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Non-Review Review: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

The most appealing aspect of the original Guardians of the Galaxy was its awareness of its arrested development.

James Gunn and Nicole Perlman crafted an ode to juvenile nostalgia, anchored in a protagonist who found himself drifting away from Earth following the loss of his mother. Superhero movies work best as extended metaphors or homages, as a vehicle to render the human experience in operatic terms. Guardians of the Galaxy was the tale of a young man who had lost touch with reality in the moment that he lost his mother, and who had escaped into an acid dream of eighties space opera tropes.

Mohawking his wears…

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 works best when it remembers this. If the first film explored Peter’s retreat from the death of his mother, then the second explores his relationship with his absentee father. Once again, the film is saturated with eighties iconography. Early in the film, Peter confesses that he used to pretend that David Hasselhoff was his father. It is hard to tell whether he is trading up or trading down when he meets a bearded Kurt Russell.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 has a very straightforward set of character and thematic arcs. The movie maintains a clear throughline, focusing on the relationship between fathers and sons. The film is not subtle, even working in Cat Stevens’ Father and Son. Of course, that archetypal relationship has been explored repeatedly and thoroughly within mainstream pop culture and particularly superhero cinema. Nevertheless, it provides a clear focus to Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, a sense of momentum and direction.

Turn up the volume.

This throughline is essential, because Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 suffers from significant bloat. The second act of the film is a mess, one compounded by a number of questionable creative decisions that seem to have been made because these beats are expected from the second film in a blockbuster franchise. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 follows the science-fiction sequel playbook just a little too well, occasionally losing sight of its characters and the chemistry between them.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 does not work as well as Guardians of the Galaxy. In large part, this is because it feels like a self-conscious sequel rather than an organic extension of the original film. James Gunn never forgets what worked about the original film, but he also cannot resist the urge to go larger with it.

A hole lot of trouble…

The strangest decision in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is mostly structural. In the film’s first act, James Gunn opts to split up the cast. Peter, Gamora and Drax embark upon an adventure with Peter’s long-absent father, while Rocket, Baby Groot and Nebula decide to stay behind and repair the ship. Inevitably, both sets of characters get more than they bargained for. As the film builds to a climax, it brings the family back together for a very effective and emotional final act.

There are a number of reasons why Gunn would choose to divide the cast like this. Most obviously, it provides a framework for action and excitement. One of the two subplots is very talky and very emotional, which is an awkward fit with happy-go-lucky tone of Guardians of the Galaxy. So the second plot exists as a collection of action scenes that can break up the exposition- and conversation-driven sequences in the primary plot. There is also more room for humour in the second plot, which provides something to get away from the dramatic beats.

Starlording, across the universe…

However, the structure also exists as a relatively subtle homage to Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. That film in many ways codified the format for these ensemble sequels. Solo superhero sequels typically tempt their heroes with the promise of a normal life, whether through romance like Batman Returns or retirement like Spider-Man II or loss of power like The Wolverine. In contrast, ensemble films tend to break up their casts and send them on separate adventures so that they might be united by the climax.

There are lots of dramatic reasons to do this. After all, the first film in a series is largely about establishing dynamics and relationships. Given that individual films have to contain individual arcs, the first film tends to end with the group cemented and the hero affirmed. Given that this is the starting point of the sequel, the arc traditionally moves in the opposite direction. Just as a solo hero questions their identity, the group is broken up and has to journey back together.

Branching out.

X-Men II is perhaps the most iconic example in the superhero canon, splitting its ensemble between several locations and plot arcs, pushing established characters together in unlikely combinations so that each might uncover a piece of the larger puzzle. It is a very effective dynamic, and it is easy to see why Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 would feel the draw of such an approach. After all, what could evoke eighties nostalgia more than a structural homage to The Empire Strikes Back?

The problem lies in the execution. In these stories, the group is often broken apart by a brutal action and an instigating event. There is a sense that the relationship has been shattered or strained by some outside source. In The Empire Strikes Back, the characters are split up by the Empire’s attack on Hoth. In X-Men II, Stryker’s attack upon the President and siege of Xavier’s School serves to force the team to fend for themselves.

Star of the show.

The issue with Guardians of the Galaxy is that the team breaks up casually. The inciting incident is not traumatic or shocking. Indeed, there is relatively little reason for the team to split up at all.It seems perfectly possible that the group could choose to follow one plot or the other. Indeed, when Peter and his companions elect to leave Rocket and his associates behind, it feels rather forced and conspicuous. It feels like a script contrivance, rather than an organic response to the situation.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 also runs into issues when it follows those through plot threads. Generally, the trick is to ensure that both plots carry equal weight in terms of overall importance. The Empire Strikes Back is particularly clever about this, given that Han and Leia embark upon a series of episodic adventures that include a giant hungry space worm. Nevertheless, Han and Leia attract the attention of Darth Vader, who is really looking for Luke. More than that, Han and Leia encounter Darth Vader before Luke does, despite the fact Luke’s arc leads to Vader.

Whistling Dixie.

Similarly, each of the characters in X-Men II provides something of worth to the overall narrative. Logan has his connection to Stryker. Jean and Storm recover Nightcrawler. Magneto spends time in the custody of Stryker. Xavier is kidnapped and rendered complicit in an attempted genocide. All of these threads contribute something to the overall narrative, and they all provide some sense of forward momentum.

Instead, there is a very clear difference between the important primary plot and the tangential secondary plot in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. Peter’s emotional arc and reconnection with his father obviously drives the plot, having been properly set up in Guardians of the Galaxy and consciously mirroring his relationship to his mother in the original film. As a result, the subplot involving Rocket often feels over secondary importance, a stalling tactic that serves to distract half the cast before the climax.

Drax appeal.

To be fair, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 acknowledges this. At the climax, one character warns Rocket that the average humanoid body can withstand fifty “jumps.” Rocket wonders how many jumps will be necessary to cover all the narrative ground separating them from the primary plot. “Two hundred and seven,” his co-pilot explains. There follows an extended montage revealing just how isolated Rocket had been from the bulk of the action.

That said, the climax of the film works relatively well. For all those issues with the secondary plot, James Gunn understands what made the original film work. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 embraces the juvenile nostalgia that made the first film so charming. Early in the film, Peter squares off against the Sovereign, an alien race that conducts warfare like a video arcade game – right down to the sound effects. Peter repeatedly pitches himself as Pac Man. The opening titles anchors Peter’s origin in time as much as space, “Missouri, 1980.”

Point and shoot.

 

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 pitches itself as something of a retirement home for veteran action stars, a deep space fantasy for those who imagine their father might have been in The Expendables. Michael Rooker returns in an extended role, even getting a souped-up mohawk. Sylvester Stallone plays the leader of what amounts to an intergalactic biker gang. Kurt Russell imagines himself as a god – “with a small g” – while pitching himself as a malevolent take on Jeff Bridges (the original Marvel Studios baddie) from Star Man.

Indeed, the focus on Peter’s relationship with his father provides a nice sense of symmetry with the first film. Guardians of the Galaxy suggested that Peter’s adventures in space were a way of avoiding the consequences flowing from the loss of his mother. In Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Gamora challenges him on his refusal to return to Earth. “That’s because it’s the real world, and this is just a fantasy,” she goads him. And the film suggests that she is correct.

Guard duty.

If Peter’s mother represented the real world in all of its mundanity, then it makes sense that his father should represent the fantastical. Ego is a man who lives on his own planet, a planet that he can sculpt to his own whims. He sells Peter the ultimate fantasy, the belief that they can be happy together. At one point, Peter and Ego even play ball in a lavish courtyard. Ego represents the fantasy of an absentee father, a figure with the miraculous ability to heal all wounds and reshape his son’s world.

Naturally, Ego is not what he claims to be. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 suggests repeatedly that Ego is a deep space deadbeat dad. The introductory sequence suggests that Ego is literally traveling from one world to another, planting seeds. As befits his name, it is implied that Ego does not see Peter as a loving son. Instead, Ego’s children are an extension of himself. “Everything will be me,” he threatens, an all-consuming all-father.

Jumping right in.

This is all very much stock superhero plotting. Indeed, there are any number of high-profile precedents for the relationship between Peter and Ego. Ego recalls Jor-El, the long-absent father from the Superman films who promises to teach his son so much. Ego also evokes Odin, the father from Thor who presents himself as an all-powerful authority who can inflict his will upon the world. His absence from his son’s life in pursuit of a greater goal even suggests Howard Stark from the Iron Man movies.

However, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 remains so tightly focused on this point that it works. The emotional arc feels so logical an extension of the original film that it feels like an appropriate direction to take the story. Indeed, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 follows that plot and character thread to its logical conclusion. As much as the film might root itself in pulpy science-fiction, it is driven by an emotional honesty. The characters feel like a dysfunctional family, and so the fantastical elements around them slip comfortably into place.

His finger on the button.

It should be noted that Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 benefits greatly from the freedom afforded to James Gunn to tell his own story. While a lot of the Marvel Studios films are slavishly devoted to their source material, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is a property so fringe that Gunn can do pretty much what he wants. The relationship between Peter and Ego is invented from whole cloth for the purposes of the film, much like his versions of Yondu Udonta or Stakar Orgood. And the movie is stronger for that.

(Indeed, while the core cast of Guardians of the Galaxy was drawn from Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s 2008 reboot of the sixties title, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 owes its strongest debt to the Marvel work of writer Rick Remender. Somewhat cheekily, the plot draws overtly upon Remender’s work on Uncanny X-Force, a title that is (mostly) off-limits to Marvel Studios by virtue of rights issue. In particular, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 draws upon Remender’s mythology concerning the Celestials, godlike beings created by Jack Kirby.)

According to plan.

At the same time, there are clear limitations imposed upon Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 by the brand. Most obviously, the climax of the film places Earth in great danger. It is a very strange choice, given that only one of the primary cast is actually from Earth and that he has sworn never to return. The climax of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 keeps cutting back to a disaster unfolding on Earth in a way that intrudes upon a very emotive character-driven climax.

It feels like Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 does not trust its audience to invest in these characters and their struggle. Instead, the film needs to jump half-way across the galaxy to a large-scale destruction that does not affect a single named character. It is a rather disappointing commentary on the audience’s empathy. It seems like Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is worried that viewers cannot feel any concern for those affected by a disaster… unless they look like them. That is a particularly disheartening creative choice, particular in 2017.

A fun shoot.

More than that, the ending of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 feels suspiciously tidy. The central plot hinges on splitting up the team, bringing them back together for the climax. Traditionally, movies that follow that arc tend to keep the team separated so that they might be reunited in the next film at the conclusion of that arc. The Empire Strikes Back ends with Han Solo frozen in carbonite, while Luke loses his hand. X-Men II ends with Jean Grey sacrificing herself and resurrecting as the Phoenix.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 wraps up its character arcs relatively smoothly, almost as conveniently as it separates the cast in the first place. A cynical observer might wonder if this choice is driven by the possible role that the team might play in Avengers: Infinity War, which would be released before a hypothetical Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 could bring the team back together in an organic manner. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 just feels too tidy.

Pressing him on the issues.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 works well enough, even if it feels more bloated and disjointed than the original film. It has a clear character and thematic throughline, but its plotting feels haphazard in places. It is a solid follow-up, if not a stellar sequel.

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5 Responses

  1. “It seems like Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is worried that viewers cannot feel any concern for those affected by a disaster… unless they look like them.”

    But the film didn’t just show destruction on Earth. It skipped around to several different planets to show aliens fleeing the destruction. There was even a prominent shot of an alien mother with her child running from the wave of destruction. So it seems like the film went out of its way to show that “people who don’t look like us” faced the same threat as humans.

    I do think there was a lost opportunity in not making more of Drax’s family. If the who galaxy was threatened, why didn’t he seem more concerned about his wife? During the climax, he seemed far more concerned about saving Mantis than about his wife. Even a quick shot of Drax’s homeworld facing the same disaster would have helped raise the stakes for that character. Also, the film never revealed what happened to his daughter (which came up during his conversation with Mantis)?

    • Drax’s family was killed by Ronan.

    • I believe that his family were killed by Thanos, which makes his arc with mantis all the more affecting. I particularly love the sequence at the climax where he lifts her over his head as the planet swallows him. It is a surprisingly touching gesture in the middle of a chaotic story beat.

  2. I think you’re unfair to GOTG Vol.2 if you just gonna compare it to other considered “Better Sequel Films”. According to what I’ve understand to your review, you just keep thinking about other movies structure instead of judging the film by its own merits. If your problem is unfunny lines, corny family theme, and Marvel just keep doing comedy over and over again , maybe I can agree with you but if you just gonna think how structure the movie should be, then you’re doomed to fail enjoy this film. I judged a movie based on its honesty, enjoyability, integrity, and being self contained and I think Vol.2 hit all the marks of my criteria. I dont judge the film by how it can copied other successful sequels or movies’ structure to serve the story.

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