guardians of the galaxy vol. 2

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: why Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is so great…and how it exposes problems in other superhero movies.)

Here we are, celebrating today’s Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2’s Blu-ray release, and I’m still asking myself the same question. How did James Gunn’s lovable superhero squad go from space-cowboy-nobodies to (some of) the world’s favorite comic movie heroes?

Star-Lord sauntered into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with minimal mainstream presence, flanked by a ragtag posse of oddballs. A gun-nut raccoon who talks? His walking, single catchphrase tree friend? Gunn had to establish singular origins, unite an Avengers-like alliance, and rock a grandiose space opera in Guardians Of The Galaxy. Then Vol. 2 needed to advance team-building, introduce even more characters and calcify the same emotional backbone. Frankly, none of this should have worked. Like how Suicide Squad attempted the same big-team buildup with half/a quarter/none of the same results.

Yet here stands James Gunn, with two of the most famous, successful, recognizable Marvel entries to his name. His success is even more impressive when you compare it directly to one of Marvel Studios’ “bigger” and more central movies: Avengers: Age of Ultron.

guardians of the galaxy vol. 2

Hooked on a Feeling

I can still remember the exuberance that filled my second Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 theater viewing. Children busted out Baby Groot’s dance moves to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” Adults mimicked Drax’s bellowing laugh. People love these cocksure weirdos and their juvenile maturity. And frankly, what’s not to love? Cartoonish caricatures play a defining role in Gunn’s cosmic crusades, but there’s deeper connectivity that I hold above a puking Baby Groot or severed human toe. This is something not all Marvel movies establish equally.

What’s my favorite thing about these Guardians movies? Easy. I genuinely, deeply care for Gunn’s family of misfits. Star-Lord to Nebula. John C. Reilly to Groot. Every life matters, and that’s not always a given under Marvel’s umbrella.

Thanks to James Gunn (and Nicole Perlman, co-writer on Vol. 1), Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy line-up is more than just a collection of toned, spandex-clad heroes. Gunn understands what it takes to connect audiences with larger-than-life characters. Dramatic beats aren’t met with the same throw-away gazes and forced conflicts that fill city-smashers like Captain America: Civil War. Each Guardian has felt life’s cruel touch, unable to healthily express their pains, frustrations or sadness until joining forces. It’s not the most unique beginning (most superheroes wrestle with haunted pasts), but Gunn’s treatment is comforting and warm.

guardians of the galaxy vol. 2

Come a Little Bit Closer

Don’t get me wrong. A movie like Captain America: Civil War ramps excitement with ease, but we never feel the human (or inhuman) stakes at play. I know many Marvel fans will disagree, but for me, it often feels like a child slamming their favorite Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes action figures together, as “teammates” are assembled with promotional appeal coming first. You know, the whole “Cram as many familiar faces on screen with or without establishing depth?” We’re often more taken by how characters mirror their comic representation or what cameo may await – never soulfully affected by the events that take place.

Maybe it’s an unfair nod because the Guardians were a gamble to begin with. Gunn took a shot in the dark on building a legacy from scratch. Thor? The Incredible Hulk? Their history is rich and legacy undenied. Star-Lord? Rocket Racoon? These are characters who most mainstream audiences would be meeting for the first time. There needed to be an instant connection, which Gunn ignited by molding the “unlikely companion” angle evident in every group shot. With such freedom, screenplay details were never shackled to preconceived notions. Gunn set out to introduce the world to its favorite dysfunctional space family (before they knew it), and his mission was accomplished handily in Vol. 1.

That’s not to say Marvel’s never tested such tactics – but it’s all in execution. Quicksilver’s lightning-fast entrance and exit in Avengers: Age of Ultron marks a low-point in MCU history. This has nothing to do with Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s acting or bad accent (well, maybe a little), but rather the film’s inability to ever make us care for a character whose minimal inclusion is mistaken for something vastly more impactful. He’s a pawn sacrifice – an excuse for Scarlet Witch to feel more than the pain of being used by Ultron.

Or you have the reverse – when Don Cheadle’s War Machine crashes down in Captain America: Civil War. The death of James Rhodes could have sent cataclysmic shockwaves through the immediate Avengers universe. A Cap vs. Iron Man vendetta for the ages. What happens instead? Rhodey pops up later on, donning a Tony Stark invention meant to ease his long road to recovery. Time and time again, we’re reminded that most Marvel characters are untouchable deities. I guess unless you’re evil, insignificant or. well, Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

Thankfully, and tragically, Gunn has no such reservations when it comes to his characters.

Guardians of the Galaxy 2 - Mary Poppins

Come and Get Your Love

Despite the focus of Vol. 2 being on Quill’s Ego drama, Yondu’s quest for redemption fingers the film’s strongest pulse. Not only does Michael Rooker refer to himself as Mary Poppins like a boss, but his arc offers life-changing salvation that so tragically relates to the human condition. Here he is, a galactic pirate with a rap sheet that’d unscroll for miles, but he’s not immune to torturous insecurities. Yondu offers honest admissions during his heart-to-heart with Rocket (that also grant the furriest Guardian his own “enlightenment” moment). Then he goes all father-of-the-year by saving Quill, because Gunn’s characters are allowed – nay, proud – to see full arcs to completion, as painful or sobering they might be. Laugh in death’s face, reveal your hand and go out photons blazing. I’ll take the wallop of Yondu’s sacrifice on his terms over the possibility of future MCU appearances every single time.

There I was, in the theater for another Guardians film, trying to hold it together, Michael Rooker’s smurf-colored performance bringing a quiver to my lip. Then Quill gives the Hasselhoff monologue, and yes, laughs are shared – but the quivering gets worse. No tears, though. Good job, Matt. Wait, more spaceships? Sylvester Stallone (as Ravager big-dog Stakar Ogord)? The fireworks, and honorable send-off Yondu dreamed of? R.I.P. an entire box of tissues. It’s certainly not a reaction I’d had to any non-Guardians MCU development to date.

Time out. Let me make a quick clarification here. As I’ve been saying “Marvel,” what I mean is “Disney Marvel.” Fox showed they have no moral issue with killing major superheroes – cough, Logan, cough – and look how that turned out? I’m not saying it’s necessary, or always warranted, but Marvel has had a real issue with abandoning mass appeal on this front. We know someone “significant” will be killed off during the MCU’s Infinity War, but up until now it’s mostly been parents, fakeouts and enough henchmen to fill Rhode Island.

So how is it that James Gunn has turned me into a blubbering mess not once, but twice, with an escaped zoo experiment and alien lifestyles? Joss Whedon couldn’t do so when killing off Pietro Maximoff. Nor could Tilda Swinton monologuing about death and purpose in Doctor Strange. Only Gunn has evoked the type of filmmaking that colors far enough outside Kevin Feige’s mailable but confining formula. I’m not foolish enough to talk ill of Marvel’s structure because it works – but don’t pretend directors have 100% creative freedom. A filmmaker like Edgar Wright couldn’t thrive under such conditions, and while films may have a different feel hero-to-hero (Ant-Man is heist comedy, Winter Soldier is a ’70s political thriller, etc.), they’re all made of the same tissue.

Except Guardians Of The Galaxy, which is weird enough a property to be given carte blanche.

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