BY BROOKE CORSO
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2” is about manipulation: of people’s feelings or actions, of DNA strands and artificial limbs, of rose-colored glasses and fireworks shows and parents living through their children, both figuratively and literally. It is as much about smoke and mirrors as up-tempo music and bright, shiny colors, and the tricky relationship between the audience and the moving pictures on the screen. How deep does one’s suspension of disbelief have to be to enjoy a visual experience: in this case, it’s pretty shallow — an oftentimes fun film of happy nostalgia that actually acknowledges the sleight of hand in its more serious scenes, then reverts back to the happy as a way to cope.
The film opens in flashback as a young couple zoom down a Missouri country road in 1980 toward a local Dairy Queen (you will see this product placement twice) which they sneak behind to make out and check on the extraterrestrial blossom planted in the soil. It’s hard for me to believe that in the decades since, not one other young, carefree couple went behind that Dairy Queen to make out and discover a neon, glowing plant on the ground, but cut to 2014 and it must still be there as Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) are the A-Team for hire in the Galaxy. Their current assignment is battling a huge, ferocious slug that is stealing the power cells of a so-called superior race of beings called The Sovereign. In the first of many set pieces to make the audience laugh rather than think, the adorable Baby Groot dances to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” as the others shoot and stab and get tossed around. As the camera freezes on his tiny frame kicking out against the title card, this is the essence of the movie: action is incidental, while emotion is key.
Again, Gamora’s contribution to the team is underutilized and ignored, as she figures out a way to slay the beast with her sword only to have Drax take credit. She is surrounded by male figures less likely to “think with what’s between their ears instead of their legs,” but this is freedom compared to her treatment by her adopted father, Thanos, who pitted her against her sister, Nebula as children. Indeed, the threads of competitiveness, inferiority complexes, and resentment run through many characters as the familial unit of the Guardians is constantly tested from within.
In reality, the Sovereign a group of arcade nerds with supposed “physical and mental superiority” but who “cannot risk our own” in a fight defending their own energy. Time and time again, the admittedly more powerful characters get others to do their dirty work. Rocket was quick (and foolish) to call them out, but business is business and Gamora has to be the boring accountant of the misfit gang and call upon their trade — her captive sister, Nebula (a fantastic Karen Gillan) who has good reason to hate the world she is in. The constant Jan to Gamora’s Marsha, Nebula is literally comprised of her inadequacies, as her father replaced her deficient parts with robotic limbs whenever she failed him. Yikes. Gamora doesn’t deny the horrors of their youth, but she doesn’t have time for Nebula’s hate. Her plate is filled just by babysitting Star-Lord and Trash Panda/Rocket who put the gang at risk with their daily pissing contests. Like Gamora, Rocket has been genetically enhanced, but constant abuse and abandonment has given him a Napoleon complex and giant chip on his shoulder. To be a friend is to risk cracking the thick shell of vulgarity and swagger the diminutive pilot has built, and he protects his emotions more than his crew which puts their ship and lives at risk against the insipid Sovereigns (whose remotely piloted vessels look like something Ming the Merciless would release to battle Flash Gordon).
Peter has also been accustomed to solitude, but as a romantic he also wants the fairy tale, more than any of the other Guardians. He wants the hero-father on the white horse (or a black, talking car), reaching down to him to pull him on stage at a rock concert or fight Skeletor and other ridiculous villains before running down the beach with hot ladies in skimpy bikinis. His emotional development seemingly stopped when his mom died and he was taken by Yondu (Michael Rooker, the best part of this film) as a scrappy, skinny kid, so he sees his personal Jesus as a rock star, and the songs on his beloved mix tapes are little bubbles of his most beautiful dreams and emotions that he can crawl inside and be totally happy, surrounded by love and warmth. As with romantics in epic stories, Peter runs the risk of rose-colored glasses distorting the heroes in front of him, and when a mysterious figure named Ego (Kurt Russell) shows up out of the cosmos and claims to be his real father, he is swept away.
Ego is an immortal, a god “with a little ‘g’,” but he’s also a deadbeat dad who is also a narcissist and sociopath, so he expertly manipulates his and Peter’s origin story to make himself look as good and as innocent as possible. His planet is literally him, his essence, and looking at its lush, flowering gardens and temples festooned with gold and jewels, it’s clear he has a high opinion of himself. Ego admits to making mistakes in his million years of existence, including abandoning Peter and his mother, but he claims to be forced into making them, which relieves him of all accountability or regret. Like a snake in the grass, he sees into the core of his son and all his fears and hopes, and in a simple game of catch with a glowing ball of light, he wins Peter over.
Who has to be the Debbie Downer? Gamora, who senses a seedy underbelly beneath all the bright, shiny colors from the start. No one wants to listen to the accountant when there are rock shows to put on, right? Besides, while the men are experiencing all the feels in the “Field of Dreams,” she’s got bigger fish to fry against her raging sister. In a scene right out of North by Northwest, Nebula’s self-destructiveness goes into overdrive as she and Gamora engage in a kickass battle across a field, canyon, and cave that screams out: why can’t these characters get their own movie? Their fights are more intense, they have no qualms about kicking the stuffing out of each other, and if they could just be on the same team, they’d be unstoppable. This is where the real chemistry is, rather than the forced Gamora/Peter relationship (even Drax notices it).
Rocket has the other explosive fight sequence as he defends their ship in the forest of Berhert while Yondu’s goons circle in. Set to Glen Campbell’s drawl of “Southern Nights,” which echoes the histrionics of Ego and Yondu and the other blowhards in the universe, Rocket’s moment is stupendously loud and bright and hilarious. Unlike some of the other set pieces where a character gets to swagger forward or away in slow motion to Fleetwood Mac or Jay and the Americans, this focuses on the lightning rather than the thunder within the gang’s moving parts.
James Gunn harnesses both through the soundtrack as the Guardians are fractured and put back together. The more emotional scenes such the Peter/Ego showdown against Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” — an iconic song of passion and betrayal and rage and tears and discord created by a band known for all five from an epic album that nearly destroyed them from the inside — are as cathartic as the explosive final hurrah set to the quietly sweet “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens, honoring a figure who acknowledged his sins and shortcomings and made an ultimate sacrifice. Sure, the song choice and closeups of Groot’s childlike face gazing out at fireworks squeezes every drop of emotion out of your tear ducts, but it’s honest about the magic tricks. Gunn often shows his cards before he wins the hand, and that usually overcomes a lack of newness about the gang’s journey. Unlike Ego, he wants the audience to appreciate the colors and laser shows and music and dancing, but see the substance underneath.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (2017)
STARRING Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Kurt Russell, Elizabeth Debicki, Sylvester Stallone, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn
DIRECTOR James Gunn