4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!” — Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

The 2014 release of Guardians of the Galaxy pretty much solidified Kevin Feige’s Midas touch when it came to Marvel movies. He’d already taken a collection of B- and C-listers and turned them into household names, and with Guardians he was getting down into the D-list, and sure enough, they were a hit, too.

And so, three years later as part of Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a sequel came out.

The story for Volume 2 was already set up in the first movie, as Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star Lord, learned that he was only half-human—his unknown father was an alien who impregnated his mother. Plus, of course, while it’s all well and good for the gang to end their first movie by becoming a team of heroes, there’s the question of how well this gang of misfits would gel.

There’s also a new member of the team, as Mantis is added to the group. A human character in the comics, who was believed to be the “Celestial Madonna” by the Kree. She was a semiregular Avenger throughout the 1970s, and was brought back numerous times. She is inexplicably changed to an alien empath in the MCU, and made a member of the Guardians, played by Pom Klementieff.

We also get to meet Ego the Living Planet, a Thor, Silver Surfer, and Fantastic Four antagonist whose rights had to be negotiated. (Reportedly, James Gunn hadn’t realized that Marvel Studios didn’t have the rights to Ego, as that was part of the FF license that was with 20th Century Fox, and didn’t have a Plan B if he couldn’t use the living planet. Luckily, Disney made a trade with Fox, allowing them to alter Negasonic Teenage Warhead’s powers in Deadpool in exchange.) While the comics version is a planet with a big face on it, Gunn cast Kurt Russell as a human-form avatar of the planet, as that would be easier for live-action actors to interact with. (Having said that, we do see the planet with a big face on it in a couple of shots.) Ego is revealed to be Quill’s father, a departure from the comics, where his alien father is King J’son of Spartax.

In addition, we get a nod to the original Guardians who debuted in 1969’s Marvel Super-Heroes #18. While only Yondu appeared in the first film, we get many of the rest of the originals, as a team of Ravagers: Stakar and Aleta (the two halves of Starhawk from the comics), played respectively by Sylvester Stallone and Michelle Yeoh, Martinex played by Michael Rosenbaum, and Charlie-27, played by Ving Rhames; plus Miley Cyrus as the voice of Mainframe, and also Krugarr, rendered as a CGI character.

And, finally, we get the Sovereign, a gold-skinned species who are used in part to hint at setting up the character of Adam Warlock, though that particular hint hasn’t yet been followed through on. (And Warlock’s big thing was fighting Thanos, a ship that has pretty much sailed in the MCU.) Elizabeth Debicki plays High Priestess Ayesha, and Ben Browder appears as an admiral. (Browder starred in Farscape, of which Gunn is a huge fan, and which was an obvious influence on Guardians.)

Back from Volume 1 are Chris Pratt as Quill, Zoë Saldana as Gamora, Dave Bautista as Drax, Vin Diesel as the voice of Baby Groot, Bradley Cooper as the voice of Rocket, Michael Rooker as Yondu, Karen Gillan as Nebula, Sean Gunn as Kraglin, Laura Haddock as Quill’s mother, and Seth Green as the voice of Howard the Duck.

Pratt, Saldana, Bautista, Diesel, Cooper, Gillan, and Kelementieff will all next appear in Avengers: Infinity War. Gunn, Stallone, Yeoh, Rhames, and Rosenbaum will all next appear in Avengers: Endgame.

 

“Prepare for a really bad landing!”

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
Written and directed by James Gunn
Produced by Kevin Feige
Original release date: May 5, 2017

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

We open in Missouri, 1980. Meredith Quill is driving down the road in a convertible, listening to “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” The car is being driven by a self-proclaimed “spaceman,” and he takes her to a forest behind a Dairy Queen where he’s planted a strange, alien flower.

Cut to thirty-four years later (so still 2014, when the first movie was released). The Guardians of the Galaxy have been hired by the Sovereign to protect their powerful batteries from an interdimensional beast. Baby Groot dances to “Mr. Blue Sky” while the Guardians fight the creature and the opening credits roll.

After defeating the creature—which involves explosives, big guns, Drax leaping down the creature’s gullet, and Gamora using her sword to expand a small cut on the creature’s neck to a fatal wound—the Guardians are given their payment by the Sovereign: Nebula, whom they captured also trying to steal the batteries.

Rocket secretly stole some of the batteries, which the Sovereign discover after the Guardians leave with Nebula. They attack the Guardians’ ship, but our heroes are saved by a lone figure in a very advanced ship. The Guardians crash land on a planet, joined by their savior, who identifies himself as Ego—and as Quill’s father. He’s an older version of the same man who was with Meredith Quill in the opening. Accompanying him is Mantis, an empath who is Ego’s slave.

Quill is very reluctant to go along with this—he’s never seen this guy before, even if he did save their asses—but Gamora convinces him to go with him to his homeworld. Gamora and Drax accompany him. Rocket and Baby Groot stay behind to repair the ship and guard Nebula.

Yondu is drinking in a bar, and bumps into two fellow Ravagers, Martinex and Stakar. However, Stakar wants nothing to do with Yondu, as he broke the Ravager code by trafficking in children. Stakar also tells the bar’s proprietor that there are a hundred Ravager groups, and the other 99 will never patronize this bar again because they served the hundredth. Yondu tries and fails to defend himself, and Stakar and Martinex walk away in disgust.

High Priestess Ayesha of the Sovereign approaches Yondu, offering him a substantial reward for the Guardians of the Galaxy. He tracks them, using a tracker he put on Quill’s ship ages ago. However, Rocket was ready for an ambush and takes out most of Yondu’s people with various booby traps. Still, eventually, they surround Rocket, and Yondu makes it clear that he has no intention of turning the Guardians over to the Sovereign, though he will sell them the batteries Rocket stole.

Several of Yondu’s Ravagers, led by Taserface, have expressed disaffection with the special treatment Yondu gives to Quill, and Kraglin—who had been defending Yondu up to this point—expresses that disaffection to Yondu, which leads to a showdown between those loyal to Yondu and those not.

Nebula convinced Groot to free her to save Rocket, and she then shoots Yondu in his fin. This gives Taserface’s side the upper hand, and they take Yondu, Rocket, and Baby Groot all prisoner.

Taserface spaces all those loyal to Yondu, but Nebula stops him from doing so to Rocket and Yondu because they’re more valuable alive, as both will fetch a significant bounty. Thinking him a harmless plant, and adorable as heck, Taserface’s people keep Baby Groot free, using him for entertainment. When the Ravagers are all asleep, Baby Groot walks by the cell, and Yondu and Rocket tell him to go to the captain’s quarters and get the prototype fin in the drawer. After several false starts, and after some help from a very repentant Kraglin—who did not expect Taserface to kill so many of his friends—Yondu gets the fin, which enables him to control his arrow once again.

(One of the false starts is the prosthetic eye of one of the Ravagers, which Rocket decides to keep. This item will remain in his pocket until the Guardians encounter a one-eyed Thor in Avengers: Infinity War.)

Yondu uses the arrow to kill the mutineers, though rather than kill Taserface directly, he uses the arrow to blow up a console behind Taserface so his death will be more painful. This proves tactically unsound, as it gives Taserface time to contact the Sovereign and give them Yondu’s location.

Ego reveals to Quill that he is a Celestial, and that he’s almost as old as the universe itself. He built the world they’re on, and sought out other life, eventually finding Quill’s mother and having a son by him. He wanted an heir, as it takes the power of two Celestials to enact his plan. The flower we saw in the opening is one of millions that Ego has planted all over the galaxy. Once they’re activated, they’ll remake every world.

Ego had hired Yondu to bring Quill to him, but the Ravager instead kept Quill for himself. Ego has been looking for Quill for all this time, finally tracking him down after hearing the story of a human who touched an infinity stone and lived, who he figured had to be his progeny.

At first, Quill thinks this is very cool, especially since he can also access the power of Ego’s world. He’s thrilled that he has finally found his family. However, Gamora thinks something is off about this whole thing.

Nebula arrives at Ego’s world and attacks Gamora. Their battle takes them down into caverns beneath the surface, and it soon becomes clear that Nebula’s hatred is because Gamora always had to win every time Thanos pit them against each other—when all Nebula wanted was a sister.  They wind up having a rapprochement—and then they discover a mountain of skeletal remains in an adjacent cavern.

Mantis, who has become friends with Drax, finally tells him the truth, even as Ego does likewise to Quill: Quill was one of thousands of offspring Ego had with women throughout the galaxy. But Quill is the only one of those children who has Celestial DNA. Ego killed the others once it was clear that they couldn’t help him with his purpose, and left their bodies in the cavern below the surface of the planet.

Or, rather, of Ego. Ego himself is the planet, as Yondu explains to Rocket. The form he takes on is just what he uses to interact with people. Rocket has to do 700 hyperspatial jumps to get himself, Baby Groot, Yondu, and Kraglin to Ego, which is a brutal journey. At one point it takes them past a world where several Watchers are being told a story by someone who looks just like Stan Lee.

Gamora and Nebula attack Mantis to find out what’s going on, but Mantis has already told Drax, and then tells them. But Mantis is concerned that Ego will have turned Quill completely to his side by now.

That turns out to not be the case, because Ego reveals that he is the one who put the tumor in Meredith Quill’s head to kill her, because Ego really did love her—but that love was a distraction from his true purpose that he couldn’t afford. Between that revelation, and Ego also smashing Quill’s Sony Walkman, Quill loses it and fights back.

One of Mantis’s roles is to put Ego to sleep to calm him. She’s never done it without his consent before, but the Guardians convince her to do so. This keeps him quiet long enough for the Guardians to fight back. They head down to the caverns to leave a bomb in Ego’s nerve center.

Complicating this is that the Sovereign are right behind Yondu’s ship. A pitched battle rages, during which Mantis is rendered unconscious. Ego wakes up and Quill fights him, taking Yondu’s words to heart about how he shouldn’t think about accessing the power, he should just do it. (“You think I think when I use my arrows?”) Baby Groot is the only one small enough to get the bomb to Ego’s brain, which he does. Most of the Guardians make it to the surface—Nebula saving Gamora’s life at one point—except for Yondu, Rocket, Quill, and Baby Groot. Rocket only has one space suit left, which he gives to Yondu, who practically begs Rocket to let him be the one to save Quill. He didn’t keep Quill for himself because he was a useful thief, as he always told Quill—he kept him because he found out that all the other kids he brought to Ego were killed. (That was the child-trafficking that got him blacklisted by the other Ravagers.) And Yondu came to love Quill as his own son.

Rocket goes to the surface, shooting Gamora to keep her from going after Quill—he doesn’t want to lose any more friends today. The bomb goes off, and Yondu manages to save Quill at the cost of his own life. But Ego is also dead. The flowers he planted throughout the galaxy, which have started to terraform each world and has killed many people, stop what they’re doing and go inert.

Rocket sends word to the Ravagers about what Yondu did, and after the Guardians have a quiet funeral for him, the Ravagers show up to give him a proper Ravager funeral. Stakar, Aleta, Charlie-27, and Martinex all wish him well on his journey to the afterlife.

Kraglin gives Quill a Zune that Yondu picked up on Earth a while back, intending to give it to Quill if he ever rejoined Yondu’s crew. Quill in turn gives Kraglin Yondu’s arrow, though Kraglin’s attempts to control it go poorly.

Gamora offers Nebula a place with the Guardians, but Nebula wants to go after Thanos and kill him. Gamora gives the surprised Nebula a hug.

Stakar, Aleta, Charlie-27, Martinex, and two other Ravagers, Mainframe and Krugarr, get together for the first time in a while, and they think maybe they should team up again like in the old days.

The Watchers lose interest in the human’s stories, to the human’s chagrin, as he has so many more stories to tell—plus the Watchers are his ride…

Having been humiliated multiple times by the Guardians, and having earned the opprobrium of the Sovereign Council, High Priestess Ayesha puts all her hopes in the person being created in her fancy-shmancy new birthing chamber, whom she will name Adam.

Finally, we fast forward a couple years to Groot as a surly teenager, with Quill realizing how much of a pain in the ass it was for Yondu to raise Quill.

 

“Shoot her if she does anything suspicious—or if you feel like it”

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

There are many things about this sequel that are stronger than the first film, and there are also many things that are much weaker.

Let’s cover the weaker bits first, as there are fewer of them. This movie has some serious pacing issues. Several bits that are supposed to be comedic go on about fifteen percent too long: Rocket’s booby traps on the Ravagers, Baby Groot’s misfires in retrieving Yondu’s fin, Yondu’s massacring of the mutineers, and the seven hundred jumps to Ego’s world. In addition, the climactic battle goes on too long. One longs for a tighter edit of this film, as these pacing misfires damage what would be otherwise a near-perfect film.

Oh, and High Priestess Ayesha’s explanation of how the Sovereign are genetically engineered is clunky as hell, and Quill’s semi-flirty followup about more primitive birthing techniques and being willing to show them to Ayesha for science was just corny and leaden as hell.

Despite these flaws, however, this movie is an absolute delight. I didn’t buy that the Guardians were a family in the first movie because while the script insisted on it, the events didn’t justify it. Events do so here, and in particular the importance of chosen family is a theme that runs through the entire film.

Ego is biologically Quill’s family, and a father Quill has been searching for his whole life. He even made up a story when he was a kid that David Hasselhoff was his father, but he was too busy saving the world with his talking car (little Peter Quill having conflated Hasselhoff with his character of Michael Knight from Knight Rider) to raise his son. And for a time, Ego fills those needs, even giving Quill the chance to throw a ball with his old man, even though the ball is really a mass of crackling energy.

But it turns sour in a hurry, as Ego is also a psychopath who wants to remake the universe in his own image, and willing to wipe out entire worlds to do it.

Ego may be Quill’s father, but Yondu was his Daddy, as the Ravager himself puts it before his self-sacrifice. Quill is Star Lord because he was raised by Yondu, and he doesn’t really realize it until Yondu is dead.

Rocket’s self-sabotage plays into that theme as well, as the entire movie’s plot is driven by Rocket’s idiotic theft of the batteries from the Sovereign. To a lesser extent, so does Yondu’s self-sabotage, as he refuses to hurt Quill, thus costing him his entire crew (except Kraglin). As Yondu himself says to Rocket, the two of them are alike—orphans who were abandoned by their parents (in Rocket’s case, the scientists who created him), and who are scared to death that they’ll be abandoned again. So they do stupid stuff to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. It cost Yondu his best friends, and Rocket realizes that he could just as easily lose his friends.

And then there’s Nebula and Gamora, whose mutual hatred finally comes to a head and the two belatedly realize that their anger shouldn’t be directed at each other, but at Thanos, who raised them so horrifically, tormenting and torturing them both, and pitting them against each other. It’s a classic abusive family turned up to eleven thanks to all those involved having super powers and/or massive fighting skills of some sort.

Nebula and Drax sum it up perfectly: “All any of you do is yell at each other; you’re not friends.” “You’re right—we’re family.”

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

All the performances are spot on here, as good or better than in the last film. Chris Pratt remains the goofy center of it all, leavened by the tragedy of watching his mother die—a tragedy that is always bubbling near the surface—by gaining and losing his father twice over (counting Yondu in that). Zoë Saldana’s Gamora is less brittle, more forgiving, becoming a better person out of Thanos’s shadow, a journey she helps Nebula start as well. (That journey for Nebula will be a fascinating subplot of the next two Avengers films.)

Dave Bautista is even funnier as Drax, and Pom Klementieff is delightfully adorable as Mantis. (Having said that, Mantis’s naïveté is a bit too close to Drax’s literalness and also this character bears no actual resemblance to the comics character, which is frustrating, as the comics Mantis is a great, kickass character despite an awful costume, and it would’ve been nice to see her.)

Both Michael Rooker and Sean Gunn bring a lot more to the roles of Yondu and Kraglin. In the first movie, Kraglin was pretty much Second Ravager On The Right, but he’s given some nice depth here. And Yondu proves to be more complex and sympathetic than he was as Redneck Antagonist in the first film.

Kurt Russell makes a fantastic bad guy, as he sells Ego’s, well, ego. You have no trouble believing that Quill would initially embrace him as his pater familias, but you also have no trouble believing in Quill’s turning on him after he shows his true colors.

But as with the first film, the real stars are Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, and especially Karen Gillan. Nebula’s anguish and pain is etched on every blue pore of Gillan’s face, as she perfectly embodies the victim of abuse that she and Gamora both are after being raised by the mad Titan. And Cooper and Diesel continue to be a delight, with Diesel making every (now high-pitched) “I am Groot” meaningful, while Cooper makes Rocket the most complex character—and, yet, still the funniest. He gets all the best lines—in a movie full of great ones—and also has the most pathos and one of the strongest emotional journeys.

Also as with the first film, the use of music is superlative. ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” is a great soundtrack for a fight against a giant interdimensional hellbeast, Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” is the perfect romantic background for Quill’s attempts to move his relationship with Gamora forward, Cat Stevens’s “Father and Son” proves the perfect coda to a movie full of children with serious Daddy issues, and Looking Glass’s “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” is pretty much the theme of the Ego/Meredith/Quill storyline. All these songs are exquisitely utilized, but none more apropos than Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” twice used to superb effect.

The first movie brought them together as a family, but they don’t really become a family until Volume 2, and it’s great fun to see.

 

Next week, still cosmic, but mostly on Earth, as we meet the master of the mystic arts, Doctor Strange.

Keith R.A. DeCandido is Groot.

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