Well, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 sure was a thing I watched.
I should start with a positive, right? It had a great soundtrack. (Although I was shocked to discover that I recognized some of the songs and my music aficionado mom did not.)
Also, I’d definitely argue that it was better than its predecessor. If you’ll recall my review, I left Vol. 1 deeply disappointed, and I felt like this movie offered a lot of the character beats and emotional high notes that I wished the first film had hit. It also improved the representation on the team by giving us the first MCU team-up with some semblance of gender parity.
That said, I’m not sure what this story adds to the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe worldbuilding, and being a band-aid for the previous film’s issues isn’t necessarily a good look for a sequel.
Spoilers after the jump!
Our erstwhile Guardians have taken it upon themselves, prior to their previous victory, to become sort of heroes for hire. However, during a job for the uppity Sovereigns (the shiny gold people from the trailers), Rocket steals some of the precious batteries they’re supposed to be protecting and lands the team on the Sovereign shit list. They escape the Sovereign planet along with Nebula (whom the Sovereigns had captured, and planned to trade to the Guardians in exchange for their services) but are attacked by the Sovereign fleet and crash land. It’s there that a mysterious figure calling himself Ego appears and introduces himself as Peter’s father. Peter, Gamora, and Drax go back to Ego’s planet with Ego and his “pet” empath, a young woman named Mantis. Rocket, Groot, and the imprisoned Nebula stay behind while Rocket repairs their ship.
Meanwhile, Yondu has been blacklisted by the Ravagers now that it’s been revealed he was trafficking children like Peter. Desperate for work, he takes a job from the Sovereigns to hunt down the Guardians. He attacks Rocket’s encampment; Nebula escapes, and Rocket and Groot are taken prisoner. However, there’s shortly a mutiny on Yondu’s ship, and Yondu and Rocket (and baby Groot) team up to kill every last mutineer (in a gratuitously violent scene in which easily a hundred people are killed while peppy music plays) and go after Peter.
Back on Ego’s planet, Ego tells Peter his history as a Celestial, a god-like consciousness who formed both the planet beneath them and the physical humanoid representation of himself with whom Peter has been communicating out of the sheer force of his will. (The comic book character Ego is just called, a bit on the nose-ly, Ego the Living Planet.) Ego has visited innumerable planets and impregnated innumerable women in the attempt to create a child like Peter who can also tap into the Celestial abilities.
But not everything is as it seems on Ego’s planet. Nebula appears and attacks Gamora, and they finally have the knock-down drag-out heart-to-heart I’ve been craving since the first movie. In doing so, they discover a boneyard beneath the planet’s surface. It turns out Ego’s been killing off his other children when they didn’t display Celestial aptitude. And not only that, he also intentionally gave Peter’s mom the tumor that killed her, because Ego’s love for her was interfering with his plans for universal domination, and the real reason Yondu never delivered Peter to Ego was because he cottoned on to what Ego was doing to the children Yondu brought him. Yondu, Rocket, and Groot show up about now, just in time to do battle with Ego. An intense fight commences, but eventually Rocket manages to make a bomb out of the stolen Sovereign batteries and Groot sets it off. Everyone escapes except Yondu, who Peter has now realized (despite Yondu’s own abusive tendencies) was far more of a father to him than Ego was. Crushed by Yondu’s death, they throw him a grand funeral in the Ravager tradition, and the credits roll.
So as I said before, I did think that this movie delivered on the emotional notes I felt were lacking in the last film. There are some great heartwarming moments of bonding between the team members, as well as some great funny moments. Most importantly to me, we got a real emotional payout on the Nebula/Gamora relationship, with the two of them finally coming to understand each other and support each other through the hurt Thanos caused them. (Nebula’s broken exclamation of “I just wanted a sister!” was, for me, the most heartbreaking line of the movie, hands down.) With their conflicts mostly resolved, we get a sudden doubling of the number of women on the Guardians team, and with Mantis added later we are almost 1:1 men to women. I was also satisfied to see that we got some kind of emotional arc for Yondu in this movie, as he was a flat and unlikeable character in the first film and I was deeply displeased at first to see him included in the team lineup during the trailers and promotions. I am also glad overall to see a movie where the male lead is the one who is constantly interrogating his feelings and is not overly afraid of vocalizing them, initiating discussions about them, and expressing them openly. Even Rocket got some emotional development.
However, I didn’t love Drax and his belligerent brand of “humor” seemed overused to a fault this time around. His statements of the obvious seem less about ‘a character who doesn’t understand idioms/only thinks literally’ and more about ‘what obnoxious things can we say under the guise of Drax being Drax’ One can only stand so much of Dave Bautista’s raucous laughter at his own often-unkind literalisms, especially in his conversations with Mantis. Between the two of them they also contributed the bulk of the awkward sexual references of the movie by repeatedly bringing attention to the fact that Peter doesn’t just love Gamora, he lusts after her. In one scene Drax outright asks Ego if he has a penis. All of these come together to feel like his personality was just used to put crude jokes in the script.
While the movie did do generally better with its female characters, the franchise is still falling down quite a bit on the race side of things. There are still no major characters who are genuinely people of color; their actors may not be white, but green skin and antennae means the characters are not human, and don’t count toward representation. There’s especially a lot of problematic-ness to Mantis’s character. While she is an alien, her actress Pom Klementieff is half-Korean, and, unlike with Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, her ‘alien’ costume doesn’t disguise her race. Over the course of the movie, she’s taken from her home by Ego, forced to care for and comfort him, treated as a pet—a.k.a., less than sentient, and is constantly insulted and belittled by Drax. While I’m happy to see more women of color in the cast, a character whose backstory is deeply rooted in anti-Asian stereotypes and sentiment is not the right way to do representation. (And speaking of representation, James Gunn, “queer people totally exist in my universe and are in my movie, it’s just we don’t acknowledge any of them and they’re functionally invisible” is not how representation works.)
Ultimately, this movie feels like a necessary complement to the first, if only because it concludes so many of the character arcs that the first film introduced. However, I wish that the first movie had, yanno, wrapped up those character arcs effectively in the first movie? Had we not had to wait for Vol. 2 to get some kind of development payout for, say, Yondu, or Nebula and Gamora, more time in this story could have been devoted to digging into other new relationships or story arcs. The post-credits scenes introduced a few neat easter eggs for further films—the Sovereign ruler seems to have created Adam Warlock, about whom I know next to nothing, and an interesting-looking crew of Ravagers come together to do… something. The final post-credits scene closes on the Watchers, which feels like the only nod the film has to the larger MCU, seeing as neither Thanos nor any other character or plot appears or is referenced (save a brief dancing Jeff Goldblum during the credit roll).
So, yeah. I enjoyed this movie more than the first one for the most part. However, that’s not saying a lot. Maybe I am becoming a jaded old woman in my advanced years, but I feel like I haven’t seen a MCU movie since Winter Soldier that felt like a genuinely well-written and engaging story. I understand that it’s easy and fun to crank out an easy and fun popcorn flick, but it’s totally possible to write a summer blockbuster that also, like, is a good movie aside from containing a character you like and occasionally tugging at your heartstrings. I want superhero movies to transcend the ‘popcorn flick’ designation and be treated like actual art, and with safe, status-quo movies like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 as the only recent offerings, I don’t see that happening any time soon.
Hear more from Lady Saika on Character Reveal, the podcast she cohosts with BrothaDom!