Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Revisited

(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In this edition: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 deals with cycles of abuse, and becomes unintentional commentary on its director’s firing.)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 occupies a noteworthy place in the Marvel Universe, thanks to both its unique dramatic focus and to the real-world firing of James Gunn. The returning writer-director had, by this point, carved out a unique blockbuster space to discuss thoughtful ideas. The rest of the Marvel series was largely Earth-bound and linear; it focused on men who needed to come to terms with non-specific paternal grief, and whose arcs, more often than not, culminated in punching bad guys. Here, Gunn was given the freedom to tell a story that, while Thanos-adjascent, had little to do with the larger narrative of the Infinity Stones. The only ways it set up future installments were rooted in character.

While Gunn was recently re-hired for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, his haphazard ousting by Disney last year over decade-old shock humour (initially dug up by bad-faith actors upset at his political opinions) was inadvertently reflected in the themes he explored with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The film is oodles of fun, but its first three scenes dramatize a complex mission statement.

Opening Arguments

The film’s first scene, set 34 years in the past, features a budding romance between Ego (Kurt Russell) and Meredith Quill (Laura Haddock), later revealed to have twisted implications. One extreme of film’s thesis is born here, solidified later through revelations about Ego’s sinister plan. Though, the twist in the tale is not that this love was a façade, but that it was real, despite existing alongside something aberrant.

Following this prologue is the Guardians’ raucous reintroduction in the present. The scene is built around a digitally assembled long-take that articulates, through its visual framing, the kinder extreme of the film’s thematic spectrum. Now guns for-hire, the Guardians battle a tentacled inter-dimensional beast in a scene bursting with visual splendor; the out-of-this-world action however, is backgrounded and out of focus. The spotlight instead falls on a joyous Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) dancing his way through the mayhem to Electric Light Orchestra’s delightful Mr. Blue Sky. The other Guardians — Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper and Sean Gunn) — take turns caring for Goot, as if he were their own child.

As the Guardians — a rag-tag group from wildly different origins — collect their reward in the third scene, they stand in sharp contrast to their employers, the gilded, chiseled Sovereign, led by stone-faced high priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki). The Sovereign are a homogenous people, genetically engineered to be “perfect,” but a people whose strive for perfection renders even minor slights and insults against them unforgivable; the presence of foul-mouthed, condescending Rocket, therefore, poses a problem.

This backdrop becomes all the more significant through a lens of James Gunn’s firing. In July of 2018, Gunn was hastily let go from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 over decade-old jokes about abuse that he had long since learned from and apologized for — as far back as 2012. The inhumane, robotic Sovereign, whose existence precludes the very possibility of improvement, speaks volumes about the Guardians themselves. They are imperfect, and in many ways vile, yet they’re redeemable, a courtesy that was not initially extended to the man Disney had tasked with bringing these characters to the screen.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is about the complicated relationships we rarely confront, and how those complications can manifest as aggression and anger — or even “edgy” insult humour, used as emotional defense mechanism. The story is told through action and space-opera, but its focus is on a family of deeply flawed, emotionally injured beings who yearn for catharsis, while also helping each other achieve redemption. It may very well be Marvel’s most mature film, zeroing in on the emotional complexities of abuse carried forward into adulthood — the kind of abuse Gunn strongly hinted that he too experienced as a child, an oft-ignored factor in criticisms of his old jokes on the subject.

The film also follows Doctor Strange, a story steeped in eastern philosophies, in solidifying the series’ new political direction. Rather than paying lip-service to critiques of military power — like Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain Marvel, which all received U.S. government subsidies — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 acts as the first in a trilogy of Marvel films, along with Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, whose narratives draw from colonial history.

Ego, The Colonizer

Once the Road to Endgame reached Doctor Strange, it seemed the MCU had begun re-orienting its creative perspective. The narrative expectation that Stephen Strange subverted — the western hero self-actualizing through domination — re-appears in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but it’s now the ethos of the film’s antagonist, Ego the Living Planet. Ego’s plan, on the surface, is universal destruction, but the specifics of his scheme, and the way he plants literal and metaphorical seeds across the cosmos, bring to mind our colonial past.

Ego doesn’t just want to destroy our universe. He wants to conquer it by imprinting his identity on all other worlds. He considers his conquest to be a function of his innate superiority, a mission to remake the conquered in his own image and a universally-inspired destiny. These are the very tenets of Manifest Destiny (in the context of Native American genocide), a mission Ego embarks upon in the visage of a white man, with only his genetically superior Celestial progeny deemed worthy of survival. Ego’s palace, like Odin’s in Thor: Ragnarok, is a museum unto his own history, built on murder. The statues he uses to tell his story are filled with lies.

When his mission is threatened by his son Star Lord/Peter Quill, Ego vocalizes his disdainful justification. With their shared, Godlike power under threat, he reminds Quill of the consequences of snuffing it out: “You’re a God. If you kill me, you’ll be just like everybody else. Ego’s contempt for “inferior” beings, his unwillingness to value life, and his inability to recognize the potential for redemption make Ego the perfect villain for this story. His distinctly colonial selfishness is the perfect foil to a film in which characters reach across boundaries to help and forgive each other.

The flowers Ego planted across the universe begin to bloom. They consume and terraform a vast array of planets and cultures, externalizing Ego’s very drive as a character, as if to homogenize existence itself. Quill however, rejects immortality and Godhood, accepting the flaws and failures of the “everybody else” that Ego would just as soon wipe out. Even the mortals who have hurt Quill are still capable of empathy.

Quill taps in to the full potential of his own abilities by recalling what separates him from Ego: love. While functionally inseparable from any other motivation — what connection love has to wielding these powers is unspecific; as is Marvel’s M.O., the connection between theme and action is faint at best — Quill’s realization brings about an acceptance of the complexity of those in his life. Figures like Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Rocket, for whom showing affection at all is a Herculean task.

Quill wields neither unselfish nor unconditional love, but flawed, human love; for Yondu, for Rocket, for Gamora and for all the Guardians. The kind of shared love that has proven to be difficult over the course of the film. And yet, it’s the kind of love Ego refuses to understand.

Guarding the universe, therefore, hinges on understanding itself. What hangs in the balance isn’t just existence, but the opportunity to exist together, and to exist imperfectly.

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