It’s hard to surprise geeks. For all the joy and wonder of seeing the Marvel universe on the big screen over the past 10 years, there have been relatively few revelations. No one thought Hulk was going to stay away forever, or that Cap would side with Tony over Bucky, or that Black Widow would get her own movie before they made a 27th iteration of Spider-Man.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is tremendous fun, but it also has a feeling of familiar inevitability. The characters are the same as they’ve always been. They have to be. It’s what everyone is paying to see. Captain America has been punching Nazis since the 1940s. Chris Evans has given him life onscreen but there’s nothing they can do with the character that’s really going to blow us away. The same can be said for most of the other major characters. It’s a thrill to see them in the flesh, but on some level most of us comics geeks just want to see how they’re going to act out the stories we already know.
Then there are the other guys. The guys nobody had even heard of but the real hardcore comics fans. The guys with the homicidal talking racoon and the invincible walking tree and the ’80s mixtape soundtrack. The guys who can do and say and be anything writer-director James Gunn wants them to be.
Guardians of the Galaxy gave us something brand new — characters we didn’t already know inside and out. With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Gunn takes that to another level and dropped those characters into an incredibly hokey and earnest movie about family. This is a sappy Hallmark Channel original with a Michael Bay CGI budget, and it works! Gunn winds that cheeseball fatherhood story around edge-of-your-seat action sequences and perfect comedic rhythm so deftly that even the most jaded Marvel geeks in the audience get caught up in the fun. It works because it does something brand new to the universe. It surprises us. Not with a twist ending or a surprise cameo, but by telling us a whole different kind of familiar story with characters we’re still learning to love.
At its heart (and this is a movie with plenty of heart), Guardians Vol. 2 is a story about family. Maybe Hallmark hasn’t quite done a “your biological dad is a genocidal planet but your adopted dad is a lanky blue alien with a telepathic death arrow” take on family drama yet, but the pieces are all the same.
Put this in a different universe and it’s Yondu teaching a young Peter “Star-Lord” Quill to hit the curveball in the backyard. All that time invested, only to watch the boy’s face light up when Ego’s BMW comes careening into the parking lot just before the game starts. Then the climactic last at-bat, everything down to our hero as he looks up into the stands … to see Ego chatting on his cell phone and not even facing the field. A single tear rolls down Peter’s cheek as strike two blows right by. Then he hears it. Yondu’s low whistle, sweeping down from the stands. There’s his stepdad, hands locked through the chain link fence. “Watch that curve, boy! You got this.” Quill nods, beaming, and then steps back in and cranks that curveball over the fence to win the game. Freeze-frame as he leaps into Yondu’s arms as he crosses home plate. Roll credits.
Remarkably, Gunn delivers this paint-by-numbers plot without giving in to the urge to be edgy or ironic. There’s plenty of self-aware humor, certainly, but nothing mean-spirited or cynical. Take Baby Groot, for instance. When we saw tiny sprig Groot dancing in his flowerpot during the Guardians of the Galaxy credits stinger, it was good for a laugh. Here, Gunn doubles down. It’s not just a throwaway gag. He takes the biggest badass in the original crew and somehow makes him not only adorable, but genuinely vulnerable. When the Ravager crew is teasing the little guy, it’s not funny. It’s hard to watch. They’re tormenting a baby, not just a miniature version of the first film’s unstoppable monster. Some of the Groot sequences are hysterical, including that magnificent opening-credits sequence. Then he crawls into Drax’s arms in the final scene, contentedly sighing like an overtired two-year-old, and you feel genuine affection for a CGI tree. Gunn doesn’t use Baby Groot for a couple of laughs and then forget about him until Vol. 3. He’s a real part of the team, part of the family, a real character with a real personality.
Gunn pulls that same earnest vibe across every storyline. Gamora stomps Nebula up and down the galaxy without ever stopping to think about why her sister hates her so much in the first place. Rocket is so afraid of opening up that he sabotages his relationships before they have a chance to matter. Drax is steadfast and stoic until Mantis uses her empathic abilities to expose his raw grief over the loss of his family. Gunn hasn’t brought us new answers to any deep philosophical questions about love or friendship or family. Every one of these stories has been told in one way or another before. The difference is that Gunn is building them into the existing Marvel universe. There, it is all brand new.
And yet there’s more to it than reimagining some familiar stories in a new way. The characters are so well done, especially Quill, that the sentimentality becomes believable within the context of the Guardians universe. There should be a rule that no one ever uses Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” for a funeral scene. It’s too cheesy, too on the nose, the kind of painfully overwrought garbage that tries to seem profound on the basis of being mostly incoherent. In other words, it’s exactly what Quill —an overgrown teenager who mostly expresses his emotions through cheesy ’70s pop music — would put on after losing both his father figure and his biological father in the same day. In this setting, with that lovingly crafted character giving it credibility and Chris Pratt’s boyish charm giving it emotional weight, it lands.
Same with Dave Bautista and his incredible comic timing as Drax. His perfectly literal tactlessness makes for some of the best jokes, but there’s more to it than that. Every time his unrelenting honesty sets up a savage burn, it also sets a subtle precedent. When he reaches out to Mantis later with genuine kindness, it’s all the more touching because you know there’s no artifice behind it. He’s not telling her she’s beautiful because he wants her to feel better, he’s telling her because he believes it’s true and Drax can’t help but speak the truth.
There’s a telling moment in the middle of the climactic battle. Yondu and Quill barely escape their exploding ship, Quill with a jet pack and Yondu drifting along holding on to his telepathic arrow. As they float to the ground, Quill looks up and says “You look like Mary Poppins.” Yondu, who knows nothing of Earth culture, replies: “Is he cool?” Quill thinks it over for a beat, and then “Hell yeah, he’s cool.” And in the line that launched a thousand memes, Yondu lets out a whooping “I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!”
It’s a joke, and a good one. It’s actually a really sweet moment, too. That moment when your dad does something so completely uncool that you want to die a little but you let them have it, because you love them too much to ruin it. That’s what Gunn has done with the Guardians. They’re a little cheesy, a little too earnest, but in the end he makes you love them so much you can’t bear to stomp on their moments.
Hell yeah, they’re cool.
Midwest Film Journal will post new, weekly entries of “The Marvel Decade” until the release of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27, 2018. Each entry is written by a different writer — some familiar to readers of the site and some fresh faces handpicked by members of the group. Each writer chose a Marvel movie that inspires insights or personal connections that they will highlight in their piece.
The MCU is a franchise that’s popular largely because of what it means to so many people, and that’s something we aim to capture with “The Marvel Decade.”
Join us again next week as MFJ’s own Sam Watermeier looks at Spider-Man’s Homecoming into the MCU.
PREVIOUSLY IN “THE MARVEL DECADE”
Iron Man (2008) — Evan Dossey
The Incredible Hulk (2008) — Nick Rogers
Iron Man 2 (2010) — Joe Shearer
Thor (2011) — Aly Caviness
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) — Sy Stiner
The Avengers (2012) — Craig McQuinn
Iron Man 3 (2013) — Rachael Derrick
Thor: The Dark World (2013) — Will Norris
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) — Salem
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) — Mitch Ringenberg
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) — Daniel Fidler & Evan Dossey
Ant-Man (2015) — Jeremy Cahnmann
Captain America: Civil War (2016) — John Derrick
Doctor Strange (2016) — Joel “Con” Connell