There are an ambition and utter disregard for plot driven action in James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 that gives me hope for the genre. Comic book movies, at least with Marvel anyway, are starting to be movies about something. Not just rock ‘em sock’ em action flicks with well-drawn characters. Their emotions are becoming messier, deeper, less colorful.
James Gunn allows you to inhabit the universe of the Guardians with an ambling sort of exploration. The entire plot is almost a MacGuffin albeit an entertaining one. This is an action packed space adventure filled with laughter, explosions, and characters dealing with the psychological repercussions of childhood trauma.
The first Guardians Of The Galaxy was a wacky slickly produced sugar rush of a movie. For the sequel, it feels as if Marvel has backed away and allowed Gunn full control of his vision. There are some studio flourishes here and there, but for the most part, there’s no build up to other movies. It stands on its own, a flawed but deeply emotionally affecting summer blockbuster.
Gunn doesn’t smuggle the themes of abuse into the movie he lays them bare. Amazingly he doesn’t just focus on one type of trauma but several types. Peter (Chris Pratt) watched his mother his mother wither away and die of a brain tumor. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) both suffered horrible abuses at the hands of their adoptive father/kidnapper Thanos (Josh Brolin). Drax (Dave Bautista) witnessed his wife and daughter murdered. Rocket (Bradley Cooper) was conceived and raised as a science experiment.
The movie explores all of these complex emotions amidst dazzling special effects and snappy comebacks. Theoretically, you could say it’s about Peter finally meeting his Dad, Ego (Kurt Russell) but that story is just there to get the movie financed and made. A race of golden people called The Sovereign led by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) exist so Gunn can plot the action beats and help move the movie forward.
It’s all window dressing. Gunn audaciously focuses on the characters and not only how they relate to each other but how they relate to themselves. Rarely have characters in a Marvel movie felt so human.
The special effects are of course, great. This is a lush and gorgeous film. Gunn and his cinematographer Henry Braham have taken it one step further. The images in Guardians have meaning and are not just well-composed group shots. There are moments such as Nebula and Gamora reconciling in the foreground, the background engulfed by flames of a crashed ship. It’s not the most subtle screen composition, but at least Gunn is trying.
There’s a John Carpenter feel to the movie. A sense of the movie reaching for something. Like this year’s earlier Logan, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 strives to be something truly different from its predecessors.
The addition of Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) add to the unusual flavor of the movie. While these two characters may not have childhood trauma to deal with, they do have their own sins to atone for. They balance out the character arcs and allow for some genuinely tender and surprisingly heartfelt moments.
Sure the narrative is a little sloppy, and sometimes the music is a little on the nose, but none of that matters. This is a rare thing, a studio movie with a giant beating heart and more than one thing on its mind. There’s love, not a romantic kind of love, but a more complex, complete, and satisfying kind of love. A love that knows you have made mistakes and understands.
Comic book movies seem to be growing up both cinematically and emotionally. They appear to be less and less afraid to take chances. In other words, they seem to be growing up. Here’s hoping.