The summer blockbuster Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2 is a film from the Marvel Cinematic Universe that managed to reach previously unseen heights of intimacy with its audience that I think no one anticipated. It went down narrative paths that the MCU had yet to travel, and ensured that audiences weren’t too caught up in what had already been done before. Once director James Gunn and company were able to escape the continuously upcoming battle with Thanos, it got down and dirty where we needed it to: with the characters.
During a recent conversation with a friend who didn’t connect with Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2 the same way I did, he revealed to me that he couldn’t care for the film’s story because of it being extremely removed from the overarching narrative of Thanos and the Infinity Stones (a background narrative that has slowly creeped up to the forefront of the MCU since The Avengers). His problem was that “the movie was too isolated from the Marvel Universe”. 2-3 weeks after the film’s US debut, I saw that this was in fact a lot of people’s quarrel with the film. The question I raise now is: how exactly does this hurt the film? With the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe we’ve seen an ever-growing interest from audiences to the concept of an interconnected universe that brings together all of its characters in one world. This concept has impacted the film industry via series like Harry Potter, and the TV industry with entire franchises like the “Arrowverse” (Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow). I believe that interconnected film universes are indeed a fantastic concept that have worked extremely well – so much so that they have become a commodity in our current film-landscape. Unfortunately though this commodity has lead to a fashion of thinking that has hurt not only audiences and how they digest and interpret films, but also the thought-process by which studios approach properties creatively. In Marvel’s case, I’d argue that it is why a number of their films can be considered by some to be ‘just a cog in the machine’, feeding audiences just what they need to stay engaged in the franchise from a consumer standpoint rather than from a creative one.
Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2 manages to escape the overarching tale and gets deep and personal with its roster of characters. Gunn wouldn’t have been able to deconstruct so many of these characters in this film if he wasted time building up the next one. Peter Quill a.k.a. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), the leader of the Guardians, sees a lot of character development here, especially because the film explores the mystery of his father. Despite Peter’s attempts to try and forget about his father entirely, while continuing to cling to his mother’s memory via the use of her music, he still feels the need to know who his dad truly is. Ego the Living Planet (Kurt Russell) completely embodies everything he wishes his father was or could be. The moment Peter is introduced to Ego, he appears to be spectacular, even while all of the other characters maintain a natural level of skepticism that only he seems to lack. Ego is man from another world, a man truly one of a kind! He appears to be everything that Peter’s mother spoke of. In his mind even the reasoning for Ego’s leaving was sufficient – he had to keep his planet alive! Hell, he even said that it hurt him so much to leave! But Peter was living in la-la land. After the shocking revelation that Ego was in fact responsible for the death of his mother, and the death of many others, he snaps back to reality.
Once you break down the fanciful and “superhero-y” elements of Ego, like him being part-celestial and a living planet, you’re able to fully appreciate his presentation and dichotomy with Peter in the 1st hour and a half of this film. And though the CGI battle later may come across as a little too tongue-in-cheek for some, it’s a battle that symbolizes the entirety of Peter’s feelings once he realizes the horrors that his father did, in fact, commit. The fallacies in everything that Peter once saw as “spectacular” are all pointed out to him, and as he fights at the heart of the planet, he ends up being reminded of who his true family is: the Guardians of The Galaxy. I had never seen a superhero film produced from Marvel Studios capable of displaying such raw emotion and confusion on screen since Iron Man. Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2 just struck a chord with me.
Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Yondu (Michael Rooker) are another pair of characters that I believe find similar resolve. Though in the previous film they both explored much different territory narratively, in Guardians Vol. 2 this unexpected duo finds harmony. Rocket and Yondu are two people with pasts that they would love to, but never can, forget. Regarding Yondu, we see in the film that the circumstances of Peter’s abduction from Earth was in reality much deeper than previously suggested. Ego requested that Yondu bring his son to him from Earth, but since Yondu knew of the horrors that Ego was committing on his own planet, he never finished the job. He saved Peter – an admirable act of kindness. Stakar (Sylvester Stallone), the leader of the Ravagers, exiled Yondu from the larger Ravager community for breaking their code regarding child-trafficking. The pain of exile never left Yondu, even tens of years later. As we move on in the film, he and his own Ravager band find the crash-landed Milano ship Rocket, Groot, and their prisoner Nebula were residing in. Yondu had been hired to take Rocket back to the High Priestess Ayesha, whom Rocket had stolen from earlier in the film. As the fight ensues both parties are intercepted by an escaped Nebula, who takes both Yondu and Rocket down. Due to Yondu being incapacitated, one of the Ravagers – Taserface – takes over the ship and imprisons both of them plus Groot. In his and Rocket’s cell, Yondu breaks down, stating:
“I was a Kree battle slave for 20 years when Stakar freed me. He offered me a place with the Ravagers. He said all I needed to do was adhere to the code. But I was young, and greedy, and stupid. Like you stealing those batteries. Me and Stakar and the other captains, we weren’t so different from you and your friends. The only family I ever had, and I broke the code. They exiled me, this is what I deserve.”
Rocket proceeds to ask the bigger question:
“Why didn’t you deliver Quill to Ego like you promised?”
Yondu paints himself as someone that is merely mischievous, replying:
“He was skinny. Could fit into places we couldn’t. Good for thievin’.”
Rocket nods his head in skepticism.“Uh-huh.” Later on in the film, they both escape imprisonment and finally reach Ego’s planet. When Yondu asks Rocket why he chose to try and save Peter, and Rocket replies with an unconvincing “to prove I’m better than him”, Yondu snaps, declaring:
“You can fool yourself and everyone else, but you can’t fool me. I know who you are… I know everything about you. I know you play like you’re the meanest and the hardest but, actually, you’re the most scared of all. I know you steal batteries you don’t need and you push away anyone that’s willing to put up with you because just a little bit of love reminds you how big and empty that hole inside you actually is. I know them scientists what made you, never gave a rat’s ass about you. Just like my own damn parents who sold me… their own little baby, into slavery. I know who you are, boy. Because you’re me.”
This emotional revelation to a tight-fisted and shouting Rocket illustrates how similar and broken the two really are. Yondu fully realizes that Rocket is the very image of who he is; rooted in fear, hate and despair. The reason why they each often come across so dislikable (or in Yondu’s words, “professional assholes”) is due to them trying to discard any affection offered to them so they don’t have to reminisce on how little of it they’ve had.
Moving on to a more familial duo, Nebula (Zoe Saldana) and Gamora (Karen Gillan), we see that their conflict from the first Guardians of The Galaxy continues throughout this film as well, with Gillan delivering a soliloquy completely embodying the entirety of Nebula’s struggle:
“As a child my father would have Gamora and me battle one another in training. Every time my sister prevailed my father would replace a piece of me with machinery, claiming he wanted me to be her equal. But she won again, and again, and again, never again refraining. So after I murder my sister I will buy a warship with every conceivable instrument of death, I will hunt my father like a dog and tear him apart piece by piece until he knows some semblance of the profound and unceasing pain I know every single day.”
This is a very creative and wise way to give the audience the perspective that both they and Gamora had never heard before, adding more layers to the sisters’ conflict then we saw initially in the preceding film. When Gamora and Nebula finally battle one another on Ego’s planet, we see that they don’t have the heart to kill each other — the harsh words they said to one another were all fluff. As they finally have a real dialogue, they begin to fully realize that all their ongoing rivalry and hatred toward each other stemmed from the horrors and mistreatment suffered at the hands of their tyrant father, Thanos. There is no reason for either of them to target their anger at the other for something that wasn’t their fault, but rather due to the terrorizing of one man. Once they both realize this, they move on as sisters together to take down Ego as members of the Guardians of The Galaxy.
I was completely fascinated by everything we got to explore with these characters and the stories they gave us. This was a Marvel film about a group of outlaws just trying to live day by day. Luckily this film, like last year’s Thor: Ragnarok, lost its “tether” to the larger story of impending threat that we’ve been constantly reminded of; it turned out to be a personal and intimate adventure exploring various struggles that we as human beings face psychologically everyday, and places them in the perspective of these larger-than-life heroes.