Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 - Not Just a Popcorn Movie
Marvel's latest film Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 released in theaters this week and is the fifteenth film in the massive franchise that began in 2008 with the release of Iron Man. While we will have to wait for Avengers Infinity War to see the Guardians truly interact with the main stable of Marvel heroes in the MCU the Guardians of the Galaxy have become stars in their own right. Leave it to Marvel, a film studio that can seem to do no wrong, to turn a ragtag bunch of nobodies from the comics into one of the most beloved properties at their disposal.
In this review I want to touch upon about what makes Guardians 2 work on so many levels and why the Marvel movies tend to fair better than the movies in the DC Universe. But first a basic review of the movie.
Basic Review (This Bit is Spoiler-Free)
If you liked the first Guardians of the Galaxy film I can't see how the second installment would disappoint you. The first film saw our band of heroes become friends as they attempted to keep an infinity stone out of the hands of super-villain Thanos as well as keeping it off the black market as well. With the groundwork laid for the Guardians being friends Volume 2 picks up some time later with the crew still doing odd jobs and riding on the prestige of that one time they saved the Galaxy through the power of friendship (and dancing).
The basic theme here is taking the Guardians from merely being friends to actually being a family. Most of them are misfits anyway separated from their families by their tragic backstories.
As with the first film there is plenty of humor and while not all the jokes land there are plenty that do. Particularly great is the performance turned in by pro-wrestler turned pro-actor Dave Bautista as Drax. Bautista's excellent comedic timing and uproarious laughter and energy make almost every scene he's in a joy to watch. In a movie with this much goofy sci-fi fantasy stuff going on the humor feels right at home and the cartoon style physics don't feel inappropriate the way they would if we were watching Winter Soldier.
There is plenty of action too but in actuality the action, colorful sci-fi special effects, and humor take a backseat to the interesting character developments and interactions that perfectly play into the films themes of family and belonging. This is not just a brainless popcorn film, there is a lot of heartfelt moments that genuinely feel like a payoff because they are all set up earlier on.
Many complaints I've heard of the film claim the actual “plot” does not start until late into the film. I get the feeling that those leveling this complaint don't understand that character interactions and setting up the pieces of a plot for later payoff is still a part of the plot of a movie. The payoffs here are great, and some are emotionally heavy ones. All the strands and layers come together to give a movie with a clear underlying theme. I could see how some in the audience might find the Disney style message of the movie to be pandering or too schmaltzy but I'd much rather have that than the nihilistic dour nonsense of a movie like Batman v Superman or Watchmen.
Guardians Vol. 2 is as good if not better than the original film in my opinion. If you're a fan of the Marvel Universe, or just of sci-fi fantasy as a genre, there's plenty to love here.
Funny, Heartfelt and Colorful
Spoilers from Here on Out
Why Marvel Is Winning
One of the greatest strengths of both Guardians of the Galaxy films, and the MCU in general, is a focus on keeping consistency within the characters and keeping a decent amount of the story focused around those characters. A common complaint about these Marvel films is that they often feature a weak villain and yet people continue to flock to them in droves – why? Because of the characters.
It's not just about fight scenes that look like they leaped right out of a comic book panel, it's also about characters. It's about internal struggles between viewpoints. It's about coming together as a team to defeat what seem like impossible odds. It's about learning your lessons when you mess up and have to put the pieces back together.
It's also about humor. Levity is important in a film especially a mainstream action blockbuster. One of the things that makes a movie like Civil War fun to sit through but makes getting through a a movie like Man of Steel into a chore is the jokes, quips and playful banter of the characters.
Captain America: Civil War could easily be one of the darkest chapters in the MCU as it pits our heroes against each other in all out brawls. There is some heavy stuff going on in Civil War. Tony Stark basically watches his parents die. A man who was brainwashed and tortured for decades and used as an unwilling assassin must come to terms with who and what he is. The Avengers all deal, in different ways, with learning of the collateral damage their actions cause, even if they were for the greater good. Their infighting itself is just the different viewpoints, of Team Cap and Team Stark, having a literal physical battle for which view should win. Yet the whole movie is also filled with lighter moments. Quips. Banter. Levity.
A movie like Man of Steel has plenty of weighty ideas behind it. I mean Superman is used as a Jesus metaphor fairly often but here he also has the fate of Krypton running through his veins. But there's very little humor. There is a ton of dour, heavy, desaturated boredom that makes the movie so much more of a slog to sit through. No amount of visual splendor or super-powered punching makes up for a bad script. That isn't to say humor would save the big screen DC movies, because humor poorly done with no real character behind it and a poor plot isn't the answer, Suicide Squad taught us that.
Guardians as Modern Myth
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously declared that God is Dead in the 1880s. The rational and scientific modern age had disposed of the need of the central myth of God. Mythology has and continues to be one of the main ways that human beings process the world around us. It doesn't much matter whether one believes in God literally or not because the idea of a god, or a hero, or a demi-god, is one that likely goes back into human prehistory.
Human beings see themselves each as the protagonist of their own story and so heroes in a story, even if they are flawed and complex, often go through journeys that figuratively represent those that we go through in our mundane every day lives. Many wonder why the craze of super heroes has become so popular. I think if Nietzsche were still around he'd have a good idea. We have had to reinterpret the myths of the past into these new formats.
As I mentioned before Superman is a Jesus metaphor. He is sent from the heavens to the Earth, adopted by human parents, learns of his true lineage as an adolescent and goes off in human guise to do heroic deeds. In his various incarnations Superman has died and risen again numerous times.
In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 we get a great example of mythic story-telling in the modern age. Our hero, Peter Quill (Star Lord), like many hero archetypes, finds out he is part god. His Father, Ego, leads our hero back to a paradisaical planet where everything is too good to be true. Here in this Eden our hero is tempted with becoming like his Father (god) but ultimately rejects the gift of immortality in order to be flawed and mortal.
The name of Quill's Father, Ego, is a bit on the nose but it gives you an idea of how things are going to go south. Naturally Ego is full of himself and wants to replace every living thing in the Cosmos with a part of himself. Star Lord's temptation is reminiscent of the temptation of Adam and Eve in Genesis with Ego playing the role of both God and the serpent. In Genesis there are two trees mentioned, the tree of life which grants eternal life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the film Ego has lost sight of good and evil in his myopic pursuit of his own self-interest. Once Quill's eyes are opened to the evil that Ego has done he rejects the temptation and instead turns against his creator.
Ultimately Star Lord must kill God. A god who built his world on the genocide of his own children like Cronus devouring his children lest one of them rise up against him or like the Old Testament god drowning the disobedient in the Flood.
The theme of a Father who selfishly seeks immortality at the expense of his own children was done in Ridley Scott's Prometheus as well. In a strange way Guardians Vol. 2 has similar themes, only the themes in Guardians are not buried behind inconsistent characters and poor writing.
Themes of Family and Other Miscellany
The struggle against one's Father is a common theme in mythology. Breaking free of the will of one's Father to become your own person and forge your own destiny is a part of growing up (especially for men). Quill has a controlling Father who wants him to pursue only the path he sees fit. Star Lord also learns that his own selfish desire to reconnect with his Father blinded him from how obviously too-good-to-be-true the whole set up on Ego's planet was AND blinded him from the fact that his TRUE family was right in front of him the entire time.
The themes of family and belonging don't end there of course. Yondu and Rocket share a special bond as misfits and former slaves who played/are playing caregiver roles to misunderstood youths (Rocket taking care of Groot, Yondu raised Quill). Star Lord comes to appreciate the sacrifices Yondu made in keeping him alive all those years and basically teaching him how to survive.
Drax and Mantis form a powerful bond. Drax, while constantly laughing hysterically and finding joy and humor in everything is still masking the pain from losing his wife and child to Ronan. Mantis, an orphan, has been a slave her whole life and despite being an empath has been emotionally isolated from others by being kept on Ego's planet. So both she and Drax share an emotional isolation from the others that Drax feels he can let go of due to Mantis' empathic abilities. It is also implied that Drax feels ugly externally, an insecurity he humorously projects onto Mantis.
Gamora and Nebula, while I feel their relationship could have been further developed, also work out their conflicts throughout the film. Nebula holds Gamora responsible for Thanos unspeakable cruelty in turning her into a machine piece by piece with Gamora eventually realizing how careless and self-centered she had been to always win against her sister. Nebula realizes she is directing her anger in the wrong place and helps the Guardians save the day only to leave to pursue he true goal, destroying Thanos.
So we have a demi-god hero overcoming his full-on god Father, rejecting a temptation to immortality in favor of a mortal life. We have warring sisters still intensely competitive as they are coming to terms with the abuses they suffered at the hands of their Father. We have a disgraced space pirate with a heart of gold being buried at sea (sorry, at space) after making friends with a science experiment Raccoon. We have two emotionally isolated characters with poor social graces who both feel they are unattractive forming a special bond. We have a god with his own planet who has slept with every alien race he can get his hands on (Zeus) and built his world on the bones of the children who disappointed him.
And somehow they also manage to cram in a civilization of stuck up folks painted gold who fly spaceships in an arcade, a villain who thinks Taser Face is a cool nickname, a Stan Lee Cameo, BABY GROOT, Howard the Duck, Sylvester Stallone and more hit music from the 70s.
This is a film with something for everyone and it's not just a popcorn movie, it's a modern fairy tale with excellent humor, great writing and characters, and plenty of heart.