How does one begin a sequel to a picture as bombastic and gonzo as the original Guardians of the Galaxy? An ominous zoom into an exotic planet? A high speed space battle? How about a battle with a monster, shown in the background as Baby Groot wanders along the battlefield to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”. Now possessing the maturity of, well, a baby, Groot is easily upset, and takes his anger out on various small creatures that happen scamper by.
The crew is defending a special variety of battery that an uptight gold-plated species values immensely. When Rocket Raccoon half jokingly, half spitefully steals some, the gang finds themselves pursued almost immediately. This sequence — which begins with some rapid action, and rapid-fire cockpit dialogue, and ends with Drax dangling out the ship’s cargo bay laughing hysterically at the peril around him — brilliantly informs anyone who hadn’t picked up on the tonal cues already, what this movie is really all about.
The plot of Guardians is rather disconnected, which may be a problem for some, but isn’t really as much of a problem as it seems on paper. James Gunn proves his mettle as an excellet writer as well as director. This is the first MCU sequel I can think of that isn’t satisfied by mere rehash of previously posed concepts. The themes of family, kinship, and aceptance that were so poignantly brought up in the original of the series are brilliantly expanded upon here. The pirate Yondu, and Rocket Raccoon discover an interesting bond through their similarities; Gamorra and her adopted sister Nebula reconcile years of hatered and learn to love eachother again, and Peter Quill learns that his surrogate family — the other Guardians — is all he’ll ever need.
Easily the most enjoyable aspect of Vol. 2 is its implementation of retro tracks from the ’70s and ’80s. Gunn never underestimates the power that a shot of characters walking in slow motion to a Fleetwood Mac song can pack. What’s more, the “Awesome mix-tape” is not an assembly of vaguely cool sounding songs, added in post-production, but a motley collection of perfectly timed musical set pieces curated by James Gunn himself. “Seven Nation Army” is a song that is capable of slickly improving virtually any scene ever recorded. Jay and the Americans’ “Come a Little Bit Closer” however, feels idiosyncratically linked to the scene where we hear it — an epic prison breakout aided by Yondu’s signature arrow. The best part of the melodies peppered throughout the film is that the script finds excuses for them to be there. When Rocket and Yondu escape captivity, they first wire music through the P.A. system. Who does that? The Guardians of the Galaxy, that’s who!
And what a glorious ten minutes that breakout scene is. Rocket, Groot, and Yondu casually stroll through the metal-grated hallways of a ravager starship as Yondu whistles a deadly tune, guiding his arrow through each and every foe. they walk down a catwalk as bodies fall in droves down the impossibly large chasm below them. When the trio enters the ship’s control room, the sequence kicks into higher gear. Writing this today, I really can’t say if the audio fades in louder, or an added backing track makes it fuller, or maybe the experience is just so powerful that my subconscious imagined this increased intensity. Either way, there is some stellar sound design at play here. As our heros slam, blast, and impale the various foes from the circular control room, the camera zooms out with a bird’s eye shot, giving us a full view of the ship’s apparent floor plan as Yondu’s deadly arrow paints a dizzying portrait with its crimson trace lines.
Vigorous cinematography and a soundtrack that deserves outside listening (Awesome Mixtape Vol.2 has more or less played on loop in my house for the past five days) are these movies strengths, but its defining attribute is its nonpariel character depth. This is, from a certain standpoint, Yondu’s movie. He ended the last volume as something of a sympathetic antagonist, but this is his redeption story, He and Peter Quill reconcile their differences and grow closer together. Yondu overcome’s his selfish impulses and becomes a part of something bigger than himself. When he makes the ultimate sacrifice, saving Quill from suffocation in the process, it is a heartfelt moment; as inspiring as it is saddening.
I love the way Gunn casually infuses space violence with classic rock, but by far the most visually and emotionally beautiful scene is Yondu’s funeral. Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” accompanies the scene. As Yondu is cremated his body disintegrates into a cloud of richly colored dust, drifting out into space. His fellow ravager compatriots blast flares from their ships adding more brilliant tones to the mix. Right hand man Kraglin lets out a feral cry. As the song crescendos, the movie reaches a new beauteous level of excellence. Seemingly free of studio interference, Guardians Vol. 2 trancends the universe in which it resides; nay, the superhero genre.
Watching this movie reminded me of something my great grandfather used to say at the dinner table. I fondly remember him polishing off a plate of something — chicken parmasean if I recall correctly — and saying “That food has a funny taste to it, I need to have some more so I can figure out what it is.”
I’m beginning to realize, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the food with a funny taste. Try as we all might, we really can’t put our finger on what it is that makes Guardians so bleeding entertaining. Is it the way the characters shrug off and crack wise at deadly combat, but get teary eyed when familial conflict rears its head? Is it the fact that James Gunn appears to have been given an absurd amount of freedom by Kevin Feige Co.? (Seriously, there’s not a single infinity stone in the whole movie). Maybe its the simple fact that Gunn’s style is so retrospectively groundbreaking. Either way, we need more. Not just in the MCU, but cinema in general. We need movies that can deliver a solid story, solid action, and deep character development, without taking itself too seriously.
The trudge to Infinity War marches on. Its been fascinating to see the pieces fall into place for some nine years or so, but part of me grows weary of it. In addition, nobody seems to be wondering what in the world will the public watch after the mother of all climaxes? After the entire known superhero world bands together to fight the Mad Titan Thanos, what can possibly be entertaining? Answer: Guardians of the Galaxy…Guardians of the frickin’ galaxy.