“I’m gonna make some weird shit.”
It’s a hilarious revelation Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord offers as he realizes his true potential as a possible God (little “g” on the days they’re feeling humble). I like to imagine this line was also the mentality behind the pitch writer/director James Gunn made when he told Marvel Studios about his plan for the second adventure of the Guardians. Not content with simply world-building, this new story focuses on building the characters.
The opening action number set to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” focuses on Baby Groot while the other Guardians, except for Drax and his sensitive nipples, fly around on newly equipped jet-packs. There’s action occurring in the background, but look how cute this baby tree is! In this sense, the opening ends up as an accurate summation of the action in the entire movie. Action sequences in the middle of the film are focused on individuals before the movie goes back to focusing on the group and what they mean to one another. We know the Guardians can work well together out in the field, but as Vol. 2 posits, what does it mean to be a part of a family?
It’s almost too easy to compare another sequel to The Empire Strikes Back, but here we are. And this is one of the few times where the comparison is appropriate. GotG Vol. 2, like Empire Strikes Back, requires a story which splits up its characters after the opening. And it isn’t just to allow us a broader tour of the weird shit across the galaxy; although, that’s fun too. We’ve seen this group come together to make up a whole. Now we need to explore who they are. As individuals, their familial ties and why they make each other better. The question is still focused on what it means to be a part of a family, but also in whether or not these cosmic dickheads actually want to be part of one.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a movie entirely structured around emotion. Character actions drive the narrative more than they have in any other MCU movie, and arguably any superhero movie since the great Spider-Man 2 or Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
Gamora and Nebula continue their hate-hate relationship, continuously trying to claim victory over the other. Much like Rocket, Nebula is constantly furious (rightfully so) over being given a life on the short end of the stick. Nebula considers herself broken, a weapon built by rage and torment capable of only inflicting the same upon others. But she’s also a survivor and by the end of this story, she’ll be a Guardian. Where Rocket pushes everyone away, Nebula finds drive in vengeance against her surrogate family for the connection she and Gamora establish with one another. Violence is all she knew but now she’ll use it for good.
Gamora gets to move on from their sibling rivalry, having found a new home with the Guardians. In their confrontation on Ego’s planet, she calls Nebula a “psychopath” never once acknowledging her own faults as a sibling. Nebula has been pushed into the boundaries of crazy, but it’s not as if Gamora were entirely innocent from the events that brought her to that blinding rage. Confrontations rise to an all-time high from aerial assault to a large machine gun, only to be diffused by Nebula shouting about her pain: she only wanted a sister. Both were forced by the machinations of Thanos to become the ultimate weapons, both victims of a mad titan. Only in accepting their harsh history and no longer placing blame on another victim of circumstance does the fighting end. They will always have one another.
Drax and Mantis have something different. The two both share empathy in its most literal form. Drax says what he is thinking and feeling at all times. Mantis can shape and project emotion, but the most joyful moments with her are when she expresses the emotions of others. A moment where Mantis and Drax burst into excessive laughter after revealing Peter’s attraction to Gamora is at the expense of Peter, but allows Mantis and Drax to solidify their surrogate father-daughter relationship. When Drax reminisces about his wife and daughter, he stares out at the fountains on Ego’s planet. Mantis touches him and an overwhelming sadness has her burst into tears. In that moment, Mantis, a child of emotional and mental abuse via Ego, finally comprehends what true love a parent feels for their child.
Rocket, the only Guardian who has actually turned into more of a jerk post-Volume 1 spends the majority of his time in the film alongside Yondu. “What a pair are we,” comments Rocket as the two are locked up in a Ravager jail. Yondu and Rocket both care about Quill and both struggle to deal with their own emotionally stunted attitudes. Rocket, angrily pushing people away for daring to show him compassion—except for Groot, the being Rocket let into his emotional circle prior. Yondu is filled with anger and regret for mistakes he made in his life. Well, except one. Yondu may have broken the Ravager code by dealing in kids to bring to Ego, but he eventually met Peter through it. What initially appeared as a love-hate relationship quickly is re-contextualized into a budding father-son pairing. When Yondu yells at Peter, “You made a ball?” and “You think I make this arrow fly by thinking about it?” it’s like a disappointed parent upset with their child who they see with unlimited potential. “Good for thieving,” spits a stubborn Star-Lord and remorseful Yondu. No one else is convinced.
When discussing the use of Ego the Living Planet, Gunn said on Facebook that there was “no backup plan, and it would be nearly impossible to just drop another character in.” Once you watch the movie, it’s easy to see just how true that statement rings.
Ego’s excessive descriptions of his history, as his own being and ties to Peter, could initially be brushed off as exposition but reveal more about the character than some might think. His name is Ego, so needless to say he’s a little *ahem* egotistical (yes, it’s on the nose. It’s science fantasy, just roll with it). Ego found purpose and, in purpose, passion. When you’re passionate about something or someone, all you want to do is show it off. You’re proud of it. Ego is proud of creating his own meaning. Through that drive for meaning, Ego traveled across countless planets and fell in love with Peter’s mother. In Meredith Quill, Ego felt love for the first time. But alas, his purpose drove him back to the stars. As a means of further connecting to his son, Ego explains to Peter over the women they’ve grown attached to.
“Brandy, you’re a fine girl. What a good wife you would be. Yeah, your eyes could steal a sailor from the sea. But my life, my lover, my lady is the sea.”
It’s a touching little moment as the two grow closer, at least until Ego explains his philosophy to the Celestial side of Peter, swaying the Star-Lord momentarily to express his true Celestial purpose. The egotistical living planet felt emotion, but couldn’t understand it. So he planted a tumor in Meredith’s head. Ego grew attached, but couldn’t truly love. Peter, for all his flaws and own ego problems, does deeply care about people, platonic or otherwise. And how satisfying was it to watch Peter immediately revert to his human state and just blast Ego’s physical manifestation away?
Ego-centrism drives the Celestial’s plan to take over the galaxy. Life is boring to the living planet so why not just absorb it entirely to make it in his image? The VFX capitalize on this with a certain buoyancy, almost intangible plastique sheen. What the Guardians see on Ego’s planet isn’t real, and it isn’t trying to be. It’s the beauty of artifice, shrouding the emotional connections that drive us all. Ironically, emotional connections aren’t strictly “tangible” either, but they sure feel like it. Galactic stakes are derived from personal ones. They may be fighting a living planet for the fate of the galaxy but in context, the story is about a bunch of jerks—who not only put aside their differences, but wholly accept them—to help one of their own family members. It just happens to express this theme with laser beams, weird alien beings and a very scary iteration of Kurt Russell.
Quill stays behind to hold off Ego as the Living Planet pleads, “If you kill me, you’ll be just like everyone else.” To which the honestly humble Peter calmly responds, “What’s so wrong with that?” accepting his fate as the planet begins to crumble. Rocket stops Gamora from helping Quill, no longer acting out of his own sense of self but to save his remaining friends. Drax cries out for his friend still below the imploding planet’s surface. We all cry. Quill watches Ego’s form dissipate before his eyes only for his true father to whisk him to the stars, as Yondu sacrifices himself to save his son. In the span of a few minutes, Peter loses the father he never knew along with the father he never realized he had. At Yondu’s funeral, Peter takes the time to say, “Sometimes, the thing you’re searching for your whole life is right there by your side all along.”
Gunn doesn’t let the audience off the emotional hook for the remainder of the film. Mind you, none of the care and affection Yondu and Peter have for one another should absolve Yondu of his failings. Yondu delivered children to a genocidal maniac. Yondu beat Peter. Yondu’s own makeshift family with the Ravager outfits had to disown him because of the terrible things they’d done. They never stopped caring about him, but they couldn’t be part of his life anymore. Coming from a background such as Yondu’s, one where his parents sold him to slavery, one where he joined a gang of space criminals to survive, Gunn’s writing and direction are able to at least make us understand the broken alien from a broken life path. Because stories like this aren’t about absolving people of mistakes. It’s about accepting their mistakes and hopefully, those people can still be accepted into these families once more. Yondu’s mistakes and sacrifice aren’t exactly about redemption. They present the opportunity to do something right for once in his life, even at the expense of his own.
Drax carries Baby Groot on his shoulder and has found a surrogate daughter in Mantis. Mantis finds people who treat her as more than just a pet. Gamora and Nebula end their once-eternal conflict by opening up to each other, even if Nebula cannot let go of her anger at the world just yet. Gamora looks at Peter, acknowledging but perhaps not acting on some unspoken thing. We get a classic wide shot of the Guardians as they look to the stars, honoring the flawed and complicated legacy of Yondu.
However, it’s Rocket who gets the final frame of the film. Rocket honors his fallen friend, the only one who truly understood him, by notifying the other Ravager factions of his act of self-sacrifice. Rocket sheds a tear, grateful and saddened that he could learn to open himself to others at the expense of a kindred spirit. At the beginning of the film, Rocket is the one who’s changed the least. By the end, he’s the one with the most inner growth. Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 is the rare blockbuster that shows wildly damaged characters whose arcs can basically be summarized as “they learn to cry together.”
As Yondu’s ashes spread through space, The Guardians look small in the void of an endless galaxy. After going on their individual journeys to confront the best and worst of themselves, the makeshift family acknowledges and accepts one another. Their emotions aren’t in competition and are equally valid. They’re all dealing with their own weird shit. But hey, they’ve got each other. At the end of the day, maybe that’s all they need.