Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

You likely already know from the trailers and promotional campaign if you are going to enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but any lingering questions you may have had about your thoughts on the movie will be answered within the first five minutes. If you hate Baby Groot, CGI, classic rock music cues, action sequences packed with jokes, or fun, then Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is probably not the movie for you. If, like me, you want to have a good time and all of those things appeal to you, then get yourself to a theatre and check it out - or at least read on to see why I enjoyed it so much.

[FYI: this post has two parts: first, the short "public" review that gives a relatively spoiler-free and brief review of my thoughts on the movie in a palatable 650-word piece; second, a collection of possibly spoiler-ish thoughts about the movie that expand on my original thoughts that starts after the first minor heading break. Consider this your spoiler warning.]

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 picks up where the first movie left off, with the ragtag bunch of heroes acting as mercenaries for hire and having their legend spread across the cosmos. It is set only three months after the original - mostly, I assume, to facilitate the featuring of Baby Groot - so the team is still relatively nascent in its operations. The action starts right away, and it does not take long before we are introduced to a number of new characters with various motivations, back stories, and skin colours, and we are off to the galactic races on another crazy adventure (or three). There are a lot of moving pieces in this movie, and so it is a little tricky to follow at first, but there are enough cues and clues to help sharp viewers make their way through it.

The movie is admittedly a bit overstuffed, especially with several extended joke sequences, and there was a point about halfway through the movie at which I did wonder whether director James Gunn would be able to tighten it up and bring it all back together. And for the most part, he did tie it all up, and it ended up that the various threads worked really well not only as a surprisingly complex narrative of conflicts, but also as a way to explore and develop the themes of family, friendship, fatherhood, and loyalty on a surprisingly deep level at points.

The climactic action sequence almost felt a bit bloated, but I found myself feeling unexpectedly charitable toward it in spite of myself - much as I felt toward the entire movie. I know that I have a lot of good will remaining from the first movie (which I rewatched with glee the night before I went to see this one), but I think that I am not being unduly generous. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it more than I enjoy most blockbusters and even most Marvel movies.

A lot of that fun comes from the characters, and that is one area in which I think Gunn has really succeeded not only in comic presence but also in emotional resonance. Drax is (wisely) more prominently featured on both accounts, and Rocket and Yondu have great storylines as well, with the latter serving (arguably) as the best character in the movie. The only character with whom I was slightly disappointed on first viewing, in fact, was Chris Pratt as Peter, but that may have been due more to the constraints of this particular story. I will say, however, that I did notice the "green screen" effect more than I did in the first Guardians of the Galaxy, and that may have damaged his performance as well.

Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is pretty much exactly what I had hoped and expected it would be - a supersized version of the original - and that's a good thing. It's a lot of fast, frenzied fun action and comedy on a cosmic scale, but it is not without its emotional poignance and thematic development. Guardians of the Galaxy might just be the best franchise in the Marvel Cinematic Universe right now, and I remain very excited to see how these characters will be integrated with the rest of the MCU next year in Avengers: Infinity War, as well as where Gunn gets to take them in the inevitable Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.


Extended Thoughts


So that's the "public" review I wrote immediately after watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 , but I have not stopped thinking about the movie in the days since, and I have realized that I have way more to say about it than what I expressed in that short review, particularly using the movie as a launching point for thoughts on the greater MCU (as I have done with Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Age of Ultron in the past two Mays, respectively).

My main takeaway as I have reflected on Guardians 2 is that I think that I might have enjoyed it more than the first Guardians, which I still enjoy greatly and which is likely still the "better" movie (as much as that means when analyzing this genre). My enjoyment, in fact, has increased with further reflection in the days since I saw it. So why did I like this movie so much? I think I could boil it down to three factors: execution; tone; and vision.

To put it simply, Vol. 2 gets the job done, and it does it well. Vol. 2 did not have an equal level of degree of difficulty as its predecessor, which faced faced the challenge of establishing the cosmic wing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe viable, since all of the future plans for the franchise depended on its success, in addition to bringing these odd characters together and making them likable and forming a viable set of emotions, conflicts, relationships, themes, and plots within that set of weirdos.

Vol. 2, however, faced a number of different challenges, as most sequels do. They had most of the key characters already, but they had to do something new and fresh with them, along with introducing a few new characters and giving them space to have some emotional resonance. They had to advance the plot lines and themes that they had already begun to explore. They had to build on the action and humour and soundtrack of the first Guardians movie and do things that were even more kind of crazy and visually dynamic and compelling.

And then, on top of all of that, they had to build on this already crazy cosmic universe and distill a complex web of ideas and plots from various comics into a viable set of conflicts and antagonists, while still functioning within the limitations of the MCU and setting up for next year's Avengers: Infinity War - all of which they did with great success, as I discussed in my initial review.

On the Tone of Guardians 


Part of what I really enjoy about the Guardians franchise is that it has a unique tone, even within the MCU. It captures this combination of sardonic and sentimental that it seems appeals to all but the most hardened cynics and critics. While I do understand and acknowledge that there are certain parts of the movie that are ripe for mockery - Peter's "daddy issues" and Ego's galactic plan came up as particularly humourous in a few reviews I read - I could not help but connect with the characters and find resonance with the events in their lives even when I had a good idea of what was going to happen and even how it would unfold.

Perhaps the best way to analyze what I love about the tone of Guardians is to compare it to a somewhat similar recent release: Suicide Squad. On the surface, there is not much that separates a movie like Guardians (and to some extent the MCU) from a movie like Suicide Squad (and to some extent the DCEU); both movies (and franchises) feature oddball superheroes, lots of action, quippy sarcastic one-liners, and classic rock cues, but I would argue that they are separated by tone.

If I had to summarize the difference simply, it's that Guardians is tongue-in-cheek, whereas with Suicide Squad, the tongue is sticking out as an act of defiance (perhaps accompanied by another rude gesture or two). I know it's not quite that simple, so I'm going to further unpack the difference between the two movies to try to explain what I mean about the difference in tone.

Guardians is building a universe in a visionary way, whereas Suicide Squad feels like more of a defiant reaction to other existing ideas. Guardians has a self-assuredness that belies its confidence in its own vision, whereas Suicide Squad has a (I would argue misplaced) self-assuredness that comes from trying to be better than its competitors. Guardians has sublety, connotation, and nuance (although there are still some groan-inducing moments of stupefying overreach); Suicide Squad has bluntness, denotation, and even some naivete in how it presents itself (though there were a couple of inspired moments along the way). Guardians feels like a mature person fondly looking back on their wilder years, whereas Suicide Squad feels like an incompletely self-aware adolescent trying to establish her identity by brazenly adopting whatever latest trend will cause the most uproar from the authorities.

Take the musical cues as an example of these differences. Whereas the musical cues in Suicide Squad felt somewhat forced and predictable (eg. "Fortunate Son" and "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap"), the cues in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 felt as though they demonstrated a subtlety that connected the connotations of the song to the circumstances ("My Sweet Lord" in particular). I mostly found myself rolling my eyes at Suicide Squad much like a "classic rock" station blaring its wares, where I found myself grooving along to the tracks in both Guardians like a "70s AM Gold" station that brings out songs that I have not heard in years.

I will admit, though, that Suicide Squad did have its moments; I particularly appreciated the use of "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Seven Nation Army", and I can also admit that some of the musical cues in the first Guardians movie did take the "lazy" way out. Overall, though, I cannot deny that the good tonal moments - whether in music or in overall presentation - in Suicide Squad felt more like the exception, whereas the weaker moments in Guardians feel like the minority in that franchise, and there are more than enough inspired moments in Guardians - such as using Bowie's "Moonage Daydream" to introduce Knowhere, to help viewers get past those slightly forced instances.

Perhaps I am creating an artificial argument here, and there really is not that much that separates the two movies - or perhaps I should not even compare them at all, since they are two different properties. But I know that I am much more inclined to be charitable to Guardians than to Suicide Squad, and I think that's because the respective tones of the movies make the former much more endearing than the latter. And I'm willing to admit that I have completely misunderstood and mischaracterized Suicide Squad, but I'm inclined to agree with many of the critics who saw it similarly, particularly in comparison with more developed fare like Guardians.

On the vision of Guardians and the MCU


Guardians, from its inception, has been brimming with vision. It was intended to revitalize the cosmic end of the MCU and to make it work within the larger framework, and it has done so. But I love the fact that Marvel is launching itself fully into the weirdness of its universe and just how crazy the MCU is now becoming. If you had told me a decade ago - perhaps even five years ago, when The Avengers came out - that a major summer blockbuster would feature Ego the Living Planet as a major character, I would likely not have believed you, but that's where we are.

MCU tried to launch the cosmic side of its universe with Thor, but it did not really work in the first two installments of that franchise; that said, Thor: Ragnarok looks like it will be a great addition to the cosmic Marvel universe, and it seems as though its impending success (at least from how much I have enjoyed the trailer) is due to making the tone of Ragnarok closer to the tone of Guardians.

I don't know how exactly to describe the vision of the franchise except to say that it seems like Gunn and company believed that they could have fun and exhilirating and still present stories that are meaningful and resonant; the two "sides", as it were, are not in conflict with one another. A lot of writing has been done about what Gunn brings to the franchise and the MCU with his B-movie background, but that tongue-in-cheek approach is exactly what was needed for a movie like this to succeed.

However you would define it, the fact is that Guardians has vision and personality and substance, and Gunn was able to ensure (mostly) that it did not become another bland corporatized entity; his success has allowed others to succeed. It is hard to imagine that without Gunn that Taika Waititi would be directing Thor: Ragnarok, or that Ryan Coogler would be making Black Panther; then again, Gunn largely owes his entitlement to the success of Jon Favreau and Joss Whedon in the first phase of the MCU.

Of course, even Whedon eventually found himself on the other side of the creative braintrust after Age of Ultron, but I would still posit that the MCU has left more space for singular and unique filmmakers and vision than has the dreary Snyderverse of the DCEU. (As an aside, I know that Wonder Woman and Justice League are trying to reverse that trend, but considering the product so far, I will believe it when I see it.)

In the meantime, Marvel still provides some avenues for inventive and visionary filmmaking despite the mega-corporatization of its properties, and Guardians is perhaps the best proof of that fact. And with Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War, Captain Marvel, and the as-yet-untitled next Avengers movie set to expand on that vision in the next couple of years, I think the template is well-enough established that I trust that the powers that be at Disney and Marvel know to allow that vision to continue.

Conclusion


Part of what I love about this particular movie - and the Guardians franchise and the MCU in general - is that it has even further legitimized the inherent nerdiness of the entire superhero movie enterprise, which is already quite nerdy. The DCEU is kind of like the jock who gets into comic book movies because they're popular; maybe he secretly wants to be a comic nerd, too, but he can't afford that kind of hit to his credibility. The MCU, in contrast, is the nerd who really digs into the extended world offered by the comics and who unashamedly knows all of the convoluted back stories and watches the shows she loves and is proud of it. (The X-Men Universe, in contrast, is perhaps the unique weirdo who experiments with different niche identities, but I don't want to belabor the metaphor.)

Even though I'm not a huge fan of the often overly confusing nature of reading the comics, I loved knowing the characters and collecting the Marvel cards when I was a kid, and I find that each installment of the MCU allows me to access that joy I experienced when I was ten years old. I also find that the way that the MCU is streamlining many of the characters is making them even more accessible than they were at that point, and I am glad to see that a whole new generation of nerds are growing up with an outlet that is even more socially acceptable.

In the end, the Guardians franchise is easily the most fun series of movies in the MCU and possibly in cinema right now. It is exhilarating, exciting, and it seems completely unaware of that heaviness that has plagued most franchises in the past decade since the success of Batman Begins and Casino Royale made everyone think that every big movie needed to be dark and dreary and monumental. Guardians of the Galaxy is happy to be what it is, and I can only hope that the rest of the MCU and blockbusters have learned from its example.

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