We’ve got a lot to cover here with the newest release from Marvel Studios, so we’ll start with the short version: This was fun. Go see it.
And now, Spoilers Ahoy! Depending upon your personal tolerances, you may not want wade into the waters below before going to see the film first. Go on. We’ll wait for ya.
The weird alchemy that led to the implausible success of Vol. 1 may well have been lightning in a bottle, delivering a film that felt effortlessly balanced, navigated its narrative arc breezily, and delivered a passel of new characters with an ease that neatly concealed the deliberation required to do so. Vol. 2 is not as seemingly effortless, and many high-profile reviewers seem to to be seizing on this as a source of dissatisfaction. Or at least, they’re dissatisfied, even if they’re not entirely sure of the source, with Anthony Lane (New Yorker), Manola Dargis (NYT) and Brian Lowry (CNN) bemoaning assorted variants of “seriousness” and “strain” for their sense that the film is a disappointment.
I should, for the sake of full disclosure, confess that I had a staggering dehydration headache for the first two acts of Vol. 2, thanks to a sleepless night and overly crammed (and hot) day beforehand, and I therefore don’t really trust my own impressions of the second act, which these aforementioned critics felt dragged. I would agree that I didn’t connect with this middle act as much myself as I did the beginning and end, but I can’t yet reasonably assign the blame for that disconnection to the film or to the circumstances under which I viewed it.
Overall, this outing was a delightful reunion with the team we’ve been missing since the last notes of “I Want You Back” faded in 2014. We did want them back, ASAP, and while I can’t speak for you, that longing was particularly intense for me during the dumpster fire that was 2016. I was particularly thrilled by Gunn’s doubling down on Marvel’s affinity for the Film Musical, setting even more sequences to songs than in Vol. 1. The characters continue to be their delightful, dysfunctional selves, and the returns of Yondu and Nebula bring rich and unexpected rewards, both for furthering the character arcs of the core team, and furthering their own.
Of all the Vol. 2 reviews I read, the moment that most mystifies me is Dargis’ assertion:
“The larger problem, as it becomes progressively evident, is that this series lacks a resonant origin story, a myth, on which a world, multiple stories and a fan base can rest. The Guardians’ personal stories are continuing to emerge, and the meme that’s in circulation is family, which at times makes it feel as if the movie is taking cues from the “Fast and Furious” franchise.”
I know the NYT is only fleetingly able to remember the existence of comics as a medium, and its institutional understanding of the relationship of Marvel Cinematic to the print canon is tenuous at best, but really, my jaw dropped at “lacks a resonant origin story […] on which a world, multiple stories and a fan base can rest.” Even if we restrict ourselves to pretending that Marvel Cinematic exists in a total print vacuum, just because some of its fans have never read a single comic, even if we ignore how the internet spreads pop-culture literacy at a rate approximating wildfire, to the sorts of audiences attending these movies who aren’t NYT reviewers, what does this make GotG Vol. 1 here, chopped liver? The origin story presented in that film, I thought, was pretty damn clear: A bunch of “losers” (“people who have lost stuff”, per Peter Quill) come together to form a family of choice, united in their decision to do the right thing, even if they’re not used to it as a way of life. The narrative of the comfort and support in found families has been around far longer than mainstream franchise Fast and Furious, embraced by genre lovers for literally decades, and it’s no “meme.” I blinked at the word “meme” in that context for several long beats, until I started to giggle nervously: What does family as meme even mean?
The binding themes of this film are indeed, the ability of familial relationships to heal and hurt. Despite the stability that their new family arrangement brings to their lives, each individual Guardian is still dealing with past family trauma, not readily erased by a couple months of hijinks together. Peter’s still mourning the loss of his mother, Meredith, and of his estrangement from his Ravager “family”: the space pirates who raised him. The hold bio-dad Ego is able to get on him for a while, seems based at least as much in the idea that Peter has found someone else in the universe who loved his mother too, as in the omnipotent powers Ego offers. Drax is still in deep pain over the loss of his wife and daughter, no matter how happy he is to finally have friends again, and Gamora has some wretched and guilt-inducing unfinished business with her “sister” Nebula, who, it’s revealed, had longed for sisterhood and friendship during their abusive childhood, and felt brutally rejected by Gamora’s efforts at her own survival. Wisecracking Rocket is dealing with the loss of having a giant wise tree protector-friend, now replaced with a pocket-sized version who requires constant watching, plus the deep isolation and trauma of his existence as a science experiment. He’s lashing out constantly, despite his new safety and security ensconced in the team, perhaps in part due to the self-sabotaging impulses only the very scared and damaged can truly understand. In a deeply touching moment of the film, Yondu calls Rocket out on his behavior in precisely these terms, essentially acknowledging that it takes one to know one. It’s family damage–and sometimes fear of trusting that things really have gotten better–that drives most of the decisions in this narrative.
Throughout the film, it’s possible to garner a sense of Gunn’s struggle as a screenwriter to balance this intensity of familial feelings (that were still read–unfairly–as mawkish by reviewers) with moments designed to push the tone away from the cute (Baby Groot) and the depths of familial longing and resentment. The jokes are bluer and more scatological this time around, and the ante of the violence has been upped considerably. While a sequence in which Yondu gets revenge on his mutinous crew using a new arrow that traces gorgeous visual arcs on the screen pleases immensely in the aesthetic realm, the final bodycount amongst people who had been his shipmates just days ago is jarring tonally, and unsettling to contemplate. One can sense, perhaps, an effort on Gunn’s part, to temper the revelation of Yondu’s own family traumas and hidden soft-spots, with the extremity of this violent outburst against those who have just hurt him (and thus thoroughly avoid the risk of woobification). While I delighted in the deepening of Yondu’s complexity, the tradeoff itself as calculated didn’t really work for me.
But the end, oh the end, which is to say, that last act. I’m not sure at what point it hit critical mass on affective overload for me, but I have never cried so hard in a movie theater before. I was shaking, sobbing, and physically clinging to the person with me as I struggled not to weep at a disruptive volume. The sheer catharsis of things said (and unsaid), the visual language of forgiveness and release and comprehension, as all of the individual hurts approached resolution together, was a sucker-punch to the gut, and I am certain I was not alone in crying for the Guardians, crying for myself, crying for anyone who’s ever felt these things. And that’s part of the job of our heroes, to pull up things from deep down inside us, isn’t it?
What did you think of GotGVol2? If you’ve been, are you going again?