Monday, July 15, 2024

Second Chance Sundays: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’

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We’re in a weird place right now both personally and industry-wise. The COVID-19 has upended almost every system by revealing flaws and cracks we either knew existed or had stubbornly ignored.  While many of us face quarantine, it has become a time of reflection and in the case of film critics a time to get creative while Hollywood decides how to proceed. 

So here at The Fandomentals we present Second Chance Sundays and Whatever Wednesdays.  On Second Chance Sundays I will take a movie previously reviewed and take another crack at it. I’ll be looking at movies I loved, hated, or just felt meh about. I think Whatever Wednesdays speak for themselves. This is only temporary until everything settles down somewhat. 

James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 belongs to the small corner of the MCU that dares to be as big, bold, and colorful as the marketing promised. It feels like a movie with thoughts and ideas and deals with the here and now without being worried about setting up future installments. The film is not as polished or streamlined as some of the other Marvel movies but that’s to its credit. 

The movie remains one of the few films of the MCU that I have watched more than once and not just for Second Chance Sundays. In fact, in a weird way, Vol. 2 reminds me a lot of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. The two movies have nothing in common except for the fact that every time I watch them, I feel differently. Movies like this are rare because in order for our views to change so drastically on repeat viewings so close together it would have to either be a tumultuous time in our life or the material itself would have to be so gangly that it’s possible to be of two minds. Vol. 2 is nothing if not densely packed and gangly, happily so, and doesn’t give a damn about the movie coming after it or what came before it. 

Refreshing for any movie nowadays, it is doubly so for a Marvel movie. As to my fluctuating views, it’s hard to say how much can be attributed to these oh so interesting times we live in and how much is based on my own inner mercurial emotional state. My first time through I loved it but the second time I found myself thinking it had a lot of fat it could have trimmed off. The third time I found myself in love with it all over again, though I still felt the drag of the bloated narrative.  

Either way, I find myself loving it more than hating it. 

Vol 2. exemplifies both the worst and best of the Marvel cinematic universe. The worst is the film is one of the most egregious examples of the “I have a penis and it gives me magic powers” storytelling device. Combine that along with Quill’s tendency to obsessively communicate through pop culture references to his close friends who he knows don’t get them and you have a seriously grating and annoying character. The biggest problem I have with both Guardians is that they are both stories centered around Quill (Chris Pratt). 

This is a problem because if the movies are part of a larger story, as we have been told, then they should be about Gamora (Zoe Saldana), or at the very least Nebula (Karen Gillan). After all the daughters of the Mad Titan Thanos would be much more narratively and dramatically satisfactory considering where we know the franchise is heading. But I digress. I’m wading into the movie I wanted as opposed to the movie I got. 

The pop-culture references are something I am finding myself losing more and more patience with as times goes on. The references are made by straight white men in their late thirties. By the time the movie has aged a few years, they are already close to being outdated. The references grow stale obsolete at an astonishing pace. Not to mention, again, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) have no idea what Quill is talking about. It’s a glaring problem when your main character and hero seems unable to communicate with the people he loves and cares for. 

To be fair; these issues are as much a product of our culture as Marvel. 

But the best of the MCU is the deep and complex love that permeates so much of Gunn’s script. Gunn explores abuse, trauma, and abandonment so frankly and so bluntly I’m shocked Marvel, who before Vol 2. had historically been rather rote and two dimensional when it came to the emotions of its characters, allowed such complexity. Not that was necessarily a bad thing but with Gunn, he ushered in an emotional dimensionality that allows his characters to do and say wrong things while also fundamentally making sure we understood the pain behind the words. 

Drax, in particular, seems much more mean this outing than the previous Guardians. But even then, we see that the death of his family still haunts him. Yet, that doesn’t excuse how he treats Mantis (Pom Klementieff), the servant of Ego (Kurt Russell), Quill’s father. At the same time, I couldn’t help but notice that Drax’s cruelty didn’t manifest itself until he and Mantis began to grow closer. 

It’s no secret that the other Guardians seem horrified at expressing anything close to positive emotion. Except for Gamora, who considering the utter waking hell life with Thanos must have been, shows an innate inner strength, that she is at all as well adjusted as she is quite frankly miraculous. My point is that unlike so many other MCU movies the Guardians aren’t always so easily likable. Even better, Gunn doesn’t care if you like them or not. Not only does this make his movie a breath of fresh air but it also helps with how he manages to make the galaxy as vast and diversely populated as it actually must be.  

I couldn’t help but be giddy as Gunn led us on a tour throughout the galaxy, sometimes for no other reason but for a sight gag. This opens up the world and gives us a sense of the world being much bigger than just the core characters. Kevin Feige, Bob Iger, Ike Perlmutter, or whoever let James Gunn largely off his leash and I for one am immensely grateful.  

Vol 2. is at once breathtaking, scatterbrained, and emotionally blunt, albeit surprisingly complex. The characters are not huggable but we wish to give them hugs. They say mean things to each other. Though sometimes I found them to be too mean and it pulled me out of the movie. But its visuals are so dazzling, the colors so bright and the scope so breathtaking at times it’s hard to stay mad at the movie even if it drags in a few places. 

I’d rather my movie drag in a few places than drag for its entirety. It’s almost unwieldy as the story goes vacillating between Quill reuniting with his godlike father, while also focusing on the mutiny of Yondu’s (Michael Rooker) ship, to the Sovereigns wishing to kill them for stealing some batteries. 

Henry Braham lends a look and atmosphere to Gunn’s world which sets it apart from almost any other MCU movie with a few exceptions. He’s not subtle but then again Vol. 2 isn’t trying to be and that’s fine. I mentioned before the image of Gamora and Nebula reconciling in the foreground as Nebula’s ship collapses into a ball of fire in the background in my first review. Yeah, still one of my favorite moments. 

Braham takes the time to explore these dazzling worlds without being worried about having to hurry up and get to the next plot point. The way he lovingly frames the characters so we can see the cracks and wrinkles in their faces. Saldana and Gillan especially are better served in Vol 2. than any other movie in the franchise. Not just story-wise but Braham’s camera has a way of allowing us to look at them and see the pain and want for sisterhood more expressively, they feel more alive in Braham and Gunn’s hands than others. 

One of the things which bothered me on the second viewing was the Quill and Gamora romance. Quill is a stunted man child. Gamora is decidedly not. It feels like placing a giant weight around her character growth to pair her with him. But on the third viewing, while I was still bothered by their pairing, I was impressed by how well Saldana plays Gamora’s response. Quill is most definitely in love with Gamora, but Saldana plays her emotions as much more complex and deeper. It’s not a romantic love, it’s something much deeper and interesting. 

Gunn’s song choices aren’t as fun. But, in a way, while the choices may not pop as much, they work better and evoke a more interesting aesthetic. The song “Come a Little Bit Closer” by Jay and the Americans is a melancholy song with undertones of regret and sadness. A perfect fit for the gleefully demented mass murder scene aboard Yondu’s ship.  

If I’m being honest the disturbing darkness that percolates through both Guardians movies only makes me love them more. So many of these hero movies are gritty, or edgy, but always come off as insincere because the death and the violence are too clean.  Gunn’s heroes have tough choices, people die, and death is final. 

Consequences exist in Gunn’s world, in a way they too often do not in other films of the MCU, with rare exceptions. The characters aren’t as lovable or huggable either. Prickly, cruel, and mean they serve to remind us that growth is a constant thing and that trauma affects us in ways we don’t even realize.  

Which is not to say it dampers the humor. The scene in which Yondu and Rocket try to get baby Groot to understand what they need to escape has a morbid sense of escalation. With Groot finally arriving with a severed toe and Yondu and Rocket being appropriately disturbed. I have laughed at that scene every time; without fail.  

Though as engrossing and mesmerizing as so much of the film is I did find myself checking out the last thirty minutes of the movie. But again, I always do with these movies. I understand the need and expectation for them but I cannot for the life of me bring myself to care most of the time. To Gunn’s credit, he does a better job than most. 

Vol. 2 is not without its flaws. But it comes by those flaws honestly. The flaws stem from Gunn exploring these messy emotions in a myriad of ways that other directors would sidestep in order to give us a cool fight scene. Besides, in a weird way, I like the flaws, it gives the movie character. 

Next Week: Free Fire

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures

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