–The Incredible Hulk
–Iron Man 2
–Captain America: The First Avenger
–Iron Man 3
–Thor: The Dark World
–Captain America: The Winter Soldier
–Guardians of the Galaxy
–Avengers: Age of Ultron
–Captain America: Civil War
With the unexpected runaway success of the original Guardians of the Galaxy, coupled with the hints it dropped of a larger storyline, a sequel was inevitable. So, how does it compare with the original?
We open with a brief prologue on in 1980’s Missouri, where Peter Quill’s mother is being romanced by a mysterious, charming stranger who shows her the small, plant-like object he’s placed in the forest. Cut to thirty-four years later at ‘The Sovereign,’ where the adult Peter Quill leading the Guardians of the Galaxy in a battle against a giant, other-dimensional space squid. Despite their continued bickering and eccentricities, the Guardians handily defeat the monster and collect their bounty from the golden, eugenically-created, ultra-arrogant Sovereign. This includes Gamora’s belligerent adopted sister, Nebula, whom they intend to collect the bounty on.
Unfortunately, thanks to Rocket’s self-destructive bad attitude and kleptomania, they quickly offend the Sovereign, who mark them for death, leading to a massive space battle made worse by Quill and Rocket’s jockeying for position. They’re saved at the last moment by a mysterious ship that blows up the entire pursuing fleet in a single blast. After a crash landing, they meet the ship’s pilot, Ego and his assistant / pet, Mantis. Ego identifies himself as Quill’s father, and invites him back to his own world to receive answers about his past. The team splits up, with Rocket and baby Groot (the offspring of Groot, who sacrificed himself for the team at the end of the first film) staying behind to repair the ship and guard Nebula, while Quill, Gamora, and Drax accompany Ego. Meanwhile, the Sovereign continue hunting the Guardians, while Yondu, Quill’s pirate foster father, starts having his mistakes catch up with him.
So, I called the first Guardians a ‘lightning in a bottle’ film: one of those rare films that comes along every now and strikes a completely original tone. But what I didn’t mention was that there was a slight problem with that. Namely that such films tend not to be very sequel-friendly. Often the unique achieved in the first film can’t survive a second pass, and the results come across as forced, unbalanced, or faintly desperate, as if the filmmakers themselves weren’t sure just what the had done and were attempt to reverse-engineer a happy accident. For examples of what I mean, just take a look at, say, Ghostbusters 2, or the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels.
Guardians 2, alas, doesn’t escape this problem. It fails to quite capture that strange balance of comedy, drama, and eccentric charm that the first one had, and the tone is at times wildly off. But, on the positive side, and unlike the other examples mentioned, it is nevertheless a very good film in its own right.
The story, obviously, is a bit more convoluted this time around, though it’s easy enough to follow; we have three or four different factions, each with their own goals, though they all play into the storyline in a way that it makes sense they would be involved: the Sovereign want to kill the Guardians for insulting them, which is the catalyst for the conflict within the team, said conflict mirroring the conflict Yondu has with his crew and his fellow ‘Ravagers.’
It’s all strung together with the theme of family; fathers and sons, sisters, and whether the characters will put themselves or their ‘families’ first. This theme is remarkably consistent across the film; Rocket stealing the batteries without caring about how it might affect the team, Rocket and Quill risking everyone’s safety by bickering during the space chase, them splitting up (symbolizing their distance), the Ravagers mutinying over Yondu’s decisions, which seem to be motivated more by his own wishes than the good the crew, and so on and so forth. Even the Sovereign, with their hilarious self-centered perspective (pursuing the Guardians to the death for what was more or less an insult), fit into this pattern.
Of course, the biggest example is Ego himself, who, as his name implies, is absolutely self-centered, but we’ll get to him later.
The opening of the movie is excellent; quickly re-establishing the personalities of the whole team, the way they work together, and setting up a few new developments, such as Baby Groot and the fact that Drax has at last somewhat mastered the art of metaphor without its making him any less odd. The fact that the majority of the fight is shown in the background while the camera focuses on Baby Groot dancing to more ‘70s pop hits immediately recaptures the off-beat, light-hearted tone of the first film, while showing off the team (and the song, ‘Mr. Blue Sky,’ perfectly foreshadows some of the themes and events of the film).
Unfortunately, they can’t quite maintain it. The tone alternates between being goofier than the first film – e.g. the scene where they fly through 700 ‘jump points’ in a row resulting in cartoony distortions, or Baby Groot’s increasingly absurd efforts to steal a select object from the Ravager cabin – and being much harsher and more adult – e.g. a bit where the Ravagers visit a brothel, or seeing dozens of men being shot out into space while screaming and crying for help. Not to mention the disturbing situation with Ego (who, we learn, has killed hundreds of his own children), which culminates in Quill having to kill his own father, which is interspersed with the same absurdist jokes as before. Basically, the film feels a good deal more uncomfortable and unbalanced than the first one, and the tone doesn’t hit the right note as often. More of the humor falls flat – the ‘not ripe’ gag, for instance – and more of the crudity feels simply unpleasant.
But, beyond that, there are still a lot of strengths to be had. We get more development for the characters, particularly Rocket and Yondu (the latter’s backstory we learn a bit about), as well as more both of genuine heart and humor from Drax, along with setting up a great new character in Mantis. Mantis is able to sense and, to a degree, alter the emotions of those she touches, and there’s a good scene where she touches Drax while he’s thinking of his family and is overwhelmed by his grief.
Mantis’s empathic abilities are generally put to very good use in developing both her and the rest of the cast, like when she touches Quill and announces for everyone to hear that he’s in love with Gamora (Gamora’s reaction, which is startled, but not really displeased, is perfect). This is quickly followed by her trying to touch Gamora, who forcibly prevents her, which is at least as revealing as anything that might have been said.
Most important of all is the progression on Quill’s character as he process not only meeting his father, but learning that his father is a god (“Small ‘g’,” Ego clarifies. “At least on days when I’m feeling as humble as Drax”). His back-and-forth feels from fear, excitement, anger, and pride are very well conceived and realized. Not only that, but over the course of the film he’s also forced to come to terms with just what he was looking for in the first place in seeking his father, whether he ever wanted to know who his father was, and what he really values in the first place, all of which builds on his progression in the first film. This is worked into his relationships with the other characters, particularly Gamora. The film establishes early on that he’s in love with her, but the question is whether there could ever be anything between them, given their ostensibly very different characters, and (more subtly) whether Quill is in fact mature enough to even have that kind of relationship with anyone. Which, of course, raises the question of whether he can really lead the Guardians in the first place.
Gamora, meanwhile, gets her own story arc relative to her villainous sister, Nebula, both of whom spend most of the film snarling and threatening to kill each other, until a late-game revelation puts their relationship into a startlingly new context. What had seemed like a ruthless, psychotic monster is abruptly revealed as a tormented young girl starving for the least bit of love or comfort in a hellish existence. Recalling their time under Thanos’s tutelage, she screams at Gamora, “You’re the one who wanted to win, and I just wanted a sister!”
The pay off for this reconciliation is a warm, yet tragic moment where Nebula is preparing to go off on a desperate and almost certainly futile effort to kill Thanos, and Gamora pulls her into a hug. Nebula initially reacts defensively…then slowly hugs her back.
Again, family is the recurring theme of the film: family and betrayal and trying to do right by those you are connected to. Which brings us to Ego, who is a simply fantastic villain. He’s charming and relaxed, but even from the start there are hints that something’s not quite right about him. There’s a definite sense of self-centeredness and disinterest in the other characters as people (as when Quill successfully manipulates molecules and Ego’s reaction is less that of a proud father than an inventor who has suddenly made a breakthrough). Then when his evil plan is revealed it’s, well, perfectly fitting for someone named ‘Ego:’ consume the whole galaxy until he is all that is. Everything, to Ego, is, or ought to be, an extension of himself, fitting perfectly in his position as a deadbeat father who abandoned his wife and son to pursue his own interests, as well as fitting with his status as a living planet.
I also like how Ego lies. When he recounts his backstory, for instance, he doesn’t say anything actually false; he only leaves out some vital details. Likewise, when Quill confronts him about not being around and leaving his mother to die on Earth, Ego first tries to make it about himself (“you don’t know what it was like…”), then when Quill shuts him down (“I know exactly what it was like; I had to watch her die!”), he smoothly changes the subject. I also love how Ego describes his utter selfishness in grandiose, tragic terms, as though he were a great romantic hero suffering for a noble cause, as though he were the real victim in all of this.
Fittingly, this self-centeredness is what proves the flaw in Ego’s plan; he evidently doesn’t expect Quill to react to strongly to the news that he put the cancer in his mother’s brain (“Who…in the hell do you think you are?!”). Later he’s stunned when Quill is able to use his love for his friends to master molecular control in order to fight Ego on equal terms (during the battle Ego makes a giant statue of himself, while Quill counters with a giant Pac-Man, visualizing the difference between the self-centered nature of one and the playful nature of the other).
So, Ego is a great villain; one of the best so far, and the mirroring between him and Yondu and Quill’s too father figures is great. One biologically created Quill, but the other acted as a father to him by teaching him to be a man. The film hints that Quill’s talents, the skills that make him such a deceptively dangerous and confident fighter, all come from Yondu. Paraphrasing C.S. Lewis, one gave of his body to beget him; the other gave of his spirit to raise him. As Yondu himself neatly sums up, “He might have been your father, boy; but he weren’t your daddy.”
Though the film does make clear that Yondu himself wasn’t a particularly good father figure either; he beat Quill, threatened to eat him (“That was just being funny!”), introduced him to a criminal lifestyle, and so on. Yondu himself admits that he “didn’t do any of it right.” But at the end of the day, he’s shown to genuinely love Quill, and to care for him more than for himself, which is ultimately the most important point.
Now, all this is fine and good as far as it goes, emphasizing how a father and a family should behave (Nebula scoffs at the idea of the Guardians being friends, since “all you do is yell at each other!” To which Drax answers, “No, we’re family; no one gets left behind”). Any other time and place, I’d have no objections to the movie’s themes. However, in today’s day and age, with ‘family’ being increasingly re-defined into something chosen rather than given, and the plain facts of blood relation and natural responsibility being more and more denied, a film where a man ends up killing his biological father and vindicating his ‘chosen’ family instead cannot but be uncomfortable. Like many other contemporary films, it’s fine in itself, but in the present context it comes across as rather unpleasant.
On a more positive note, I like the limits placed on Ego’s power. For all his boasts of being a god, the film explicitly states that he can’t create life, or even permanently maintain his own avatar. Nor does he know where he himself came from, or possess any more knowledge (and less wisdom) than any other being of his age and experience.
Though exactly what he can and can’t do relative to his planet is not really made clear; when, at the end, he’s trying to stop the bomb that might kill him, I couldn’t help wondering why he couldn’t just make up new energy tendrils to grab it or something. It’s a minor point that I’m sure could be explained, but there it is.
But on that point, I have to praise the action scenes once again, which are even more energized and creative than in the first film. Early on there’s a great chase through space, including a trip through a ‘quantum asteroid field,’ which seems to be trying to one-up The Empire Strikes Back, with teleporting asteroids. The sequence is full of hilarious details, like how the Sovereign ships are flown by remote control, meaning that the pilots are basically running an arcade (complete with one bit where a group gathers around a particularly skilled ‘player’ to cheer him on…then immediately turn on him when he fails), or how Drax grabs a space suit from a rack saying they’re “only for emergencies,” with the words “or fun” scribbled underneath.
Later there’s a scene where Rocket takes on the whole Ravager crew single-handedly using his gadgets and agility (and in the process getting to act like a real raccoon). The finale, with the crew taking on a planet, plus the Sovereign fleet once more, is also great.
Though in between is a scene where Rocket and Yondu take out the mutineering Ravagers, which is another one of those bits where the film becomes more uncomfortable; seeing them gleefully slaughter dozens upon dozens of men while a jaunty pop tune plays (even if the men are horrible) feels tonally jarring, and not in a fun way.
Visually, the film is a step up on its predecessor, particularly with Ego’s planet, which looks like a cover of Amazing Stories brought to vivid and colorful life, with its fantastical plants and architecture, though, somewhat ominously, no animal life (I also like that the film includes the image that Ego’s planet has an ominous face on it). We also have the golden Sovereign, and the funeral sequence at the very end, with its fireworks and the dust becoming an arrow.
And, though the humor doesn’t all work as well as in the first film, we still have a lot of great jokes: Baby Groot (or, as Drax calls him, “dumber, smaller Groot”), Mantis’s innocent attempts to learn human interactions, which are not helped by Drax’s unfiltered advice (“I am learning that I am a pet, and that I am ugly”), Drax himself just being Drax (“This gross bug lady is my new friend”), and, of course, the whole team constantly bickering or getting side-tracked by irrelevant conversations, such as when Rocket translates Groot’s digression on why he doesn’t like hats, or when, during the final battle, Quill tries and fails to get a strip of tape for Rocket. I also really like Yondu’s second-in-command, Kraglin, and his terrified reaction to Nebula’s backstory and plans for revenge (“Yeah, I was thinking something more like a pretty necklace. Or maybe a nice hat…”).
And again, there is a good deal of the warmth and sweetness of the first film as well. There’s everyone’s care for Baby Groot, the would-be romance between Quill and Gamora, and the development with Rocket’s character and the way Yondu is able to see right through him “‘Cause you’re me!” (I am continually amazed at this franchise’s ability to get genuine character-based drama out of a talking raccoon).
So, in summary, Guardians 2 is kind of an odd film; it reaches further than its predecessor, and in some ways outdoes it, but it also fails more. So, overall I’d rank it below the first film, but some parts of this one are stronger than anything in the first one. It’s still a very good movie in its own right, with a good story, a great villain, some excellent visuals and action, and interesting, if not always positive themes, all wrapped up in the quirky, creative world of the Guardians.