Directed by James Gunn (2017)
by Francis Friel, The Projectionist
For all the mayhem let loose on screens over the last nine years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had a very basic, straight-forward through-line: dads are shit. And nowhere has this become more evident than in the Guardians of the Galaxy series.
Vol. 2 opens with a bit of backstory that fills in the blanks opened up during the opening minutes of the first film, introducing the “space man” made of “pure light” that Peter’s mother talked about on her deathbed. And while we do meet that space man, he is both more and less of an enigma than that initial scene might have led us to believe.
Having spent most of his life working for a gang of Ravagers, ripping off everyone in the universe, Quill has always wanted a father, or at least a father figure, or, at the very least, an answer to why he never had a father in the first place. The first GotG film made an offhand reference to exactly why Peter was abducted by aliens, and again, Vol. 2 goes into a lot more detail, explaining why the Ravagers were even in the vicinity of Earth (or Terra, as it’s called in the films) in the first place.
But all that plot and intrigue and character development, in any other Marvel Movie, is just a setup to get us to the final big battle. Most action movies, really. But in this universe, as in our own, the Guardians learn the truth: we only battle ourselves. And James Gunn has found a way to tell these stories within the confines of a strictly-controlled world while at the same time going bigger, zanier, more operatic, and with more emotional depth than should ever be expected from a major studio summer blockbuster release starring a wisecracking raccoon and a baby tree monster.
When Gunn introduces us to characters such as (The Wild Blue) Yondu and Ego the Living Planet, we can assume that for all their talk about loyalty and wanting to create something that they can share with their friends, family, and allies, that there must be some darker agenda underlining every word. But it’s more complicated than that. Humans (and humanoids, and living planets) are selfish and stupid. Yes, we want to give. Yes, we want to pass on what we’ve learned, to help each other, to hold each other up. But only to the extent that we can get what we want or need from other people or situations. To go beyond that approach, and to completely free yourself from the burden of selfishness, is to make a great sacrifice. To give your life in service to a greater cause has always been regarded as heroic. But when that sacrifice is in knowing that you’ve failed, that you maybe havnen’t quite lived up to the ideals you yourself set forth for others (your own children included), it becomes something much smaller and more intimate. And grander, in the bigger scheme of things. And of lives being lived.
Bouncing around several galaxies, showing us a drone compound with the face of an arcade, tossing bad guys around like cartoons, and even pointing out how ridiculous this whole MCU really is (Taserface, for example), and setting it all to a mixtape…these are all great ideas. And they all work. But they still have to lead up to that big battle at the end. And for any big battle to work beyond just seeing how cool it is to watch a bunch of shit get blown up and the bad guy get beaten, there has to be some emotional stakes involved. And here we have them, arguably for the first time in MCU history.
I get it. People were invested in Bucky. But for as great as The Winter Soldier is, I was always more interested in the construction of it, the mechanics of how well the story was told, than in any of those characters. Captain America does nothing for me, so I don’t care about him, so I don’t care about what he cares about. Likewise, Quicksilver’s end in Age of Ultron does nothing to make me care about a character who I only first met in that film and who I learned nothing of value about. Now, I know those aren’t the same thing. Bucky is someone who audiences can connect with (if they choose to), while Quicksilver was always gonna be a throwaway guy who might end up dead at any moment (and who is already a major character in Marvel’s X-Men series, under Fox). But for Gunn and his team to have given us a wholly unique (to the MCU) story about unique characters with actual emotions and actual things they want out of their lives, and to tie all that together with these broader superhero concepts while at the same time surprising us with just how absolutely fucking bonkers he’s willing to make these films is something to cheer about. Because these are characters who have felt pain. Real pain. The pain of living. And they’re not billionaires. They don’t have the backing of any governments. They’re not gods. And only one of them has what you could conceivably refer to as a superpower.
But they are all in this together. And they stand by each other. And when one of them falls, they all feel it because they are ready for pain, because pain and loneliness and disappointment are their default modes of going through life. Yes, they’re funny, but most depressed people are funny as fuck! People who have been through traumas, who had abusive parents, tend to cope through humor. And tend to (sometimes accidentally) surround themselves with others who’ve been through similar situations and have come out alive on the other side.
Towards the end of the film, something major happens. Two characters are forced to reckon with what they mean to each other. One of them is a character I was genuinely surprised by, in regards to how deeply I felt for them in that moment. What they do, its deeper meaning, and what it means for the Guardians going forward are all things that really got to me. I started thinking about what my life has meant, what the people in my life have meant to me, and the things I’ve gone through with them. I’ve had dark times in my life, like most people. And there were people around who were there for me and helped me through and have stood by me since then. People who I’ve come to consider my family. And while we won’t ever need to save the world together, our individual galaxies are brighter for having each other here with us. So we save each other’s worlds when we need to.
Family is a tricky thing. Vol. 2 hits this concept over the head a little bluntly at times, but for a purpose. These are characters with actual histories, family dramas that have been playing out over their entire lives. And the ones without families (Rocket, for example) have had to fend for themselves in a world that never wanted them, and maneuver according to the needs of the moment. But when it comes down to it, their friends are who they can count on, and who can count on them.
What is Gunn getting at, exactly, with the character of Ego the Living Planet? That our parents are only interested in manipulating us to their own ends? Pretending to love us and care for us while plotting to use us to get what they want out of their own lives? Certainly the parents in the first film fit this mold, and the surrogate parents in both films seem to have an agenda on the surface, but secretly have very real love for their “children.” I think what we’re meant to take away from all this is that while we may struggle through all of this and have to bear the weight of our homes and our childhoods, that we can rebuild ourselves into something more unique, hopefully more positive than the sum of our parts. That we can learn and grow from the hard times to make the easier times more complete. That we don’t need to define ourselves by where we come from, or even where we’re going, but by who we are right now. We are always given more chances. We can always do better. And when a Guardian makes the choice to do the ultimate good for those around them, they do something no other Marvel character has done so far: give the rest of the team, and us, a reason to go on. A reason to come back to the movies and see what comes next. And a reason to feel good about big budget Hollywood filmmaking. Finally.