Thursday, May 25, 2017

Group Therapy: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Pom Klementieff, Dave Bautista, Chris Pratt, Kurt Russell, and Zoe Saldana, in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Adjusting to the popularity and success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a continuous learning process for me ever since Iron Man in 2008. At first, it was breathlessly exciting to see an interconnected series of films based on beloved characters that was as bright and entertaining as we all hoped comic book adaptations would be (something that the awkward years between Tim Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins couldn’t ever convincingly prove). Then, fatigue set in: we’re closing in on a decade since Robert Downey Jr. made his triumphant career comeback as Tony Stark, and the structural patterns of this entire enterprise have now become clear even to the most willfully oblivious fanboy. The cracks in the fa├žade have started to show, and Marvel Studios now faces its greatest challenge yet in maintaining the momentum of their blockbuster machine, by keeping us all engaged despite the fact that we’re all sick to death of these goddamn superhero movies.

For my part, making this adjustment meant tempering my expectations. I’ve learned never to expect any Marvel movie to be better than the one that preceded it, and this leaves me in a state of nearly always being pleasantly surprised at how competent, engaging, and sometimes genuinely stirring these films manage to be. With few exceptions, the MCU has become very nearly perfect in how authentically “comic-booky” it is: these films are episodic, interconnected, emotionally heightened, character-driven, and disposable in the same way that their source material is. (I admit that I tend to forget each film almost immediately after I see it, and the next one’s sure to be hot on its heels anyway.) There might not be a better example of this formula’s success than James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, and there might not be a better possible follow-up to that film than Vol. 2.

The first Guardians was lightning in a bottle. There’s no reason at all that it should have worked as well as it did – so the sequel faces the difficult choice of either trying to capture that same fleeting alchemical magic again, or blaze a trail in an entirely new direction. Vol. 2 splits the difference, delivering more of the charm and goofiness that audiences loved in the original, while making some bold moves along new and interesting emotional vectors. It feels less like a superhero film than a group therapy session, more devoted to exploring all the emotional hang-ups of its core characters than to serving an overarching MCU plot agenda. Following Star Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as he comes face to face with the man who claims to be his long-lost alien father – a celestial being in human form (appropriately) named Ego, enthusiastically played by Kurt Russell – Vol. 2 also explores this parent-child theme in Quill’s relationship with the drawling space pirate Yondu (Michael Rooker), in the quest shared by Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) to murder their father Thanos, and even in the strangely protective and loving rapport between Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), now pint-sized and impossibly cute. These misfit weirdos have some serious issues that need to be worked through, and James Gunn delights in having a reason to lock them in a plot that forces them to air all their dirty laundry at once.

Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

It’s a consistently funny film, which is no small feat considering the bar set by the unexpected hilarity of the first Guardians. Even when some of the retreaded “Groot is cute” and “Drax is extremely literal” stuff starts to grate, it’s balanced out by bright spots of genuinely gut-busting material, maintaining a comfy balance between its serious character work and the lighthearted tone that everyone expects from this property (especially as it relates to the rest of the MCU, and by extension, to all competing superhero brands). The main cast is great, delivering in spades on the hijinks audiences pay to see. But Gunn seems more interested in letting side characters steal the show here, in particular providing a surprisingly affecting dramatic heel turn from Yondu (to whom the entire denouement of the film is devoted). This makes the occasionally wasted opportunities with other small players – like a strangely underused Sly Stallone, or Pom Klementieff’s Mantis, who embodies a newly explored and very troubling sci-fi trope called “Born Sexy Yesterday” that already feels archaic and embarrassing – all the more disappointing. But it would be hard to point to a series in which everyone involved is having quite as much fun as Gunn and the cast are here (the Furious franchise is, I think, the only one that comes close). If the trailer for Thor: Ragnarok is any indication, this is to be the norm going forward in the MCU; a weaponized fun factor that serves not only to delight audiences, but to distinguish the brand from the murky dross of their competitors at DC. In case it’s unclear: I’m fully on board with this approach.

I’d personally nominate Russell as the Number One Fun-Haver in this film, which seems (to my endless glee) to be a niche he has comfortably carved for himself in his late-game career. Ego is undoubtedly one of Marvel’s best villains, whose evil plan is directly linked to Quill’s emotional struggle – which makes for the kind of compelling adversary the MCU hasn’t really yet seen (with the arguable exceptions of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, whose Shakespearean theatrics are always delicious, and David Tennant’s skin-crawling turn as Kilgrave in Netflix’s Jessica Jones). I’ve grown so accustomed to bland and uninspiring villains in these films that it was a genuine shock to see one whom I both liked and despised, who was as sympathetic as he was diabolical, and who was performed with as much memorable charm and aplomb.

I find it pretty remarkable that the Guardians brand – the one that was supposed to be the throwaway side venture, the goofy spin-off for a niche audience – has become just as big and popular and beloved as its “main event” sister films, if not more so. I know quite a few people who would point to the first Guardians film as their favourite of the entire Marvel catalogue, so I’ll have to ask them the question again, since this one is even better. Vol. 2 might actually be the best that the studio has to offer, and that’s a thought that cheers me, given the artistic moxie displayed by everyone involved, and the faith the studio places in audiences to celebrate weird, fun, honest films like this. If Marvel is going to continue to pump out work like Vol. 2, then I’m willing to sit down for as many of these goddamn superhero films as they want to make.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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