written by Kate Spencer
I keep forgetting the name of the tree guy.
I love the first Guardians Of the Galaxy. It’s one of my favorite Marvel movies and that’s already a field of heavy hitters. It’s got humor, charm, action, likeable characters, and an awesome soundtrack (appropriately called “Awesome Mix Vol. 1”) that I still listen to. It represents what comic book movies should be: heroics, drama, silliness, and fun. I also use it as an example to compare DC’s philosophy when creating comic book films to Marvel’s.
DC Entertainment: “We’re making a Superman movie. How do we make this as grim, gritty, dark, and realistic as possible while also making it the least like a comic book?”
Marvel Studios: “We’re making a Guardians Of the Galaxy movie. Who should we get to play the talking raccoon?”
That’s not to say the first GotG shied away from darker themes. The film opened with a boy watching his mother die of cancer. But it knew how to balance that with something more lighthearted, and the next scene had maybe the third funniest opening credits sequences I’ve seen in recent memory. One minute it will have you laughing at the far-too-literal Drax, and the next you’ll be heartbroken and feeling sorry for a CGI raccoon. It had its problems, but altogether it was one of the best in the genre.
So Guardians Of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has a lot to live up to. How does it do? Well, it opens with a flashback to the ’80s on Earth, where a surprisingly realistically de-aged Kurt Russell is on a date with Peter Quill/Star-Lord’s mom. Then it jumps to the opening credits, set a few months after the events of the first film, where the Guardians are fighting a giant creature in the background while Baby Groot dances to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”.
Yeah, GotG 2 gets it right.
Despite one of the strengths of the first film being how the team interacted with each other, the second actually splits them up. After a crash and being rescued by his long-lost dad, Peter, Gamora, and Drax go off with Peter’s dad to his planet while Rocket, Groot, and the Guardians’ prisoner Nebula are left behind with the ship. It actually opens up two decent subplots with Rocket and Groot being captured by Ravagers and meeting up with Yondu again, while Nebula’s escape leads to another confrontation between her and Gamora. The separate plots and shifting focus between characters could have hurt the story, but instead it kind of adds to the overall themes of the film while building up to the weaker bits. If the story had solely been on Peter meeting his dad and the result of that plot, the whole thing may have been a little too paint-by-numbers. But when you add in the conflict between sisters Gamora and Nebula, and Yondu as the man who basically raised Peter you get a multi-part story about family and finding where you belong.
Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill is an interesting character. In some ways he’s a child who never grew up. At the very least, he’s trying to hold onto what he remembers of his childhood. With nearly thirty years of space travel under his belt, he’s still carrying around the mix tapes his mom gave him. Music is his last connection to her and, by extension, one of the last connections he still has to Earth. Sure, he references Cheers, He-Man, Pac-Man, and Knight Rider, but music is the most tangible and emotional connection he has. There’s a really good moment in the first film where a prison guard takes and begins listening to Peter’s Walkman. Peter reacts by forcibly trying to take the Walkman back and saying the songs on the cassette are his. They’re very personal to him, and not something he wants to give away or share. Yet, you see him doing just that in the second film. Each Guardian is familiar with his music and it’s become part of their lives as a crew. That Peter shares that with them shows he views his crew as his family.
Initially, Peter wants nothing to do with Ego (Kurt Russell) because the guy abandoned his mom, but slowly you start to see that he wants some kind of relationship with his father. Speaking of his father, Kurt Russell was a pretty good casting choice. As much as the film plays on ’80s nostalgia, casting an ’80s icon is perfect. That and he sells the role of a godlike living planet pretty well. The choice of changing Star-Lord’s dad from J’son of Spartax to Ego the Living Planet was an odd one, but like the other changes to Peter Quill’s origin story, I think it actually enriches the character.
Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) have their own separate family issues. Nebula is pissed at her sister because their adopted dad, Thanos, used to make them fight. When Nebula lost, Thanos would replace one of her body parts with cybernetics, which is why she’s a cyborg. She wants to kill Thanos, but she equally wants revenge on Gamora for always winning. It’s kinda sad that James Gunn promised the film would pass the Bechdel Test and it just barely does. Gamora talks to Ayesha (Nebula’s captor) about her sister very briefly, and I think the sisters actually managed to get through a fight without mentioning Thanos. For what it’s worth, the fight was good. Nebula shoots at Gamora from a ship, wrecks it trying to kill her, and then Gamora picks up a gun which had broken off the ship and fires it from her shoulder. Yeah, these movies have some problems with female characters, but Gamora and Nebula are both pretty badass.
Less of a subplot and more a mini-character arc is the relationship between Dave Bautista’s Drax and Pom Klementieff’s Mantis. These two are brilliant. Their scenes are full of heartwarming moments, a whole lot of cringe, and attempts to steal the scene from each other. Mantis is an empath, so she’s able to read and influence emotions with a touch. In maybe their best scene together, Drax talks about his daughter with a solemn tone, but when Mantis reads his emotions she begins weeping. A romantic subplot between the two is thankfully averted, but in a really cringe-worthy way.
I didn’t expect to come out of this film with Yondu being one of my favorite characters. Michael Rooker is a fantastic actor and GotG 2 gives him more to work with than the first. His subplot reveals that he and his crew are a disgrace to the larger Ravager community for some pretty heinous stuff. Yondu is tortured by it, and the scene where he gets berated by his former mentor is one of the best in terms of setting a scene’s mood. He later deals with a mutiny, which brings him into a sort of “buddy shenanigans movie”-type subplot with Rocket. They have a moment or two where they realize they’re a lot alike, and you start to feel for both of them. Hey, if you can add emotional weight to a scene between a blue guy with a high-tech mohawk and a talking raccoon with a sentient tree on his shoulder, you’re doing something right.
Part of what adds to scenes like that is the special effects and makeup. Rocket and Groot are 100% CGI, but they feel real within their scenes. The makeup effects are convincing as well, so it’s easy to lose yourself in the movie and forget that you’re watching CGI effects and people painted green or blue. There are limits to this, and I feel a few shots on Ego’s planet looked a little too overly rendered and fake, but I wonder if that was a design choice. Ego’s world might be meant to look like a “too good to be true” artificial paradise and the parts of my brain saying “this looks so fake” are probably meant to think that way. The overall design is great, too, from the gritty interiors of the Ravager ship to the pristine environments of the Sovereign homeworld.
If you saw the first film, then you know how important the soundtrack was to it. As I mentioned before, the music added much to the mood as well as to Star-Lord’s character. The songs made certain scenes more memorable, and so when hearing those songs again, you find yourself thinking back to the film. GotG 2 continues the tradition with a great soundtrack. I think overall the songs in the first were better, but the sequel does a better job of fitting its songs into the scene or into the film as a whole. Looking Glass’ “Brandy” is used by Ego a few times to explain his relationship with Peter’s mother. Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” is used in a particularly emotional scene. There’s even one of those disturbing “this song is highly inappropriate for this scene” moments when Jay & the Americans’ “Come A Little Bit Closer” plays over a scene of Yondu singlehandedly killing about fifty bad guys with an arrow to the chest.
Guardians Of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is one of the funniest Marvel movies I’ve seen to date. It’s also got some good drama and character moments that other films with large casts seem to lack. And yes, it is a Marvel movie, so stick around for the credits. This one has five mid- and post-credits scenes which are both funny and containing a really obscure reference or two. If you liked the first one, you’ll like this too. If you haven’t seen the first, I recommend checking it out before seeing GotG 2 because there’s setup you might otherwise miss. Also, the first is just a great movie anyway, so watch both.
Oh, and I agree with Rocket. Taserface is a stupid name.
That’s the last Martha joke, I swear. I’m probably not even going to review Justice League. [EDITOR’S NOTE: You are now.]
Kate can be reached on Twitter @WearyKatie.