I Am Groot
Now that the summer movie season is upon us, we can expect to be bombarded with think pieces about superhero fatigue. These pieces will tell us that audiences are absolutely done with superhero movies in general, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe in particular. But you know what? I don’t buy it.
I understand the sentiment, though. Summer movies used to be either broad comedies or action flicks about cops on the edge. Now, we’ve got people in garish costumes with goofy codenames interacting with CGI monstrosities. For people like my dear friend Devila, it can be unbearable. She’s got a toddler, a wonderful marriage, and a challenging career in the mental health field. She has better things to do than watch another Spider-Man flick, especially one that pays off plot points that were set up in another movie entirely.
But before we bury the superhero genre, let’s take a moment to praise what Marvel Studios accomplished. With 2008’s Iron Man, they resurrected the career of Robert Downey Jr., which was no small feat. They also made a real effort to make their characters inherently interesting, and they never condescended to them. A guy that can shrink to the size of an ant is cool! Marvel has access to some seriously weird-ass characters and concepts, and they have never been afraid to lean into them.
Case in point? 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel took a big risk on this one. Where previously they were willing to keep things fairly grounded, fairly cheap, and all of the movies sharing a similar color palette, director James Gunn made a big, colorful blockbuster with bizarre heroes and a slightly punk ethos. Audiences loved it. Marvel, not being run by idiots, started work on a sequel. That brings us to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and while it might not be the breath of fresh air that the original was, it’s still very much it’s own thing.
Picking up a few months after the first film, the team are doing a job for the Sovereigns, a race of haughty, golden-skinned aliens. The job should be simple; defend a cluster of valuable batteries from a Lovecraftian horror. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), otherwise known as Star-Lord, tries to keep his people on point. That’s tough when he has to manage the likes of Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a heavily armed raccoonoid, Drax (Dave Bautista), a hulking warrior with no appreciation (or understanding) of metaphor, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an assassin and adopted daughter of the mad titan Thanos, and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), a sentient and ambulatory tree-creature. The good news is, the mission works out rather nicely, and their reward is custody of Gamora’s evil sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). The bad news is, Rocket takes it upon himself to steal the batteries from the Sovereigns.
Turns out they’re not thrilled about that, which is why they hire Yondu (Michael Rooker), the leader of the space pirates known as the Ravagers. Yondu abducted young Peter Quill from Earth, and he knows the Guardians well. He should be a good choice to hunt them down. But he’s got his own problems to deal with, like the threat of a mutiny and a rift with his old mentor Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone). While the Guardians are being pursued, they also meet Ego (Kurt Russell), a being of vast power who reveals himself to be Quill’s biological father. Now Quill must choose between the family he was born into and the family he’s made.
While the first film was about a group of outcasts forming their own family, this film is about family dynamics. A lot. It deep dives into Quill’s relationship with his quasi-stepfather Yondu, the fraught sibling tension between Gamora and Nebula, and Rocket masking feelings of insecurity through hostility, like an awkward teen. There’s more besides, and while I think James Gunn’s screenplay sometimes leans so hard on the family concept that it becomes a little much, I’ll take that strong emotional bedrock over the quips and ponderous speechifying that tries to pass so often as character development in big franchise flicks.
Speaking of character development, Vol. 2 continues the trend set up in the MCU for creating a strong ensemble. Lesser studios would have made this film Star-Lord and Pals; Marvel chooses not to. Every character not only has a cool moment, they also have their own arc. Even supporting characters like Nebula and the alien empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff) are given depth.
Before you start to worry that this film is Guardians of the Galaxy: Tell The Group About Your Feelings, don’t. You’d think that this being the 15th movie in the MCU, there would be a certain amount of phoning things in. I’m happy to say it ain’t so. James Gunn directs not as one of the architects of the MCU, but as a guy with something to prove. He crafts a number of creative and well-staged action sequences, and none of them ever start to feel ho-hum. Even in the slightly too-big finale, Gunn does good work with clearly showing where everybody is in the battle and precisely how they’re involved. His production design is detailed and clever and, along with a wide and bright color palette, Vol. 2 might be the best looking movie in the MCU to date.
As always, the cast shows up to play, and there’s a number of standouts. As Ego, Kurt Russell is charming and charismatic, and he fits perfectly into the MCU aesthetic, as does his Tango and Cash co-star Sylvester Stallone. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora is the most levelheaded Guardian, but I liked the simmering resentment between her and Karen Gillen’s Nebula. But the MVP is Michael Rooker’s Yondu. Underneath his craggy exterior is a big, beating heart, and he’s funny, tragic, pathetic, and absolutely badass, sometimes all at the same time. He walks away with the movie, and that’s not an easy thing to do considering just how strong this cast is.
Having said all that, it ain’t perfect. The film feels a little overstuffed, and it’s perhaps 15 minutes too long. Along with that are a few scenes that meander, which slows down the pacing. While Vol. 2 is more emotional and is probably the funniest movie in the MCU yet, the narrative isn’t as strong and propulsive as the original.
In the end, it doesn’t matter, especially when we’re talking about a crowd-pleasing blockbuster that was designed, first and foremost, with fun in mind. There are still familiar elements, like the early-80’s pop tunes that add to the exuberance of the film; overall the film has a vibrant joy that’s infectious. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the antidote for grimdark foolishness like Batman v. Superman. While we might be in the midst of an onslaught of caped crusader cinema, this film proves that Marvel Studios are the only ones who care enough to consistently do it right.