With reviews for delightful films with ambling titles like My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea and I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore waiting on my hard drive, nevermind other personal favorites like The Final Girls waiting in the wings, why not take the time to talk about this weekend’s biggest indie hit, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2? Yes, that joke is stale to me too, but since this feels like the very first Marvel movie that’s indulgent to the kind of movie director James Gunn wants to make, and since the joke is terrible, it feels very fitting to this particular lot. I’m genuinely surprised to be as excited about this as I am, not just because I liked the first Guardians without feeling the love a lot of people in my life did, but because even the first half or so of Vol. 2 kept grating me in spite of how confident Gunn was that it was hilarious. But then, with one glorious set piece, everything comes together perfectly as the film finally becomes the best version of the Marvel template that’s ever been realized while seeming to carve out a whole new path through sheer force of will and deliriously entertaining spectacle. The family ties with these characters matter more than any Avengers get-together ever has, not just because they’re better defined here but because everything, from the worlds to the side characters to the visual palette to the villain of all goddamn things, has been realized with equal care, and color, and thought. At a certain point the jokes are a lot funnier, it’s more kinetic, the CGI final battle extravaganza is more its own mess than just another round of stolid off-grays coming together to fight a really really big off-gray thing. It’s the most personality a Marvel movie has ever had, and for that alone it’s the best they’ve made yet.
It doesn’t start that way, though, and it takes a little while to get there. For sure the opening spectacle of Lil Baby Groot dancing along while the rest of the crew fights some eldritch horror is a delight, and has one of the best early Drax jokes in the film. But James Gunn thinks the one basic joke Drax has, or is – his stubborn literalism – is a lot funnier than it is, and at the very least the sheer insistence on making him the primary valve of comic relief got old fast. Not that any one joke was bad, and as someone who wasn’t cackling at every joke I was the outlier in my audience, but every joke pointed at the same aspect, hitting it harder on the head and to cruder effect practically every time. Kudos to Dave Bautista for being game, I guess, but it flattens the character even as he tries to tell the story of seeing his wife for the first time. On top of that, making Drax the outright comic relief deprives the rest of the crew from getting as much comedic material. Mostly they all get to bicker, and boy does everybody have issues, with each other and themselves. Even the captured Nebula has a lot to reckon with, aside from completing her Beatrix Kiddo hit-list. There’s also the race of golden alien beings who chase the Guardians around in remote-controlled fighter pods with user stations that are hilariously stylized like an 80’s arcade game, but they’re sort of tangential for the moment. Yondu faces similar issues, though he at least doesn’t start off with the gold people problem. Re-introduced in a scene that seems to imply he just had sex with a robot prostitute, we learn his Ravagers faction has been cast out of the entire Ravagers network because of that whole child-napping thing he did with Peter. Scorned by Sylvester Stallone and offered one last job by the High Priestess of the Goldfingers, to capture the Guardians of the Galaxy so she can kill them as penitence for Rocket stealing some of their lightbulbs, Yondu’s seeming path to vengeance is clear.
Ego doesn’t have this problem, simply hoping to reunite with his long-stolen son and become the dad he never had the chance to be. Kurt Russell, as the equally ruggedly handsome father of Chris Pratt, is inspired casting for the part, giving as good a performance as everyone else in the cast to boot. Accompanied by the empath Mantis, who gets to do a far more earnest and good-natured take on Drax’s whole “unstoppably literal” thing with great aplomb by Pom Klementieff, the journey to Ego’s self-made homeworld is the biggest blast of color that’s come from any Marvel film before it. Asgard didn’t look this majestic, and it manages the impressive feat of featuring practically the entire color wheel without ever becoming a garish eyesore, balancing hue, saturation, and texture on a tremendous scale. As Peter, Gamora, and Drax join Ego and Mantis on his homeworld, Rocket stays behind with Groot and the imprisoned Nebula, who manages to break free and complete a mutiny against Yondu once he talks of letting the Guardians go despite the million dollar bounty on their heads from the Goldfingers. And as things get worse for them, things get better for Peter and Ego as Ego teaches his son how to harness the energy of his planet to create shapes and become effectively immortal.
All of this is compelling stuff, but for one reason or another none of these plotlines quite clicked within themselves. There’s plenty of great moments, like watching Peter and Ego play catch with orbs of pure energy, or Rocket, tied to chair, completely tearing down the head mutineer who willingly chose to call himself Tazerhead. Yondu having a heart to heart with Rocket is surprisingly touching, and if the joke of Groot trying to find a prototype fin for Yondu runs a little long, its sheer absurdity and escalation makes it worth it. And then they get that fin, and it somehow doesn’t look silly on Yondu, who then whistles his way to slaughtering every single being in the ship except for our heroes and regretful mutineer Sean Gunn while “Come a Little Bit Closer” plays over the carnage, and it all came together. I’ve lauded how expansive the color palette is already, but the neon pink of Yondu’s murder wand as it flies around the compound, in tandem with the falling bodies, gives you so much to look at while achieving real heights of visual interest and charisma. Rarely is there more than any one thing to look at in the frame in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and rarely is it in such a gorgeous array of colors. Of course they have nothing on DC’s murky, sad grays and almost inherent fear of anything bright, joyful, or fun in any sense, but Guardians is still an impressive peak that far outstripes the visual style of a film series that struggles in terms of inventive composition or visually arresting color schemes. Even the eventual third act Big Bad Boss Battle, overflowing with CGI, is still more coherent in its fight choreography and geography than say, the Captain America: Civil War airport fight, and bursting with creativity on all levels while fully utilizing each of the characters involved.
The characters, too, are far better drawn than the usual Marvel ensembles, and do so without a larger wellspring of goodwill for viewers to instinctively draw upon. As compared to the seemingly arbitrary lines in the sand drawn between the amazingly vaguely rendered Avengers in Civil War, each of the Guardians and the surrounding characters have far more logical, better defined wants and relationships that are further enhanced as we learn more about them. The sibling rivalry between Gamora and Nebula is given as much room to shine as Peter’s contentious relationships with Ego, Yondu, and Gamora are mended and unmended. Yondu’s own relationship with Rocket lands in the emotional truths it exposes about both of them, and if Drax seems mismanaged as a joke machine early on, his bonding with Mantis ends up in where it needs to once Act Two starts. Even the threat of the High Priestess and her Sovereign, who I looked up the names of between paragraphs, is more effective than other doomed-to-fail MCU villains like those in Ant-Man, Iron Man 3, the Chi’tari swarms of The Avengers, or even Nebula in the previous Guardians film. The ultimate villain and their plan, which finally encompasses the destruction of the entire universe, is easily the most effective of Marvel’s villains that’ve appeared yet. After acting like the universe is at stake in every previous film, it’d be odd to say it’s so refreshing that they go for it this time if the tone of the second half didn’t feel so appropriately attuned to the grandiosity of it. In part, it’s because the villain is so effective in how they challenge our heroes, their attitude so unique among Marvel villains. Their offer is surprisingly tantalizing to the character they ask allegiance of, until it very much isn’t, but more than that they seem genuinely thrown by the idea that anyone would’ve want them to wipe out all life as we know it beyond them. But more than that, James Gunn’s direction of the second half of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is such a unique style for not just a Marvel movie, but any film to take. It’s remarkably in range of a jukebox musical, or a family melodrama, which is one of the easiest subjects for a musical to explore. The choreography and editing of scenes in tandem with the song score is a sterling achievement, one that begins in the opening scene and keeps going strong with continuous creativity. I practically expected characters to start breaking into song at a certain point, and the poignant returns to previous conversations and themes certainly could’ve lent themselves to it. Yondu in particular, whose starts his arc an exiled child-napper and ends the film celebrated and redeemed by his fellow Ravagers and Peter Quill, is perhaps the easiest character to translate into a musical, but all the characters and their arcs would fit wonderfully into that kind of milieu, and their actual dialogue works fairly well as the book parts of a show, be it original or jukebox tunes. Maybe speculating on the potential of a Guardians of the Galaxy musical adaptation isn’t the most constructive angle to consider this film, but it gets at the spirit of the film with ease.
Going forward, I hope this is a sign that Marvel will let their directors have more tangible influences and visions in their projects, especially with films by Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler coming ‘round the bend. I also hope that James Gunn will continue in the direction he’s going with this series, and that the Russo brothers are watching the responses to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and taking note of what everyone is responding to so positively here that isn’t in other MCU films but absolutely should be. We need color and light and really inventive composition in our films. Children and art can always go together. And how nice is it, between this and Logan, that there’ve been two very distinct and different kinds of comic book films doing well on the market? I hope Wonder Woman breaks from the traditional DC mold and is actually watchable, and I hope Justice League is bad enough for the theater to unabashedly laugh at it with me, since I know my otherwise spectacular boyfriend is definitely going to make me go with him to this, and I’ll always wonder would’ve happened if I’d laughed at the beginning of Batman v Superman like I wanted to. But we’re not talking about that, we’re talking about a good movie, one that started out just fine and turns into a pretty great movie, showing real creativity on nearly every front. I think this is the first film I’m talking about I can’t even pretend to encourage people to see, since everyone has probably seen it already. And thank goodness such a fun, unique comic book blockbuster is getting the somewhat perfunctory but still gloriously deserved attention it’s receiving. Let more franchise films learn the lessons about being pretty and allowing their directors to actually shape their films, and if not, at least we have Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 to keeping savoring among so much unadventurous clutter.