hero, but with the pickings of antagonists so very slim, it still counts. This is a great start to the summer blockbuster season, bound to raise uproarious laughs and perhaps a few tears. Getting the second album right after a smash hit can be extremely tricky, but Vol. 2 is just as catchy and memorable as the first.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Written and directed by James Gunn (based on the Marvel comics by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning)
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista