Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was easily one of the most fervently anticipated films of 2017, and almost certainly the most anticipated Marvel film of the year. It’s easy to see why. The original charmed us with its quirky ‘70s and ‘80s discography, its cast of loveable rogues and its lean towards comedy over serious self-aggrandising. Vol. 2 does not disappoint. In fact, I’d argue it’s significantly superior to the first movie, fine-tuning the mix of pathos and humour down to an alchemical art. Right from the opening credits, in which a cute-as-pie Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) weaves and dances his way around the lashing tentacles of an inter-dimensional being to the retro rock-funk of ELO’s Mr Blue Sky, Vol. 2 is a feel-good pleasure to watch. In a movie-market saturated with grungy monochrome disaster-pieces soliloquising on the nature of human existence as pain (one only has to watch the soporific Transformers: The Last Knight trailer to get a taste of it), Guardians is refreshingly upbeat, heart-warming, and bursting with virtually every colour known to man, maybe even some new ones too.
Unlike the original Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2’s plot is slower to get going, but that’s a good thing. The first movie plunged us into Ronin’s fairly dull revenge story – lifted only by the wit and exuberance of the Guardians themselves. In Vol. 2, we get more time to appreciate the characters, their relationships, how they have developed into ‘guardians’ in a more official capacity. Understandably, there are some tensions in the group. Rocket (Bradley Cooper) can’t let go of the chip on his shoulder against virtually all living beings. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) can’t acknowledge feelings for Peter (Chris Pratt). Peter is still cut up about the fact he doesn’t know who his dad is. But there’s so much more going on. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film handle such a large cast of characters so well. All of them have an inner turmoil that’s fleshed out and comes to a profound and satisfying resolution.
Things start moving more rapidly when, after Rocket steals a bunch of rare high-value batteries from one of the Guardians’ clients, the Sovereigns, they find themselves besieged by attack ships, only to be saved by a dude stood on top of his spaceship without a suit. We soon discover this is Peter Quill’s long lost dad, Ego (Kurt Russell), who’s searched the galaxy for him seeking a reunion. Kurt Russell is expertly cast here and shows his immense experience, bringing Ego to life in a way that is entirely believable and borderline hypnotic. From this point on, I can’t tell you too much more, because it would spoil the whole thing. Suffice to say, it captures the old-school feeling of a true adventure narrative led by a cast of characters you can’t help but adore, something like The Goonies but with adults and in space. What marked those ‘80s movies out was their sheer inventiveness, sometimes into the realm of absurdity, but never from the realm of entertainment, and Vol. 2 has oodles of that. CGI action has become a mainstay of modern film. Frankly, I find it boring in excessive quantities, but Gunn has found a way to make it funny, dazzling and fresh, drawing from video-games in particular to create a host of memorable sequences.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is fun, which is perhaps what I loved most about it. I enjoy a serious film as much as anyone – and I think movies like Silence are important and necessary – but there is something truly magical about a film that doesn’t take itself seriously, that’s so full of heart. I couldn’t help but think that in these twisted times, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was exactly the film we needed. Packed with genuine wit and humour that outshines most of the comedies out there, I’d be willing to put money on you getting more than a few belly laughs from it. Unlike the Avengers, whose relentless one-liner wise-cracking got old-news very quickly, Guardians’ humour is deeper, derived from character, and from the ridiculous of human beings. Director James Gunn clearly understands one very important thing about Sci-Fi and Fantasy that Tolkien mastered: Aliens and Elves and Dwarves are never literal, they are always extensions of humanity. The diversity of alien life and culture is a reflection of the diversity of human life and culture, with all its bizarreness and quirks. Take Drax the Destroyer (played brilliantly by Dave Bautista). His culture takes everything literally and hence, Drax is almost like a big kid. He can’t deal with untruths, he can’t fully understand the nuance of metaphor, so he always says what he means, even in the most inappropriate situations. And it’s funny every time.
But Vol. 2 also has meaning, and knows when to balance humour with real pathos, and this is what makes it a great film. It’s more than just fun, there’s deep revelation. Peter keeps mentioning ‘this unspoken thing’ between Gamora and himself, which Gamora refuses to acknowledge. This ‘unspoken thing’ is thematic through all of the characters, a common thread tying the whole film together. It proves much more subtle and ambiguous than we first assume. Is he talking about love in an explicit romantic sense, or is it about family, friendship? What is the unspoken thing Rocket will not say, about why he felt compelled to steal the batteries and put them all in danger? Could it be about self-love, or, in Rocket’s case, a complete lack thereof? And what of Drax’s unspoken thing: the grief he feels for his family? Upon meeting Ego, the Guardians also meet his assistant, Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who is an ‘empath’, someone who can feel someone else’s feelings. In a stunningly powerful scene, she puts her hand on Drax, and while he remains outwardly controlled and resolute, she experiences what he is feeling inside, and consequently, has a breakdown. It’s gut-wrenchingly well done, Klementieff’s acting is wonderful, and because of the humour which has come before it, the scene hits ten times as hard.
Speaking of side characters, enter Yondu, played by the impeccable Michael Rooker. Yondu was one of my favourite characters from the original movie, partly because of how ridiculously cool his lethal whistle-controlled arrow is, and partly because Michael Rooker played him with such tenacity and spirit. Rooker is an exceptional actor – his short stint in The Walking Dead was, at least for me, one of the best things about the series. He has a way of making dislikeable, or rather damaged, characters extraordinarily humane and accessible. So, with Yondu, a ‘Kree battle-slave for 20 years’, we feel the pathos when, at the very start of the movie, he is exiled from his Ravager clan by his saviour and idol Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone). From here, Yondu’s story becomes central to events, tying in with Peter’s relationship with his father, Rocket’s sense of identity, and, ultimately, the triumph of the Guardians.
You know those old movies where a B character becomes awesome and steals the show? I call it ‘the Mercutio effect’ after Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, where Mercutio, friend of Romeo, proves far more compelling, tragic and ultimately heroic than Romeo ever does despite significantly less stage time. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is Yondu’s movie. His character arc and the way it threads through all the narratives is mind-blowing and he gets some of the most witty and powerful lines of the whole thing, as well as one of the most eye-popping (and funny) action sequences ever filmed (accompanied by nothing less than Jay and the Americans’ Come a Little Bit Closer). He doesn’t just steal the show, he is the show. And what’s more, proves the ultimate key to unlocking ‘the unspoken thing’.
Perhaps my favourite moment in the whole movie is when Yondu echoes Stephen King’s Gunslinger from The Dark Tower, speaking to a doubtful, wavering Quill: ‘You think I make this arrow fly with my head, boy?’ The script is deft and well-crafted enough to leave us to finish the sentence: ‘I use my heart.’ Heart is at the centre of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which is perhaps why it’s a cut above the rest.
Review by Joseph Sale
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