On visual comedy, 1980s fashion, the rarity of neons, and auteurist impulses sneaking through the Marvel machine
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Walt Disney Studios
Director: James Gunn
Screenplay: James Gunn, based on the comics created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Kurt Russell, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn and Vin Diesel
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 16 minutes / 2.35:1
May 5, 2017
(out of four)
The essence of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 lies in a happy accident of structure. The film opens, as every Marvel film opens, with the animated flipping of comic-book pages, one hand-drawn hero rustling past the next in a staccato whisper. The film closes with a credit roll evoking the style of a geeky adolescent notebook, with sketches and doodles and ideas and logos interacting with class photos of the film's varied cast of characters, a whole universe concocted with pencil and wide-ruled, loose-leaf paper.
In between those pages - the ones at the front and the ones at the back - is this film, somehow every bit the product of the corporate rights-holders as the distracted teenage kid who imagined he could one day make a movie like this one. Marvel hasn't exactly been the studio of the distinct authorial voice - unless Kevin Feige is that voice - but Vol. 2 and its predecessor, both written and directed by James Gunn, are the closest we've gotten. It's a mutually prosperous partnership; it allows Marvel to be weirder but not too weird, it allows Gunn to work on a huge canvas but remain in line with his misfit sensibility (and here, perhaps even more than the first one, he shows a particular command over its comic tone, in his staging and composition as well as the film's physical logic). There's an alchemy here - a niche entry that somehow turned into a low-risk expenditure - that Marvel seemingly wasn't able to find, infamously, with Edgar Wright, the discarded original architect of what eventually became Ant-Man.
In fairness, the juggernaut studio has recently been trying to put its auteur-unfriendly reputation to the test, snatching up a handful of directors who seem far too exciting and personal (and well-established as such) to be a fit in this particular machine. Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) for Black Panther. Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows) for Thor: Ragnarok. And most surprising of all, the seemingly ride-or-die-indie duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar, Mississippi Grind), who are taking on Captain Marvel. My first thought after that announcement was that Coogler, Waititi, Boden and Fleck would be the best thing that ever happened to Marvel artistically, or that Marvel would be the worst thing that ever happened to Coogler, Waititi, Boden and Fleck. The jury won't be in for a while, but Guardians 2 at least suggests there's more room for the creatively inspired to fit somewhere on the assembly line than it usually appears.
It's been pointed out that many of Gunn's key influences - which these films wear proudly - aren't exactly anything out of the ordinary, particularly by today's standards. That much of his geek outsider lexicon is pretty basic. He's a child of the '80s and of pop culture in general, and so his work is slathered with affectionate inspirations from, and odes to, Star Wars and video games and comic books and angsty teen outsiders and '80s TV shows - the same stuff everyone else watched and played and listened to, the same stuff that's been regurgitated as mainstream convention, the same stuff that gets referenced by every other contemporary movie or show that's even peripherally rooted in nerdy pop culture (and then some). To an extent, I get it - the way the first Guardians was breathlessly proclaimed as an out-of-this-world level of bizarre (or worse yet, "quirky") was silly; it wasn't and isn't particularly strange by any broad standard. Still, many of the complaints I've heard seem to miss the point - those over-familiar impulses and reference points are precisely the reason why he stands out. Everyone else may be swimming in the same waters, mining the same materials, but he's the only one making Guardians of the Galaxy. He's one of the few that has been able to take a preoccupation with certain types of stories and turn it into something idiosyncratic. Other films throw around references and pay homage and mimic and emulate, but Gunn dives right into the silliness, the pulp, the color, framing it all through his particular comic lens. Streamlined as any massive-budget superhero property might be, there's little doubt we're seeing this one through an actual set of eyes rather than a committee full of them.
The soundtrack sounds like one of those mix cassettes you would've picked up for five bucks at a rural gas station in the late '80s. The fleet of space jets constantly on our heroes' asses - courtesy of one group of the film's various antagonists - are piloted remotely in a massive battle room deliberately evoking an old arcade station, complete with 8-bit sound effects and crowds of fickle onlookers crowding around individual "players" like they're going for a new high score. Fashion choices and hairstyles - among the eclectic smorgasbord of countless different alien races and creatures and life forms (both real and synthetic) that make up the film's intergalactic populace - have seemingly been plucked straight out of recent history and transplanted across the universe. Entire sequences seem like they take place in some sort of one-size-fits-all neon underground, a beautifully mismatched gathering of the galaxy's trendiest cliques - quasi-futuristic punk, glam, yuppie, preppy, New Wave, kitsch - each thinking they're cooler than the next. The Guardians themselves - Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and the reborn Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) - are the group of misfits thrown together by circumstance. The Brat Pack would not be out of place in this world.
Gunn's concoction is an explosively colorful one - which might be its most enjoyable inspiration, given how its blockbuster contemporaries tend to favor muted, washed-out or otherwise darker hues - which is not only a bolder evocation of its comic-book compositions but puts it in league with 1960s sci-fi (Barbarella sprung to mind), with its dazzlingly vivid application of color. (There also are compositions that remind me of the visual style of Andrew Stanton's John Carter - in particular certain spare, Western-like images that infuse desert locations with a deep red.) The film's bright and neon splashes carefully illuminate faces, bounce off windows, float in the very air like a grand cosmic chemical reaction. Even the fire is rainbow-colored.
The film's, and Gunn's, distinctly comic identity - visually brought to life by production designer Scott Chambliss, cinematographer Henry Braham and costume designer Judianna Makovsky - is identifiable in virtually every frame. After a prologue sets up a bit of important background, the film begins in earnest with our team of scamps battling a giant monster - the final step of an elaborate heist involving superpowered batteries from the good ship MacGuffin. The sequence plays out with a magnificent interplay between Baby Groot in the foreground (uninvolved in battle, solely preoccupied with the musical accompaniment) and all the movement, action and mayhem playing out behind him in the background. There's just a really strong command of visual comedy here, a trait that repeats itself throughout the film as violence takes the form of cartoon slapstick. I don't want to go so far as to call this early setpiece a mission statement, exactly - but it does exquisitely set the film's tone, backgrounding the action to make it work in support of, and in conjunction with, comedic values more than anything else. (It doesn't hurt that there seems to be more freedom and purpose in the film's action choreography and overall sense of composition than in the first installment.) The sequence is not just an obligatory action scene but ostensibly a family adventure - with Baby Groot serving as the toddler (or perhaps pet) under everyone's collective care. There's a great, small moment in which Gamora, fully armed and in the midst of battle, turns to Baby Groot, as if she can't help it, and offers a maternal "Hi" and an irrepressible smile before resuming her ass-kicking. It is the most authentic human moment in any Marvel movie to date, and it arrives in the midst of madcap chaos. Later, there's a Rick and Morty-esque vibe to a sequence in which the crew jumps through wormholes as a means of escape, catching glimpses of one imaginatively absurd civilization after another.
As far as the story goes, the most important "civilization," in a matter of speaking, is one that has been the dominion of just one man - Ego (Kurt Russell), Peter's long-lost father, whose status as an actual god cleverly validates Peter's long-held delusions of grandeur. In much more explicit form than any of Marvel's other team-ups, Vol. 2 focuses on the idea of family, both chosen and inherited. (It's almost as if it's taking thematic cues from Groot's own Fast and Furious series, only this one gets its point across through character choices and moral dilemmas and sacrifices and moments of actual growth, rather than being clumsily declared in a portentous mumble during shoehorned interstitials.) What I mean to say is that the Guardians both earn - and deserve - each other, and all they each bring with them. The key family dynamics this time around include: the ongoing Peter/Rocket alpha pissing contest; a tenuous romantic connection between Gamora and Peter; the emotionally thorny relationship between Gamora and her mostly villainous sister Nebula (Karen Gillan); the smuggler Yondu (Michael Rooker) losing his place in the world and trying to find it again; and Drax's hilarious chemistry with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a kind, shy, socially awkward empath who lives and works with Ego. (Drax remains the greatest character in the Marvel Universe, and there is no second choice. The way this film builds off his literal-mindedness - the best running joke from the first movie - is glorious.)
This is Gunn's second Guardians movie and his third superhero movie overall, counting 2011's Rainn Wilson-starring Super. And dating back to his delightful B-grade horror-comedy Slither, his voice is nothing if not his own, even in - perhaps especially in? - a couple of expensive links in a seemingly neverending narrative chain. That's much more than I can say for Kenneth Branagh or Alan Taylor or Peyton Reed or Scott Derrickson - or even Joss Whedon and the Russo Brothers. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is playful and delicate and fetishy and cheesy - and kinda sad, and a little beautiful - and the result is something that manages to feel coherently personal and even, within its broader Marvel framework, mildly (and delightfully) exotic. Looking around at studio films, I'm consistently amazed at how many comedy directors are bad at directing comedy, and how many action directors are bad at directing action - and in a related sense, how many films seem to resist doing what they do best in favor of fulfilling easier requirements. Vol. 2 is not only a solid blueprint for directing comedy - especially compared to so much of what current studio comedy offers - but an example of a movie that uses the theoretically rigid requirements of its genre and franchise status to its own unique advantage. Marvel wants specific things out of its movies, and we generally know exactly what to expect of a Marvel product; Gunn happily accepts that M.O. - and still manages to spill his own guts onto page and screen.