The Guardians of the Galaxy are back for a second go round. This time they’re not breaking ground so much as they’re giving the people more of what they want.
The current iteration of “The Superhero Movie” that we know today started back in 1999, when 20th Century Fox and Sony bought the rights to Marvel characters Spider Man and The X-men. These first serialized stand alone franchises played well in movie houses across America, a live action cartoon fantasy, but with semi serious overtones, reflecting back at us our culture, but in parable form. Spider-Man 2 was a post-9/11 dream of New York. X-Men 2 was a film wrestling with the social movement for gay rights and the backlash to it. The Dark Knight Trilogy was a parable about the fear and chaos that the rise of technology has wrought as we struggle to catch up.
Since the establishment of the genre as a certified moneymaker, there have been three groundbreaking films that have represented turning points the nature of these films. The first, most famously, is 2012’s The Avengers. After selling away the rights to two of their most popular characters, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (The MCU), now owned by Disney, outflanked everyone by introducing the concept of (pardon the pun) the “Supergroup” film. These Superhero Supergroup films, where all (or at least most) of the major characters of the preceding films come together and fight something larger than themselves, had the effect of making their standalones feel like something larger than your standard comic book movie.
The second groundbreaking film was 20th Century Fox’s 2015 film, Deadpool, with introduced the idea of the “R Rated Superhero film.” Deadpool was conceptually brilliant on many levels, but none more so than the choice to make it a counterpoint movie to the Disney-fied MCU. Marvel’s Avengers series may have changed the game, but they were also very pointedly made for Ages 8-80, worth nothing that could offend either your tender child or your grandma. They even made a joke of it–anytime someone even thinks of swearing in the original Avengers movie, upright boy scout Captain America admonishes “Language!” Deadpool made a better joke of it–a full on parody where the blood, the sass and the swear words poured forth. It was a reminder that comic books can, and often do, tell stories for mature audiences, and opened up a brand new avenue for these movies to travel and explore.
Baby Groot: I am Groot.
Yondu: What’s that?
Rocket: He says, “Welcome to the frickin’ Guardians of the Galaxy!” Only he didn’t use “frickin'”.
The third film in the genre that changed the game of those that came after was 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
Prior to Guardians, The Avengers films, for all their all-ages schtick, took themselves fairly seriously. The Avengers was a 9/11 parable of New York destruction out of nowhere, and Avengers 2 actually straight up staged a skyscraper collapsing, just in case people weren’t getting the metaphor. Iron Man regularly wrestles with how his technological achievements and advancements are used to kill innocent people. Captain America keeps facing the problem of where the line is between an individual’s freedom and society’s security.
Guardians of the Galaxy, when it burst on to the scene, said “Nuts to that!” Instead they brought along a fun escapism-filled journey, one that took our imaginations to the farthest reaches of space. Marvel movies had been brightly colored before, but none so loudly or trippily as Guardians. With beautiful visuals, campy soundtracks filled with the sounds of Generation X’s youth, and hilarious bickering one liners, Guardians reminded us that above all, comic books represent escapism, and it’s ok to just do that. Sure, they’ll throw in a theme about “misfit family” or whatever. (They are Disney, after all.) But the real thrill is that this is not a heavy movie trying to wrestle with anything, except maybe if Walkmans would really last that long in space.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2, which landed last night in theaters around the US, is exactly more of that. I’ve seen several places give it mediocre to bad level reviews, and each of them cite the same thing. The first was groundbreaking, this is not. This is more of the same. The Guardians, made up of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista) plus raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his tree-alien side kick, the now Toddler-aged Groot (Vin Diesel), are doing their usual “saving the world thing”, when they’re not needlessly stealing from clients. But for those who want more of the same–on a day when 200 old rich white men voted to strip healthcare from 24 million–this dose of silly, funny, candy-colored visual escapism, dealt out with a dose of classic rock oldies was just what the Doctor would have ordered, had we still had insurance.
Quill: “You’re like Mary Poppins.”
Yondu: “Was he cool?”
Quill: “Yeah, he was cool.”
Yondu: “I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!”
If anything, this is more-more of the same, dialed up to 11, with a dose of daddy issue plot holding it together. While being chased down for needlessly stealing by High Priestess Ayesha, a golden from head to toe Elizabeth Debicki, our band runs into Peter Quill’s long-lost father, the hilariously named “Ego” played by Kurt Russell. From the get go, Russell’s entire persona is to make you laugh, including a de-aging sequence with a young Kurt Russell clearly pulled straight outta Escape From New York. He convinces Quill, Gamora and Drax to head home with him, while Rocket is left to (badly) babysit Toddler Groot and prisoner Nebula (Karen Gillan). Hijinks, as always, ensue.
Quill’s other father figure, Yondu (Michael Rooker), plays a major role in saving the day in this installment, once Ego’s ego turns out to be dangerously overblown. Sylvester Stallone turns up too at one point, and I swear he looked at the camera and said “Hey look at me, I’m in one of those Marvel movies now, eh!” Howard the Duck makes a cameo. And as always, so does Stan Lee, telling the story of one of his other Marvel movie cameos, because, really does Stan Lee do anything anymore, other than make cameos in Marvel movies? I don’t think so.
None of this is to detract from the movie, which is utterly delightful. They promised me Toddler Groot would, in fact, run away with this movie. They forgot to mention he’d wrap with grow-grow-Grootget arms and take my heart with him. Chris Pratt does his Pratt thing and takes off his shirt to remind us he worked out for the role. Drax is more than a one-dimensional comic note, and regularly manages to achieve two dimensionality for most of this movie. (One or twice he almost gets to three, mostly thanks to the addition of the empath Mantis, played by Pom Klementieff.) What emotional heavy lifting there is is left to Gamora and Nebula, as the long estranged sisters who finally stop trying to kill each other long enough to hug. Yondu is also given a chance to jerk the tears, but not too hard. This is not a movie for crying. This is a movie for staring at the beauty of a Ravager funeral, in all their rainbow fireworks-in-space physics-says-that’s-impossible glory.
Quill: What’s that?
Kraglin: It’s a Zune, everybody on earth listens to it nowadays.
If Guardians attempts anything groundbreaking, it’s in trying to break the record for most post movie scenes smashed into a single credit roll, wih five in all. I was surprised that none of them contained spoilers either for Thor: Ragnarök, or for Avengers: Infinity War, as most of these post-credit sequences are usually adverts for upcoming movie tie-ins. There was one that hinted at the plot of Guardians 3 (pencil that in for 2020 or so), and one that threatened a completely new spin-off for Phase IV. But the other three were just there for entertainment purposes. (Though one could argue that the “Teenage Groot” scene was a follow-up to the first movie’s post-credit “Baby Groot” scene.) Because sometimes you don’t need to tie back to every single other thing you’re doing. Sometimes you just need to have fun with it.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is out everywhere now. Also, go buy the soundtrack.