14 May 2017

First Impressions: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The first official Summer Movie Season flick (Fate of the Furious [2017] be damned) is out and there were a lot of mixed expectations here. Critics and pundits in general seem more and more leary of the repetitious Marvel machine, the first installment of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) burst on to the scene out of no where to blow everyone away, and generally the studio had a big follow-up film problem.
And Andy Dwyer keeps getting more jacked.

That was all for naught, though, because I'd call Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) somehow superior to the first and one of Marvel Studio's finest films, if not their greatest. It's at least a neck and neck race with The Winter Soldier (2014) at this point. It's really an amazing feat because so so often the follow-up to a successful out of no where film falls on its face by trying and failing to replicate what made its predecessor great, or it had inspired so much that it becomes a pale version of itself, akin more to its imitators than remaining truly inspired.

Vol 2 doesn't fall into any of these traps. It's actually remarkably simple how it doesn't - avoiding any temptation to go bigger and crazier or forcing itself to be anything it's not, it instead doubles down on its characters and their interactions. It's the characters themselves who are naturally really funny and refreshing, so the whole thing feeds itself with a basis that's way more consistent than most other films that stumble at this point. Their interactions and relationships are what makes this series worth watching and it's frankly unbelievable that Marvel and Disney let director James Gunn have his way with this and it's paid off so well. Clearly, as time has shown again and again, this is a studio that simply knows what they are doing.

So let's get into every nook and cranny. The Guardians are still a relatively obscure group of characters, at least in the sense that they don't have a history as well known as a Captain America or Hulk, but there's actually plenty of nods here to the greater Marvel cosmos that acknowledges the long run of this team that no one has ever really cared about. We'll get more into Sly Stallone later (spoilers forever, for that matter), but for now, let us rest that this film is more about having its way with these random people rather than owing anything to legions of fans.

We get a lot of this right at the start. The opening scene shows most of the team battling some random space monster over some batteries, but the film quickly demonstrates that it's not the kind of movie that actually cares about any of that. The entire focus of the intro is a stunningly cute dancing Baby Groot which belies this films' true heart: music and character. We've all seen awesome action sequences over and over by now, but there hasn't been a film in years whose opening number is this purely joyous.

Part of that is the color scheme, which more and more Marvel seems leaning towards bright fluorescent rainbows. It's actually them aping Suicide Squad (2016) for once, but between this and Thor: Ragnarok (2017), and Doctor Strange (2016) for that matter, we seem super into trippy lights and colors now. Maybe that's to go along with the outer space aesthetic of the Marvel Universe, which is all fine - it fits the joyous theme.

As far as the characters go, everyone gets a moment to shine, and it may be surprising that Chris Pratt's Star-Lord, while he gets the ostensible main storyline, doesn't really get the best scenes, one-liners, or even the most significant character arc. This flick spreads the wealth, and shows that this is truly an ensemble piece - Drax gets to develop with newcomer Mantis, Gamora and Nebula square off, then reconcile, and then most of all, Rocket Raccoon and Yondu go through tremendous growth, the latter of which is arguably the main character of the film.

In this way, the film actually fills in a lot of the first flick's plotholes, like why Yondu kept Quill around for so many years without giving him over to his father, and of course, who Pete Quill's father actually is! That is of course, David Hasselhoff Kurt Russell Ego, the celestial living planet, which is a little fast and loose with the origin mythology but who cares. It's in line with what has already been established in the MCU.

Kurt Russell is a great get here, and to be honest, it might just be because I hadn't really ingested any of the more recent trailers or marketing material, but I did not know that Ego was going to be the main villain. He's not totally a villain in the comic books, but I also didn't really even know how far they'd go with him, since I really just saw Kurt Russell and figured, "Well, maybe they're not crazy and he won't be a planet. That's not unreasonable." I was sitting in the theater and I kept waiting for something to happen, like some other villain like Annihilus or Terrax or something to show up and throw down and they'd need Ego's help or whatever. Slowly it dawned on me that they were not going to leave Ego's planet and that Kurt Russell was a bad dude! I am so rarely genuinely tricked by a movie like this. It was awesome. A lot of this is probably the benefit of going in really fresh, which I recommend to everyone, always.

It's nicely fitting, then, that the first Guardians deals primarily with Quill's relationship to his mother and everything he does in her memory, even if he's a slave to it in his own way, but this one deals with Quill's relationship with his father, and all the joys, then toil and pain it brings him and uh...the universe.

So, Kurt's had a ridiculous year with this and The Fate of the Furious (2016) and even with his matching moustaches in Bone Tomahawk (2015) and The Hateful Eight (2016) has had a decent resurgence. Goldie Hawn too, for that matter. But the star here is Michael Rooker, who goes through so much damn pathos and redemption (sure, by killing a ton of people in another incredibly filmed scene) on his way to becoming a true Guardian of the Galaxy. It's nicely fitting of Yondu's origin, down to the 'hawk. Yondu is of course a rival father figure to Quill and ultimately a stronger one. The film takes its time in developing this, as only good movies care to do.

And while there's all this Father-Son stuff going on, this is also the best sister movie since Frozen (2013). There's some actual touching moments between the insane jealous Nebula and the too cool for school Gamora that are totally their mad titan father's fault. Their move from trying to kill each other to reconciling maybe comes a little fast, but it's fun to have Nebula on the team (kind of), and thus the film does the improbable of turning two villains from the first film on to the side of the good guys.

This also does its fair share of Infinity War (2018) set-up, even if it's sneaky about it. In the comics, Nebula played a pretty big part in wresting the Infinity Gauntlet from Thanos' hand, and then became Queen Bitch of the Universe herself for a bit. If that's the direction Marvel is headed, getting her on our side is a critical move. Perhaps even more notably, it's also an insight into what kind of villain Thanos actually is rather than a big dude sitting in a chair. He's a crafty evil sumbitch.

To hopelessly postulate more about Infinity War, we were also treated to an end credits scene dishing a possible origin for Adam Warlock, who is also an integral member of the Infinity Gauntlet mini-series, leading most of the heroes against the evil of Thanos. There have been rumours everywhere, though, first suggesting that Him was originally a main character in Vol. 2, then thrown out because that'd be nuts, and that he won't be in Infinity War, but rather Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2020). That would somewhat make sense because it ought to be like, Captain America or Iron Man leading the charge against Thanos, right? I mean, that's the whole point to this six-year build up (or arguably, a ten-year build up, signifying all of what Marvel has done so far). But that's really it in terms of future set-ups, which are all really hypothetical and only work if you're a huge nerd.

This makes this film somehow one of the least connected of any Marvel film, which really took me as a surprise. It was also a miracle that no Infinity Stones were involved, which have become integral MacGuffins in all these films. In fact, the only stone unrevealed so far is the Soul Stone, which has a lot of linkage with Adam Warlock. Just sayin' - there is a lot of room here for connection and set-up which was totally ignored. That's impressive restraint.
They're all beautiful on the inside.

We ought to talk about Awesome Mixtape Vol. 2, which doubles down on the obscure yet tonally fitting songs and shits all over Suicide Squad in its replication of what made the original great. It really strikes the perfect tone of familiar but unplaceable, which forms the heart of the film. It's also very important that it's often completely diegetic - these songs actually mean something to every character, and when Kraglin hands Peter an ultra-modern Zune at the end of the film it opens up a lot of soundtrack possibilities in addition to being representative of something the main character holds very dear. We have nothing similar in Suicide Squad besides a superficial imitation.

On that note, I am eager for Peter Quill to finally reach modern-day earth. He's a weird mix right now of space age man but with a pop culture knowledge that's still stuck in the 1980s. Frozen in time but thrust forward in technology is a weird spot to be in. He'd mix in great with Cap and Iron Man.

The last bit of prognostication we can make is about Sly Stallone and his Ravagers crew, who are really made up of original Guardians of the Galaxy that formed my first memories of the team, like Starhawk, Charlie 27, and Major Victory. Major Victory is absent, and no one is referred to by name, but damn, that's Ving Rhames! I actually knew these guys better than Star-Lord and Drax, but I'm not sure where they're going with this. With Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) and the shuffle of Inhumans, it's clear that Marvel's hard and fast plan and release schedule isn't set in stone, and maybe we can get a side story about these guys. What's even more clear after Vol. 2 is that not every story has to be integral or leading up to anything. It's actually the truest form of a shared universe - not everything is actually important - some shit just happens.

So maybe there will be a spin-off with these random characters we saw for 30 seconds and that will justify getting Stallone to wear some neon tubes in this film. Who knows. At any rate, I'm pretty damn pleased with the outcome of this flick and look forward to more.

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