I am one of those people who has a list of ‘rules’ about how to construct a story. I think about structural things and the way we use shortcuts to convey meaning. I think about how the audience fills gaps in what they’re being told and how they mapped what they saw to intuitions about bigger issues. And then I use all of these thoughts to compile a list of rules about what works and what doesn’t.
Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2 largely breaks all of the rules. Nothing about this film should work, and yet it really does.
The first Guardians of the Galaxy film was a surprise hit. I went in with no expectations, and was only peripherally aware of the characters from the comics. I did, on the other hand, know James Gunn’s work as a writer (Scooby-Doo and Super), so I wasn’t expecting much. But Guardians of the Galaxy was fun. It was sentimental when it needed to be, it took safe risks, mostly followed the rules, and it delivered a refreshingly comic comic book movie.
But perhaps it was a fluke.
So I went into Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2 with the same attitude as the first. The marketing wanted me to be as excited as possible for this film, but Scooby-Doo and Super are films that exist. I was determined not to let myself be the architect of my own disappointment.
My cynicism was unworthy. This film was perhaps better than the original, and managed to do it by taking even more risks than the original.
The film basically knows that we’re here for one thing and one thing only: Baby Groot. If you were cautious and risk-averse, you’d do whatever you could to limit Baby Groot’s appearance. Let it be the sugar lovingly dusted over the top of the cake. Let Baby Groot appear in a limited capacity here and there — maybe he’d get kidnapped and spend the majority of the film away from the action.
Nope. This film is decadent with Baby Groot. Even stopping the plot a few times to play out set piece jokes centred on him. It’s nuts. It shouldn’t work. The classic examples of this are the ‘Portabello Road’ song in Bedknobs and Broomsticks (where the film literally stops while a variety performance takes place) and ‘The Lonely Goatherd’ in Sound of Music (where, again, the plot drops dead for about five minutes while we discover the children are all masterful puppeteers for absolutely no reason at all). But, here we are in Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2, doing something that literally everybody in the universe knows doesn’t work, making it one of the highlights of the movie.
Perhaps the reason it can get away with that is the story is pretty flimsy. I’ve complained at length that we’re in the post-villain age of cinema, and Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2 again fails to deliver a solid antagonist to drive tension. On the other hand, this is a film that is less interested in villains and is instead lovingly devoted to exploring the characters and their relationships. The only let down here is Zoe Saldana’s Gamora who has to play straight man to everybody else’s comic relief. She drives the development of two other characters, but doesn’t really get a chance to develop in her own right.
It is difficult to escape the idea that women in Guardians of the Galaxy exist only as backdrops to the development of male characters. When the film dedicates more time to developing the backstory of Yondu (Michael Rooker) over developing Gamora, you start to wonder if the creative team just doesn’t know what it wants to do with her.
Reasonable people can disagree about the visuals of the film. They’re bright and flashy, but often feel cartoonish. With some pieces made entirely out of CGI, and some awkward interactions between the environment and the actors, it’s hard not to feel like the visuals won’t age well. The film shifts frequently between real world physics and comic book physics, making it difficult to feel attached to the perils of the characters. To an extent, the script helps this: there are very few moments of genuine human interaction that aren’t undercut by a one liner. Drax (Dave Bautista) walks a fine line between keeping the film comic and just being thoroughly irritating.
Perhaps more than the original, this film feels full of aliens and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. It is weird that there is an entire galaxy that fits so comfortably within the Uncanny Valley. Faces in this movie are horrifying. The gilded Sovereign, led by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), have faces that seem to move like haunted statues. Meanwhile, the Ravagers are hanging out in a brothel of robot courtesans with facial expressions broadcast directly from my nightmares. And whenever Nebula (Karen Gillan) was on the screen, I just wanted to shout: ‘What’s wrong with your face?!’
And then there’s young Kurt Russell and the Kurt Russell hall of mannequins. It is only a matter of time before the UN will be required to draft a treaty for the non-proliferation of hellmonster de-aged actors.
It always seems so unnecessary. Just find an actor who can play the role. Let them use the ancient art of ‘acting’ to convey a character who is the same as a character who appears later in the movie. We seemed to be able to do this before we had computers to mutilate faces; why did we stop doing that?
Anyway, if you only see one movie this year about the castration of your father, make it Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2.