Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 - I Have a Lot of Feelings

So I saw Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 opening night - and holy shit was I blown away. I described it as “everything I wanted and nothing I expected” - which, honestly, is the best kind of movie.

There are so many things I loved about this movie that I don’t even know where to start. But, to make things simple, I’ll go with the big things first, and then delve into the small things.

Spoilers Ahead

So the first thing I love about this movie is that it isn’t really a superhero movie - yeah, there are huge space battles and a bunch of loveable characters saving the day, but that’s not really what the movie is about. At its core, GotG 2 is about family - and, to borrow a phrase, how love comes in many forms.

I was not expecting Ego - Peter’s dad, if you’re risking the spoilers - to be the plot of the film. I really expected him to show up towards the latter end of the movie, and honestly thought he’d be used as a deus ex machina. Instead, he was the plot - in every sense. He drove the story, he caused a lot of the conflicts, and ultimately was the main antagonist. (I do prefer to think of him as an antagonist as opposed to a villain - mainly because as a Celestial, mortal morality is not something easily ascribed to his character. It’s sort of like the kyuubei from Madoka Magica - we consider them evil, but they see their actions as necessary due to a difference in how their minds work.)

Establishing this, it’s fairly easy to also establish that the film is about family - Peter finally meets his long lost father, at a time when he’s at odds with some of the members of his found family. (Namely Rocket.) And the movie continues to dive into these familial relationships - Yondu being Peter’s adoptive father, the relationship between Nebula and Gamora, even the end result of Drax’s character development from the first film. There are so many well done, glorious subplots explored in this film that nothing lacked build up - none of the hard hitting emotional scenes were out of nowhere gut punches to draw out cheap sympathy. They took the time to actually make you genuinely care for all of the characters, instead of hamfisting some sob story after the fact.

To be honest, there were so many subplots that I was a little lost at the beginning of the film - it wasn’t the writing I was used to in a superhero film, and it threw me off guard as I thought “ok, so where are they going with this?”

All of the important parts of this movie get established in the beginning, and it does make it seems a little all over the place - but in the beginning of a story, that’s ok. How many books have you read that throw you right into the middle of an action sequence, then explain the plot without vomiting exposition all over the place? This film is essentially the same in the beginning - it’s throwing you into the middle of an emotional quest you don’t even realize has begun, and it ties everything together so well at the end that the beginning makes sense.

That being said, however, to really get into this movie, I’m going to talk about the different subplots individually. 

Yondu Udonta: Ex-Slave and Exiled Ravager Captain

I did not walk into the theater expecting to cry during Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2.

I especially did not expect to cry over the death of Yondu Udonta.

But I did, so let’s talk about why.

Building back stories to make antagonistic characters more likeable is difficult - particularly when it’s in a sequel and they were a minor character. But Guardians 2 does it brilliantly, and one of the main reasons is that they avoid expositing all over the place.

One of the problems with developing a minor character into someone the audience cares about is hamfisting emotional/developmental arc that doesn’t make sense or doesn’t resolve in a natural way - on the other end, you can make the character's backstory/arc incredibly moving… but the character in the sequel is so far removed from the prior persona that now the original doesn’t make sense. GotG 2 manages to ride that sweet spot in the middle, with a moving backstory that still makes sense for the character, and makes the audience care without resorting to cheap drama.

Let’s do a little comparison to show you what I mean - since this is about father figures and in the MCU, let’s compare Yondu’s death scene to the scene in Captain America: Civil War where Tony is using holograms to say goodbye to his father the night he got killed.

Yes, Howard’s death is sad, and it sucks that Tony didn’t get to say goodbye - but why do I care? We have seen nothing of Howard and Tony’s relationship that makes us feel all that bad that Howard died - let’s be honest, Howard turned into (more of) a dick after Steve became a Capsicle, and I honestly didn’t feel all that bad that he got killed because he was a very minor character with little development or backstory. The scene in question is meant to draw sympathy for Tony - but, as I said earlier, there was not enough build up of their relationship for me to really care that Tony regretted not saying goodbye. Because - why did he regret that? Howard was abusive and neglectful, and having Tony regret not saying goodbye (without Howard having a redemptive arc to rebuild their relationship) is just cheap and perpetuating the myth that children all have to love their parents, even if their parents are toxic douche canoes.

On the other hand, let’s look at Yondu’s death scene - why do I care? Because we saw Yondu with the other Ravager captains getting rejected for breaking the rules - and learn later that he realized his mistake and regretted it, but still had to deal with the consequences of losing his friends. Because Yondu tells Rocket about his past as a slave, and how he did the same thing as Rocket to push his friends away because he didn’t know how to care about other people (more on this later). Because Yondu and Peter have multiple moments showing the bond between them:

“You said you were gonna eat me!”
“That was just funny.”
“Not to me!”
Because Yondu is so “soft” on Peter that his crew mutinies due to feelings of inequality. Because you find out that the reason Yondu kept Peter was that he discovered what Ego was doing to his children, and Yondu wasn’t ok with that. Because there was so much emotion in one still in a montage of Yondu teaching young Peter how to shoot that you didn’t need a full blown flashback to realize they’re family:

“He may have been your father, but he ain’t your daddy. I’m sorry I did everything all wrong.”
I cared about Yondu’s death because he admitted he wasn’t a perfect parent, apologized for his mistakes - and died saving his son.

Howard died trying to save the invention he put before his son.

I cared about Yondu because the movie didn’t show me a smarmy wisecracking father figure - it showed me a broken man trying to make right at the end of his life. Yes, he’s still smarmy and wisecracking - but being a likeable character and being liked are two different things, and I liked Yondu by the end of this film. Not because he was the funny, roguish character - because I genuinely cared about him.

So when all the Ravager captains showed up to give him a proper send off? Well, I almost cried again - because Yondu had earned that by the end of the film.

The Raccoon with the Batteries

Rocket - oh man, Rocket. I love how Rocket’s character arc opens - by stealing batteries. Which doesn’t seem like much of a developmental arc starter, but it worked so well because it fit with the character and brought the issues Rocket was having to the forefront.

Rocket is a self-made man - escaped experiment carving out a living by taking what he wants. Of course, this also makes him seem kind of selfish, and pretty stubborn. But the movie, while making Rocket out to be an asshole in the beginning, makes it clear by the end that all the bluster and aloofness is a coping mechanism.

The slow exploration of Rocket going from an asshole who steals batteries he doesn’t need to the loner trying to convince himself he doesn’t need anybody is yet another really well done subplot in this movie. It’s also another case of exposing a backstory without word vomit or shoehorned in flashbacks - instead, it uses a well known and underutilized parallel story arc between Yondu and Rocket.

So the parallel story arc is a technique where two characters have similar backstories - often used to highlight the difference between heroes and villains. (Think any story that has an “I could have been you” moment.) In Guardians 2, however, this technique is used between two protagonists - and done brilliantly.
For one, having Yondu see Rocket making the same mistakes he did is a fantastic reason for him to open up to a character he hardly interacts with - and it’s also a great way to explore just how similar they are. It establishes this mainly in the giant take over the ship killing spree the pair go on, where both can be seen enjoying themselves and using tactics to overcome larger numbers.

But a love of killing aside, we see these characters bond while in the brig - Rocket making wisecracks and Yondu seeing himself reflected in that, opening up about his past but holding some things back (like why he really kept Peter around). The way they have Yondu continue to hide his true emotions is the same way we see Rocket hiding his emotions - behind lies that only work because of their rough personality.

All this is laid out very quickly in the scene where Yondu strips Rocket off all his defenses, topping it all off with the one thing Rocket can’t lie away:

“I know you because I am you.”
And the reason this scene works so well is because of all the build up that came before - the bonding, the parallels - it wasn’t a moment that flew out of left field like “and now this”. It was a breaking point - it was a latent build up of emotion coming to a head in a time of “and here we are now”.

Rocket didn’t magically become a better person after this - we still see him wisecracking and being an asshole in general - but he does recognize when he’s pushing people away. And he does try to apologize (in his own way) before he makes a mistake as big as Yondu’s:

“They came back. Even after he betrayed them. And stole batteries he didn’t need.”

Rocket became so much more than the sarcastic mad scientist with a chip on his shoulder in this film - he became another broken man in a group of broken people learning how to put the pieces back together in a way that doesn’t stab someone in the eye. And it was wonderful.

The Gold Herring

Not as much to say on this one, but I did want to mention that Sovereign made an excellent gold red herring in terms of antagonist - you spend so much time on this entire planet that wants to kill the Guardians that you don’t at first think to look elsewhere for villainy. Sovereign was sufficiently powerful and serious to be seen as a threat, but also far away enough that you expect to wait for the pay off.

I also enjoy all the thought put into them - such as having only unmanned ships because their citizens are too precious to waste attempting to kill someone. (It kind of makes you wonder why more people with the capability wouldn’t also send unmanned ships, but it did seem pretty sophisticated, so it could be that.)

The fact that Sovereign didn’t just disappear also helped with the plot - it was a good way to pull in Yondu without making it feel forced (Yondu would be the first choice to take down Peter, given their history), and made the final battle that much harder for our heroes. As Pixar’s Emma Coats has said:

“Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”
What initially seems like a coincidence to help the characters - Sovereign hiring Yondu - turns into a coincidence that gets them into trouble. Namely, the Ravager mutiny and the Sovereign fleet showing up at the end.

Peter Has Daddy Issues

I love how much thought was put into Peter’s character arc - from David Hasselhoff stories to realizing he already had a father, there was so much heart in his storyline.

Peter’s initial skepticism isn’t something that most heroes have in similar situations - it’s usually the hero ready to believe right away and a friend (usually a Gamora-like friend) preaching caution. So we already start with a great reversal of Gamora - who lost her real father - advising Peter to take a chance on Ego, promising to help kill him if he turns out to be evil. (Not the most heartwarming promise, but one of the more realistic for what boils down to a group of mercenaries.)

But Peter does get onboard with Ego in a short span of time - fulfilling his childhood dream of playing catch with his dad, finally feeling like he belongs somewhere - even as Gamora grows more suspicious of Ego’s motivations. (More on this later.) Showing Ego and Peter bond over music and memories of Peter’s mom - even Peter’s anger at Ego’s absence for her death - really solidified why Peter seemed to ignore the creeping insidiousness of the things Ego has to say.

I think one of my favorite moments is honestly Ego showing Peter his master plan, and how Peter wasn’t swayed from helping by thoughts of his friends. And it’s one of my favorite moments for what happened once Ego admitted to having killed Peter’s mom - the immediate reversal was extremely satisfying. A lot of writers would have drawn out the conflict of interest in that moment for some cheap emotional tension - I’m glad James Gunn isn’t one of them, because having Peter just start shooting was a much better resolution.

Peter’s surprise at Yondu showing up to help save him was another great moment - for the audience, it makes perfect sense that Yondu is there, but for Peter this is seemingly out of the blue. And Yondu attempting to apologize for his shortcomings as a father in the middle of battle while still trying to hold back is the perfect contrast for Ego.

Ego made no real apologies for his actions - he made excuses. Everything he did was necessary, so none of it was wrong. Yondu realized he’d been wrong, and took responsibility for Peter because of it.

It’s the montage of Peter’s realization - the scenes of him with his friends and brief flashbacks - that finally makes it hit home that what he was looking for was something he already had. That he didn’t need a greater purpose, or his “real” father to belong - that he already had a family with his friends. That they weren’t perfect, but they belonged together. And it really is driven home in one exchange:
“If I die, you’ll be like everybody else!”

“What’s wrong with that?”
Everyone can relate to wanting to be special - to wanting to have some greater purpose in life. But this movie celebrates things that often get relegated to the background - family and friendship. Things that anyone can have, and that make everyone special to someone. Peter’s character arc is about realizing that he doesn’t need to be special to be special - he just needs to recognize how lucky he already is.

She’s Got Baggage

I really enjoyed Gamora’s character arc as well - it’s similar to Rocket’s, in that she’s a strong loner type that is still learning how to friends - but different in that she didn’t realize how much she was holding back. Gamora felt that she had opened up to her friends already, and was supportive and encouraging rather than suspicious or jealous. (Low hanging fruit, storyline wise, to have her be jealous of Peter for finding his father while hers was dead.)

However, it was the conversation between her and Peter about their “unspoken thing” that really brought to the forefront her unwillingness to really open up. Her refusal to even acknowledge that she liked Peter in a potentially romantic way is evidence that she’s still holding back. However, I’m actually glad that the romantic subplot between Peter and Gamora didn’t get resolved by the end of the film - both characters have too much baggage to really get into a relationship (as Drax keeps telling them), and having them decide to get into a relationship solely because of almost dying (which, while realistic, is overused) would have cheapened the build up of Gamora not wanting to get into a relationship. Having the resolution of the subplot being Gamora now willing to at least admit an attraction to Peter is a great way to show her opening up without diving off the deep end.

The other thing I love, though, is that the romantic subplot was not Gamora’s main storyline - it was her relationship with Nebula that took center stage.

This still goes back to Gamora keeping her own counsel - it’s highlighted by Nebula being so unrestrained in her emotions that Gamora does seem cold and indifferent in comparison. They both suffered at the hands of Thanos, but Gamora represses and tries to ignore her past, while Nebula is consumed by it. It’s the moment where Nebula breaks through to Gamora that our favorite green skinned assassin realizes how much she didn’t express - and how much she missed while suffering in silence.

Gamora’s character arc is about realizing that opening up to others isn’t just being supportive and hanging out - it’s being willing to admit you need your own support, and talk about what you’re going through. And that having nothing to do with Peter or any other man separates the lead female character arc in Guardians 2 from most major films today.

For comparison, Black Widow’s character arc in Avengers: Age of Ultron was almost defined by Bruce Banner - she opened up to relate to him, because she… did she love him? I’m still a little fuzzy on that point. (I like the idea of Natasha/Bruce, but I don’t think it was handled… well, at all in Avengers. It was kind of just a convenient plot device and a way to shoehorn in some feels for Black Widow and try to make her more relatable.) Natasha’s character arc couldn’t have happened without Bruce Banner and their relationship(?), whereas Gamora’s arc could have happened without Peter in the story.

I Just Wanted a Sister

Speaking of Nebula - whoa. I was talking with a friend about her, and we actually talked about how easy it would have been to write Nebula off as a psycho killer. Instead, the film explored her as a character, filling in gaps and giving her enough depth that a single line actually felt like a punch:

“No, you wanted to win - I just wanted a sister!”

Anyone with siblings can relate to being competitive with them - not to the same extent as Gamora and Nebula, but the emotion is still there. And sometimes siblings do take it too far - so having Nebula and Gamora hash things out in a big knock out throw down fight was a fantastic and realistic way to bring that competition pushed too far to a head. Especially for two women that had been through some severe psychological trauma together.

Nebula’s arc was interesting, because it was about her realizing that Gamora wasn’t the bad guy - and forgiving her sister for her shortcomings. It was about recognizing that Gamora hadn’t been treated better - even though she’d thought she had. (It helped that Gamora apologized and admitted her mistake, instead of just making excuses.)

Nebula still has some room to grow - going off on her own instead of accepting Gamora’s offer to stay is evidence of that - but having a character that could have easily been written off as a bad guy being treated as just as complex as the main cast was a much more rewarding experience. (It also leaves room for her to come back in GotG 3 and have even more character growth.)

Drax Already Had His Character Arc, But Here are the Results

I really just wanted an excuse to talk about the scene between Drax and Mantis - the one where she touches his shoulder and then burst out crying while he stares into the distance. That was just such a well constructed scene, and major props to Batista’s acting chops.

(As a side note, I have a lot of respect for Batista’s acting method - this interview goes into it and it is really wonderful, I highly recommend reading it. Basically, he calls his acting coach before every role to get into the right mindset - he doesn’t expect his roles to be good, he works to make sure they are. And the results are in the expression on his face in the scene above.)

As stated in the heading, Drax had his character arc in the first movie - scene where he admits that his anger was to hide his pain and loss. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t satisfying to see the resulting maturity in a Drax who talks about his wife and daughter more, and opens up about how he feels.

Closing Remarks

Now that I've addressed all the subplots individually, there are a few more overarching things I’d like to mention. Such as each character having their own arc, and none of them being “over” - as I stated for most of them, the plots are resolved - but they aren’t solved. Rocket doesn’t magically become a benevolent saint, Gamora isn’t pouring her heart out to anyone, and Peter is still figuring out who he is. But nothing was left unfinished - only open ended. Which is good, because the lessons the characters learned aren’t easy ones, and the solutions to their issues are going to take work - years of work. But they’ve all taken the first steps on those journeys - and really, that’s the most important part.

I also love how the film was based on the premise of every emotionally intense moment having a build up - nothing was just thrown at the audience without explanation or with the intent to grab at a quick “feel good/bad” moment. Every storyline was deliberate and consciously driven to a particular event.

All in all, this movie gave me way more emotions than I was expecting - but in a good way, rather than a “ranting about how Life was Alien but trying not to be Alien” way. If you’re looking for a superhero movie that isn’t really a superhero movie, I would 100% recommend Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2.

(Also, I can’t wait to see what they do for Kraglin and Mantis is future films - I imagine they’ll get their own arcs.)


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