Monday, May 8, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Review

(dir, James Gunn)

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
"I'm gonna make some weird shit."

Picking up after the events of Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter Quill and his band of misfits encounter his father, the mysterious Ego, while a race of alien royalty, The Sovereign, and a mutinous faction of Ravagers threaten to tear the team apart in their attempt to fulfill the bounties placed on the Guardians’ heads.

After the first Guardians of the Galaxy blew away audience expectations and became a critical darling that showcased what the Marvel Cinematic Universe is capable of when they truly left the street level stuff behind, James Gunn was faced with the daunting question of how to follow it up. As the MCU has proven, returning directors haven’t had the greatest creative success with sequels. So rather than to further attempt to aim for corporate synergy and build closer to the ever approaching showdown with Thanos in next year’s Infinity War, James Gunn decided the only way Vol. 2 could fulfill the promise of the first film was for it to be even more of a James Gunn film and chart his own course. If you’re familiar with Gunn’s work from Slither, Super, or even his days at Troma, then those works provide a strong sense of what to expect from Vol. 2. The sequel is funnier, more emotional, weirder, and ultimately more indulgent than its predecessor. While it lacks the light-footedness of the first, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 truly feels like a voice-driven director showcase of the likes that we haven’t seen in the MCU in some time. While the central viewer question, “is it better than the first?” faces any sequel, not every follow-up needs to pull an Empire Strikes Back (a film that Vol. 2 shares a number of parallels with) and exceed the quality of the first. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t better than the first, but it is equal to it, its own unique strengths and weakness different from the first while also providing a continuing arc of themes and characters dynamics that feel natural in its aim not to beat out the first, but to continue the forward motion to the tune of Awesome Mix Vol. 2.

The film wastes no time getting things moving. After the Guardians stop an inter-dimensional monster on behalf of the Sovereign nation (and Rocket steals a few of their batteries, setting both The Sovereign and The Ravagers on their tails) the Guardians immediately encounter Ego (Kurt Russell). While so many films would have played the revelation of Peter’s father as a big reveal, particularly given the emphasis placed on it at the end of the last film, Guardians doesn’t go for the misdirect. Here, the revelation isn’t used as a twist for the sake of the audience, but is instead revealed for the sake of the story and to provide time for the emotional foundation necessary for the characters’ arc. Every story beat in this film (excepting the romantic and self-aware “unspoken thing” between Peter and Gamora) is for the sake of moving the characters forward, rather than relying on fan-service. Oh, there’s plenty of fan-service, what with Gunn’s penchant for Easter eggs revolving on the cosmic side of Marvel, but when it comes to the meat of Vol. 2, this is a logic based narrative that stems from giving every character an arc of their own. And while some have suggested that Vol. 2 follows too many similar beats as the first film, the different heartspaces these characters find themselves in gives Vol. 2 an entirely different flavor than the first.

The returning Guardians all display a greater degree of comfort in their roles, and Pratt, who has become one of Hollywood’s most likable leading men is able to explore an even greater emotional range this time around. There’s a sincerity to Quill, such that even when he’s being a scoundrel and cracking-wise, we’re never more than an arms-length away from the emotional vulnerability that serves as a noble reflection of humanity. Collectively, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, and Vin Diesel have no problem reminding us why we loved these characters in the first place, while finding new pockets of vulnerability, heroism, humor, and inevitability the loneliness that bring the team together but also threatens to divide them this time around.  

New Guardians Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Yondu (Michael Rooker), and newcomer Mantis (Pom Klementieff) each define themselves within an already diverse group of eclectic characters. Klementieff portrays the antennaed empath, Mantis, with a na├»ve innocence and infectious enthusiasm that adds a welcome new dynamic to the team, particularly when she’s in the presence of Drax’s direct and literal personality. Together, Drax and Mantis create many of the film’s funniest scenes. But it’s Gillan and Rooker who deliver the film’s most impressive performances, each turning their characters’ reputations as villains into complex individuals who find heroism through their hurt. Both characters unwittingly find themselves as part of a family again, and as a result lose some of their edge while gaining a discovery of the selves they’d forgotten or buried.

Russell, charismatic and ever capable of defining himself through roles created by distinct voices, brings heart and gravitas to the role of the lonely god, Ego. Ego provides one of the few instances in the MCU where the adversary makes for a compelling, and fully realized threat with clear motivations that stem from a similar place as the heroes’. Ego, a living planet who has built a body for himself, is one of the many examples in the film of James Gunn repurposing comic history to better fit the needs of the film. This isn’t a case of grounding the source material to make it easier to present, as so many comic book adaptations do, but of preserving the weirdness while also creating stronger thematic ties. Gunn knows his comic history, but isn’t tied to it and that knowledge gives him freedom. He takes Ego, a giant purple planet with a face and beard in the comics, and alters him not only into the ultimate “cool dad” on the surface, but a thematic means to discuss individually. While half of the Guardians are on Ego’s utopia, they become aware of his godlike abilities to spread his consciousness across the galaxy and become other planets through terraforming. The conflict that ensues isn’t just about a son realizing the fallibility of an absent father, but in finding a way to combat homogeny while also emphasizing commonality and difference between being as one and being a team.

So much of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is built on parallels. We see these parallels through certain callbacks to the first film, through the more unexpected music selection, which this time utilizes repeated motifs, and the characters’ personalities. By dividing the Guardians into factions for most of the film, those captured by the Ravagers, and those on Ego’s planet, we’re able to get a truer sense of these individuals and watch new bonds develop. Families aren’t created simply through a collective relationship, but through separate interactions and relationships within larger relationships. It’s this notion that Ego, in millenniums of experience, fails to see the smaller picture within his grand design, is unable to comprehend. The Guardians may be built on the principle that they’re all unique, but when it comes to their emotional ties, they are each driven by loneliness and their desire to be part of a family while maintaining their own will and sense of identity. Yes, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is about family, but it offers a more unique analysis of what that means in terms of individuals than any comic book film has had the interest in exploring.

The film is easily one of Marvel’s best looking films, and even though the cinematographer and production designer from the first film were swept up in Doctor Strange, Henry Braham and Scott Chambliss work magic in making Guardians visually distinct from the rest of the MCU. As great as Vol. 2 looks and sounds (you’ll get no soundtrack spoilers from me), what makes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 so special is how evident it is that Gunn cares deeply about these characters. While so many comic book movie directors can claim fandom or an interesting take, it truly feels that each and every character in this film is an extension of James Gunn and that he knows them through and through. While the film is a bit stuffed with character moments and gags, rather than plot beats, a self-indulgent film is far preferable to a factory made film, and Vol. 2 gives such a clear look inside the head of one of our most offbeat modern directors. In the comics, the cosmic side of the Marvel Universe is often the most difficult to grasp, feeling unnecessarily obtuse and emotionless. But within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Gunn’s cosmic adventures have proven to be one of the very best aspects of this connected franchise, and certainly the most rewarding emotional experience. Sure, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 may be a popcorn film, but it’s definitely a Chicago mix, a balance of sweetness and cheese that’s impossible not to love.

Grade: A