Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. Guardians of the Galaxy is the most important Marvel movie since Iron Man. I know that honor should probably go to The Avengers, the first film of its type to tie a big cinematic universe together, but the more I think about it the more I'm inclined to say Guardians of the Galaxy is the more important step for the studio.
The brilliance of that first Iron Man movie was that it tapped into Marvel Comics' two big secret weapons. First, it was funny. Serious stuff happens, but it's light... as light as a movie about a drunk weapons dealing billionaire who get kidnapped by terrorists can be, anyway. Tony Stark's a dick, but he's a fun dick.
Two, it's grounded in a recognizable character reality. You buy that Robert Downey Jr. can fly around in a metal suit and save the day because you believe in the character. It takes extraordinary talent to bring these heightened realities to a recognizable place. This is also Peter Jackson's secret weapon on Lord of the Rings and one of the things missing from The Hobbit, which was much more fantasy and action focused. I'm not throwing the latter trilogy under the bus. That reality is there in part of The Hobbit trilogy, but it's not the focus like most of Rings.
What James Gunn did with Guardians of the Galaxy is bring that cinematic Marvel secret sauce that made Iron Man so great to a whole new level. I mean, at least Tony Stark's world was one we recognize. We had to buy that a metal man can fly in it, but that's not that huge of a leap. With Guardians we had to buy all the crazy ass cosmic Marvel stuff with a lead cast that includes a smart ass human, a green-skinned assassin, a rage-filled brute, a walking tree that can only say three (okay, five) words and a talking raccoon.
Despite being loaded with sci-fi and fantasy imagery, Guardians still hit the bullseye on a character level that captured audience's imagination and heart. It made Chris Pratt a mega-star overnight and, more importantly, it gave Marvel an important pressure release valve that all their competition is so desperately lacking.
Things can (and will) get dour in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but at any point they can throw us a fun, swashbuckling space adventure filled with bright colors, fucking bananas characters and a sense of levity. And this feeling is leaking into the rest of the MCU. Don't believe me, just watch that Thor: Ragnarok trailer.
So while The Avengers films are the big milestones, Guardians was the most important, bravest step the studio has taken.
That legacy is cemented with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a sequel that is actually worthy of the original. I find stuff to like in most Marvel movies, but it's not question they've had some trouble with their sequels (Winter Soldier notwithstanding). Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World, Age of Ultron... all are at the bottom of most fan's rankings. Guardians Vol. 2 won't suffer that fate.
Guardians seems to be grabbing onto a Fast and Furious style focus on family, dysfunctional as they may be. Volume 2 is alllllllll about family, both the ones you're born into and the family you choose along the way.
The Guardians family has changed a little bit, but not much, since you've last seen them. Groot being a baby adds an interesting dynamic as everybody gets a chance to be oddly parental at some point. And Groot's babyhood isn't just in his size. He also acts like a toddler. He gets distracted easily, throws tantrums when people piss him off and doesn't quite have a grasp of the world yet.
Quill and Rocket are butting heads, Gamora has distanced herself a bit, focused on capturing her at-large cybernetic sister and Drax is his usual goofy, oblivious self.
There's an economy of theme that's really damn impressive about this movie. Every single step is about the characters dealing with their family and none of the issues they all have are cut and dry.
Gamora's relationship to her sister is incredibly complicated and fleshed out in a way I wasn't expecting. Nebula's anger is well-earned and Gamora has to take responsibility for it.
Despite his boisterous laughter and live-in-the-moment style, Drax is still haunted by memories of his dead wife and daughter in his quiet moments.
Rocket is doing what he does best: push away those closest to him.
And that leaves Star-Lord. Peter Quill's mommy and daddy issues were introduced in the last movie, but that all comes to a head here, again with a complexity I wasn't anticipating. His real father is finally revealed and he's cool as shit, which is why Kurt Russell was the perfect bit of casting here. But the question then becomes what's more important: the family you didn't choose or the one you did?
One of my favorite aspects of the movie is the distant father vs. stepfather threadline as Michael Rooker's Yondu steps into the forefront, his hard, asshole-ish exterior revealed to be hiding a rather big, beating heart.
Rooker far and away steals this movie and it makes me so damn happy for him as an actor to have such rich material to deal with after seemingly being forgotten by the big studios for a long while. He never left the hearts of true-blue cinephiles, but this turn in particular will be the movie that cements his legendary status for the masses.
It's likewise super amazing to me that Kurt Russell is having such a great career resurgence. Again, he never stopped being badass, but it felt like he took a long time away from the spotlight and it does my heart good to know a whole new generation will get to fall in love with him.
His character, Ego, is likewise multilayered. He's a Celestial, a god-like being that is actually a planet. The Kurt Russell part of him is still real, but a creation of his core planet that can travel the universe, but can't stray too far from his core without risking his immortal status. He's got a lot of power, but there's also a sense of loneliness to him. He has his own, amazing and beautiful, planet, but the only other being in his life is Mantis, an awkward yet adorably innocent empath, and she's more of a servant than a companion.
He lights up when he finds his son. There are underlying ulterior motivations for this, but take a close look at his performance and you'll see Russell definitely plays Ego as someone who craves fatherhood. Maybe it's just that he has an empty space in his heart after being alone for so long, maybe it's real feelings he had for Peter's mother which he sees in their son, but he's desperate for a connection.
Their bonding scenes are filled with great father/son dynamics, including literally throwing a ball back and forth, something I'm sure Russell, a giant baseball fan, loved doing. You understand the temptation for Star-Lord to learn from his father, take his rightful place in a great world, even if that means alienating his ragtag dysfunctional family.
What's so good about this sequel is all that real-deal, heavy emotional shit is going on in damn near every scene, but it's disguised by an overall goofy, fun tone. The two things should be at odds with each other, but the way Gunn structures everything the tone compliments the drama and vice versa.
The structure is also very clever as well. The first movie is actually bigger in scope, but you'd never really think about that until the end. Vol. 2 is very much like Empire Strikes Back in that regard. The stakes here are personal. There is a galaxy-threatening event, but it's so tied into the personal human drama of the story that it manages to feel both big and small at the same time.
We do get glimpses of a great universe, much like the first movie, including a cameo by one of my favorite weirdo Cosmic Marvel characters (think bald and white-eyed) and are introduced to a whole slew of new players that will surely come back, including Sylvester Stallone's Stakar Ogord, a character I must admit is such a deep cut that flew over my childhood-spent-reading-Marvel-comics head. He's got a small part to play in this movie, but it's an emotional one... he's kind of to Yondu what Yondu is to Star-Lord.
Stallone's the focus of one of the (many) post-credits tags and I'm very interested to see what they do with him in future movies. He seemed to have a blast in this one and fit much better in the MCU than I would have guessed at first blush.
The shine hasn't worn off of this franchise yet and if James Gunn can keep striking this impossible balance between real deal emotion and fuck-it goofiness then I hope he keeps making these movies until the end of time.