May 7, 2017

Review: "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" is a Great Blend of Heart and Insanity in a Summer Blockbuster

Scene from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
In 2014, Marvel unveiled Guardians of the Galaxy: a film that mixed retro humor with sci-fi while introducing people to the most rebellious characters in canon. They succeeded by creating a box office juggernaut, but it felt restrained and familiar to a franchise that was already 10 movies deep. Still, it was enough to make it an unassuming hit with $773 million internationally at the box office and an entire wing of merchandise for a dancing baby Groot. So, what does the gang do now that everyone knows about the pyromaniac raccoon and the green lady? They finally get to the heart of what could make them the best wing of Marvel's ever-expanding universe. This isn't just about crazy action, 80's references, and hocking upcoming movies. It's about having a sense of community. Because director James Gunn understands that, he ended up making one of the most wonderfully insane explorations of family that any film with a $200 million budget has ever attempted. 

Whereas the first film got bogged down in introductions and exposition, there seems to be an overwhelming absence of it. The opening credits alone trusts that the audience knows these characters. They don't waste time with formalities. Instead they join together to fight a space monster while a baby Groot dances around to Electric Light Orchestra's "Mr. Blue Sky." There's a casual ignoring of the violence that happens outside the frame. Instead, it introduces a wide variety of reasons why this sequel works. It knows what the audience wants to see. They want to see stylized violence set to kitschy tunes. They want to see the team perform unbelievable stunts that only a supernatural landscape would allow. They want to hear those random asides. They want to see Groot mugging for the camera. On top of that, the ELO song secretly introduces the themes for the movie with lines like "Mr. Blue Sky/Please tell us why/You had to hide away/For so long/Where did we go wrong?"

On the surface, it reads as just a kitschy number. Within 10 minutes, it suddenly begins to make more sense. As the soundtrack expands the playlist (or "Awesome Mix"), there becomes a communal sense of family. This is best represented in protagonist Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) discovering that his father, a "Mr. Blue Sky" type named Ego (Kurt Russell) who is a celestial who has been looking for him. It becomes an outer space story of father/son bonding that also reveals that Ego has his own planet - literally made from his own, ahem, ego. As Peter deals with his family history that expands on the death of his mother from the first film, the rest of the cast gets their own thematic resonance. Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) must learn to cooperate with others. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) must deal with her jealous sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). Drax (Dave Bautista) must learn to be nice to Ego's friend Mantis (Pom Klementieff). All of these are issues that are continually explored throughout the film, though never at the expense of what makes the franchise so beloved in the first place.

The first film's success is likely what gave Gunn a chance to make this sequel so neurotic and specific to his Troma roots. There's more cartoon violence, ribald humor, and a more gorgeous pallet. If nothing else, this is objectively the most colorful superhero film in an era where dark grey has become the norm. It's beautiful to look at and each character design is impressively improved upon. Most of all, the confidence in his characters has improved the most and allows the otherwise one note supporting cast to have greater personalities. It is in part because of the rich themes that Gunn's script explores. Even if Peter's journey is the crux of the film, Gunn still manages to forward everyone else's story in active ways that elevate otherwise bizarre action set pieces. This isn't just a sci-fi film that forwards a franchise. This is a film that exists on its own merits and confidently deconstructs familiar themes in a new landscape. Never has a father/son story been so wonderfully deconstructed than the expert last 10 minutes of this movie. It is the most awe-inspiring mix of awe, sorrow, humor, and confusion that will likely ever exist on this scale. It doesn't just come to a satisfying conclusion as a sci-fi film. It is also satisfying as a film about family.

In an era of cinematic universes where everything has to connect, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 manages to stand out. It doesn't feel like it's building to some great crossover with The Avengers. In fact, it doesn't even feel like it'll be joining Thor or Doctor Strange anytime soon. What it does have is a connection of characters, whose ongoing struggles to relate to each other is perfectly explored throughout this film. This is a world with Marvel characters who are allowed to be something deeper than archetypes who save the day. They have internal struggles that are more universal than their small galaxy. It's because of this element that the film can be ridiculous for long stretches, violent for others, and still come back to feeling like a film that matters. In an alternate world, more films would be like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and push the limits of what can be done on a big scale. Many films have done what this film achieves, but none have gotten this much financing for such a vision. It's a miracle that this film works so well, and that it never sacrifices a single thing to achieve its overall resonance. This is what the future of blockbusters should be: optimistic but emotionally weighty, visually stunning with great action, and flat out funny. The only thing that cannot be learned from this film is how to make a great knock-off version of Groot. It's impossible. 

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