Emily S. Whitten: GOTGv2’s Family Affair
I saw Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 this weekend, and man, did I have a blast. Is it a 100% perfect movie? Maybe not – how many comics adaptations are? But is it a really solid comics flick, an excellent second chapter to the Guardians’ adventure, and one of the most fun Marvel movies out to date? Yes, yes, and yes! And was it also made by creators who had a love for the source material and the actual product itself, knew their audience wanted an even more epic Guardians story, and delivered without falling into the more-of-the-same-only-bigger-equals-underwhelming-sequel trap? You bet!
(Warning: some SPOILERS ahead!)
Guardians Vol. 2 paints its backdrops in broad strokes. It is, as it should be, a space epic. The Guardians planet-hop, crash spaceships, and, at one point, bounce through something like forty space jumps at once. There are also several other groups of space-faring folk to keep track of – different factions of Ravagers, the newly-introduced Sovereign, and, of course, Peter Quill’s long-absent father. And the scenery is vast, unusual, and visually stunning, whether we’re seeing the innards of a collapsing planet or fireworks at a rare Ravager ceremony.
But set into all of this are the smaller scenes that knit this movie together with one thread: family. The theme is everywhere – from the reminder that the Guardians, even when they’re fighting, have chosen to be a family; to the denouement of Peter’s tamped-down desire to know his real father and his confrontation of difficult parental issues; to the rivalry between Gamora and her sister Nebula; to the well-played new friendship that’s struck up between the overly literal Drax and the extremely sheltered Mantis; to the bloody and harsh conflict that plays out between the Ravager factions; to gruff Yondu’s bonding with the equally prickly Rocket, and the redemption arc of Kraglin’s relationship with Yondu; to, of course, everyone’s involvement with The Growing Up of Little Groot (who is, as in Vol. I, one of the best parts of any scene).
Although interactions with Little Groot (no longer a potted baby stick, but still dancing adorably, particularly when set against the intense space-monster battle of the opening credits) are cute as can be (except when he’s killing folk, or, to be honest, even when he is), most of the familial messages are not all sweetness and light. But the overall gestalt of the film is that although families can be dysfunctional, messy, and even sometimes irredeemable, the value of being able to be your true self and still rely on family – whether they be your blood relatives of simply the people who have decided to love you like they are – is the most important thing.
Writer and director James Gunn hammers this home by having characters straight out remind us that the Guardians are, in fact, a family, in a couple of perhaps unnecessary “telling instead of showing” moments. However, unlike in Iron Man 2 where we were told about how Tony had become a better person after the events of Iron Man but the “showing” didn’t really back that up, the moments that Gunn uses to build this movie really carry that message.
And maybe he’s also playing with that “tell vs. show” aspect. Quill’s “real” father tells him all about how much he wanted to find his son as he explains (using a hilariously plastic-y series of museum exhibit-like display pods) his courtship of Peter’s mother; but then shows how little value he has for family through his actions and the harm he brings to Peter. Whereas Yondu, who raised Peter, regularly told Peter fairly awful stuff (“You said you would eat me!” “I thought that was funny!”), but consistently, even to the point of losing the respect and loyalty of his crew, looks out for and will not harm Peter. Likewise, Drax tells Mantis, in his usual tactless way, that he thinks her appearance is ugly and disgusting – but he is consistently kind and gentle towards her, and looks out for her and patiently answers her questions. Gamora takes Nebula prisoner and Nebula swears revenge – but when push comes to shove, neither can let the other go. And Groot – well, Groot tells everyone that he is Groot, and we just love him for it, end of story.
In focusing on the characters and their bonds, Guardians Vol. 2 also avoids the trait I dislike in so many comics space stories (and crossovers). Often, these stories get so caught up in the Grandiose Larger Purpose of what is going on – this planet is fighting that planet which is fighting that other planet over there – that I really stop caring which Planet wins, because they’re all just planets. But Guardians doesn’t throw focus. It doesn’t neglect the spaces within the epic story that is, in fact, also happening as Peter’s father tries to take over the universe.
It recognizes the mundane moments that sometimes show who people are more than a grand gesture or epic fight, and that make the audience care. Gunn being who he is, I’m not surprised that he almost takes this to the next level, to the point where the characters spend several movie minutes searching for Scotch tape. Some moviegoers might be put off by this, but I see it as part and parcel of who the Guardians are, and the unique sense of fun they bring to saving the world. Pretty much like when Rocket assigned Peter to acquire a prisoner’s fake leg for a prison break plan in the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. I, and then it turned out he didn’t need it and simply thought it would be hilarious to send Peter to get it (that still makes me laugh).
Fortunately, Gunn and the rest of the cast and crew didn’t lose that humor in Guardians Vol. 2, and in fact, in some places, amped it up in the best way. Drax (Dave Bautista), for instance, has been developed beyond the already humorous incongruity of his literal interpretations of the expressive way most people speak, to a character who is now more relatable but still unreasonably tactless and blunt at all the wrong moments. The result is that he gets some of the most subtly humorous but also human dialogue exchanges in the film, particularly with Mantis (Pom Klementieff, who is adorable, and stellar in keeping an equilibrium between Mantis’s sweet naiveté and the strong emotions she experiences as an empath).
Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is hilarious for the sheer fun he takes in mayhem and destruction (the scenes of him messing with the Ravagers in the forest are absolutely hysterical). Chris Pratt continues to balance Star Lord’s irreverence for serious moments and almost childlike sense of fun with the responsibilities of being the natural-born leader of the group. And Groot (in some magical combination of CGI and Vin Diesel that is definitely more than the sum of its parts) brings the house down while he tries and epically fails to bring his friends various objects to help them escape from a holding cell.
Of course, some characters are more suited to be “the straight man,” but even though Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Yondu (Michael Rooker), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Peter’s dad (Kurt Russell), and Kraglin (Sean Gunn) tend to be played straighter overall, each of them does a great job and also still gets at least a few moments of humor (and Michael Rooker has one of the absolutely funniest lines in the movie as they’re all falling to the ground towards the end). Heck, even the seriousness of the Sovereign, who exude gravitas and are quick to take offense, is undermined by the fact that they go to war by, essentially, playing space video games (Ender’s Game, anyone?).
But I think a point being made here is that life doesn’t have to be all serious or all fun – like this movie, it can contain everything from deadly Ravagers bouncing through the air like helpless popcorn at the hands of a “trash panda;” to poor little Groot being bullied and sadly squelching away (and boy, did that make me want to punch that whole mean crew in the face); to the leader of the saviors of the galaxy choosing to save that galaxy as a giant Pac-Man; to Yondu’s arrow snaking through the darkness in the most beautiful kind of 80s neon death I have ever seen as it kills those who betrayed him; to the universal trope of every teenager everywhere, no matter what species, being yelled at about their messy rooms; to the whole of space exploding into glorious fireworks to honor fallen family. This movie is, all in a couple of hours, ridiculous, badass, serious, not taking itself seriously, heartwarming, grim, riotously fun, incredibly sad, gloriously chaotic, seriously ugly, and vibrantly beautiful.
Which means that at its heart, despite the epic space setting and multitude of species, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is a very human movie – and as Peter says when his father informs him that turning his back on his legacy will make him only human: “What’s so terrible about that?”
Not a thing, and I’m glad that the Guardians will be returning so we can be reminded of that yet again in, I assume, Volume 3 (the soundtrack of which had better be played on a Zune).
Until then, feel free to check out this clip from my further discussion of Guardians Vol. 2 on the Fantastic Forum radio show (the whole episode of which will be up here shortly), and don’t forget to Servo Lectio!