Awesome Remix, by Tyler Smith

2 May

I was not a big fan of the first Guardians of the Galaxy. While many people praised its offbeat tone and crazy characters, the whole thing seemed surprisingly conventional to me, especially when one considers director James Gunn’s previous work. The film certainly had the distinction of changing the way superhero movies would be marketed, using classic rock and witty banter to show that these films could have a sense of humor about themselves, but that hardly redeems it (in fact, it might actually condemn it all the more). So, as I walked into Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, I was trepidatious. It seemed to me that Marvel would have a hard time not doubling down on the successful elements of the first film and simply serving up more of the same. Thankfully, the studio seemed to see the success of the first film as license to allow James Gunn to cut loose and tell a truly unique story, realized with some genuinely gorgeous visuals and several exciting action (and comedy) sequences.

As the story begins, our Guardians are heroes for hire (to borrow a phrase from another Marvel offering). They are in the midst of a job, but soon find themselves in trouble with a snooty race called The Sovereign. They are rescued by a mysterious man named Ego (Kurt Russell), who claims to be Peter Quill’s father. Quill (Chris Pratt) is understandably wary, but also obviously excited to possibly meet the father he never knew. As Ego takes Quill and friends to his lush, ethereal planet, everything seems too good to be true, and, unsurprisingly, it is.

The “things aren’t always what they seem” story is nothing new, but it is the specific twists within this particular story that distinguish it. Despite my dissatisfaction with the first film, its underlying themes – about the human brokenness that can lead to makeshift families – were well-established and deeply resonant. In this new film, as we are finally faced with the concept of actual biological family and shifting loyalties, the story and characters are faced with difficult choices; the kind of choices not often faced by characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The film is served very well by the addition of new characters and the expansion of previous ones. Kurt Russell, whose character is actually the physical manifestation of the consciousness of a sentient planet, has the difficult job of being recognizably human while also otherworldly. Ego isn’t merely an odd space entity, but he is millions of years old, and his longevity has engendered both an odd benevolence and bemused emotional distance. Russell, who has experienced something of a career renaissance in the last few years, once again displays his natural on-screen charisma, making Ego one of the more memorable supporting characters in the MCU.

Another wise move by James Gunn is to expand the role of Yondu, the lethal mercenary of the first film. Played by Gunn favorite Michael Rooker, Yondu brings a gruff, grizzled energy to the film that thankfully works against the CG polish of this created world. Yondu, who raised Peter Quill as a young boy, provides an interesting contrast to Ego. And so we wind up with an unexpected dilemma, in which Peter is placed between two father figures – his friendly, enthusiastic biological father and his selfish, unstable surrogate father – with the obvious choice not necessarily being the best one.

This ambiguity is what holds the attention of the viewer, always wondering what will happen next. And, in a franchise – and indeed an entire genre – that is defined in part by its predictability, any amount of mystery is welcome. I went into the film expecting the same ol’ thing, but that is thankfully not what I got.

The film does, however, also deliver on the standard expectations set up by the superhero genre. Spectacle and action set pieces are the cornerstone of these films, and Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 definitely does not disappoint. Gunn incorporates an air of playfulness to everything, from the opening scene – which features a brutal fight from the perspective of a dancing Baby Groot – to a daring escape, featuring a surprisingly high body count. Even in the climactic battle, which does get a bit mind-numbing at times, Gunn tries to keep an eye towards character development and relationships in the midst of the chaos.

Of course, there are still moments in the film that feel unnecessary, but such is the nature of any Marvel film at this point. What might appear superfluous in one film could wind up being paid off in another. This film, with its odd emphasis on the Sovereign and the baffling appearance of Sylvester Stallone, certainly feels a bit overstuffed, but by focusing primarily on the developing relationships of the Guardians themselves, a lot of that just melts away, giving the impression that the film is a lot leaner than it actually is.

Much has been said about the homogeneity of the Marvel films; that the series has a habit of sanding off all of the individualism of such notable directors as Kenneth Branagh, Joss Whedon, and Scott Derrickson. I myself have said this, with the most egregious example in my view being the first Guardians, which certainly did not feel like a James Gunn film to me. However, as the franchise goes on, it would appear that Marvel is a bit more willing to let its directors experiment with their material (see Shane Black’s interpretation of the Mandarin for an extreme example). This is most certainly the feeling that I had coming away from Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2. While it still contains the CG spectacle that I’ve come to expect, I saw a lot more of the off-kilter James Gunn tendencies than I did in the first film. And, as the film promises that “the Guardians of the Galaxy will return”, I find myself actually excited by that prospect, which is most certainly not what I expected.

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