Stars: Chris Pratt, Dave Batista, Kurt Russell
Directed by: James Gunn
Opening Date: Friday May 5th, 2017
By Zac Fanni
You know this flavor of ice cream already – it’s the Neapolitan mix of quirk, quip and camaraderie that Marvel Studios has been using to spoil your diet and rot your teeth. However, Marvel’s latest franchise episode, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2’, uses those traditional comic book conceits and conveniences to craft a drama that, at moments, transcends the genre.
We join the Guardians – Peter Quill (StarLord), Drax, Rocket, Gamora, and of course the adorable Baby Groot – as they work together in their dysfunctional family to help (and steal from) others. What follows are characteristically delightful, if not vapid, scenes of theft, argument, and scorn, and our heroes soon find themselves face to face with a god (“small g”): Ego the living planet (Kurt Russell), who also happens to be the father of Star-Lord. Emerging from this mess of conflicts are new and known characters (Yondu and Nebula return, with Mantis as a surprisingly powerful new addition) who join our heroes as they engage in a battle that ends up being so weird and chaotic that you are thankful it is all guided by James Gunn’s sure hand.
Initially there are a lot of alienating factors – references, winks, reductive reinforcements of who we already know these characters to be, and conflicts without tangible impact or meaning. Our reintroduction to Marvel’s most lovable family plays like an extended trailer: characters recycle and perform their familiar selves even as we are exposed to some new colorful corners of this galaxy (cue the Goldfinger people).
The problem is that we have been trained to watch comic book movies a certain way: completely external plot devices move the characters, more of our disbelief must be suspended, and franchise references threaten to undermine the most cathartic moments. Yet we accept all of this as the pill we need to swallow to get our beloved stories – it’s the reality of cinematically adapting kids’ comic book tales.
And in that first half, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2’ seems to succumb to the habits endemic to the comic book genre. Ostensibly, these ‘mistakes’ seem like commonplace plot contrivances and euphoric character beats, but when the film pushes into its glorious second half, you realize that characters are not just blundering to be lovable – they are, in fact, expressing their deeply embedded pain. Through these seemingly coincidental gaffes, our characters are actually reconciling themselves to their pain, and this makes us connect to them on a tangibly human level. In a way, this was the genius at the heart of the first ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’: humor, wit and repartee are ways to confront our deepest existential anxieties. Laughing is a way to confront your own mortality.
Ultimately, this is a movie that is about finding your way to meaning when facing an indifferent universe – the central conflict that drives our characters forward is the one between selfishness and selflessness. As with Superman, this conflict is represented using the two-dad model. Ego the living planet seeks to remake the universe in his own image, and having a son is simply a way to achieve lasting omnipresence. On the other side of this conflict, we have Yondu – Peter’s impromptu father who remains gritty, dangerous, capricious and imperfect. Yet these imperfections, the mistakes that tangibly haunt him throughout the film, allow him to realize what really matters: the people he has decided to make his family. In the end, his life becomes devoted to the lives of those he has come to love.
And even if it is packaged within the Marvel formula, the universality of ‘Guardians 2’ comes from the very human realization we are nothing without the people we have made our family. James Gunn refuses to allow his film to be undermined by Marvel’s storytelling habits. Instead, he uses those habits as a tool to reveal a perennial truth: our lives are meaningless unless we have used them in the service of those we love.