Pretty early on in Thor: Ragnarok I realised something kind of incredible. The Marvel Cinematic Universe may be the first film series in history to take nearly twenty movies to hit its stride. That’s not to say the preceding movies were bad. In fact, the single thing you can take as granted about the series is that they are “not bad” (on the big screen anyway). There isn’t a single one in the canon that, if it were to randomly show up on TV while I was channel surfing, that I wouldn’t happily stop and watch. The two worst movies in this series, by my reckoning, are The Incredible Hulk and Doctor Strange. The first is a perfectly competent action/monster movie and the second is a an absolutely visually gorgeous fantasy let down by seriously derivative plotting. If those are your turkeys, your good movies are presumably pretty darn good. And they are. Marvel and Disney have honed to near perfection the art of crafting, big, fun, colourful summer superhero flicks. They’re not going to end up on anyone’s list of all time great films but they’re excellent examples of their genre.
But here’s the thing…they’re getting better. A few missteps now and then, but overall the trajectory has been up and up. And you can tell that Marvel have been paying very serious attention to the criticisms that their movies have been getting, creating better villains, better visuals, and hiring genuine idiosyncratic directing talent over journeymen. Crazy as it sounds, I think we’re getting to the point where Marvel’s movies stop being merely “fun” and becoming actually…artistically noteworthy. In fact, we might already be there.
The Guardians of the Galaxy series is sneaky. When Vol 1 was first released it was praised pretty much for being irrelevant. Here was a nice, fun little romp off in a corner of the Marvel universe almost wholly unconnected from everything else that was going on. It stood on its own. It was funny and colourful and had a cool soundtrack and there were dick jokes and a talking tree.
He was Groot. Gotta give him that.
You wouldn’t have pegged it as the strand of the Marvel carpet that would deliver an achingly sincere exploration of coping with abuse and trauma (and before you do anything else, you should check out Lindsay Ellis’ fantastic analysis of those very themes within the movie). Her review is one of those rare ones that completely reordered my thinking on a movie, pushing Guardians 2 from “fun” to “essential” in my personal assessment. And if you find me making a point that seems awfully similar to one she already made then you’re almost certainly right, and she almost certainly did and I am almost certainly playing particularly pathetic catch up. It’s just, once you understand that the movie is about what it’s about, it’s kind of impossible to talk about it like it’s anything else, like trying to not see the hidden image in an optical illusion once you’ve already found it. Although, looking back, we probably should have twigged that James Gunn was playing a deeper game. Remember the scene on Knowhere where Rocket pulls a gun on Drax because he thinks he’s mocking him (“He thinks I’m some weird thing, he does!!). It’s a jarring scene, the funny talking racoon suddenly having an existential melt-down. Look at Chris Pratt’s face in that scene, Peter Quill is thinking pretty much the exact same thing: “Where the fuck did this come from?!”. It’s only with Vol 2, that the series’ Trojan Horse gambit finally becomes clear. These characters don’t act like your typical quippy, sarcastic, vaguely assholish protagonists in a 21st century American action comedy because they are your typical quippy, sarcastic, vaguely assholish protagonists in a 21st century American action comedy. They act that way because they are all, fundamentally, horribly damaged and trying to avoid taking on any more trauma. It’s in Volume 2 where the characters finally begin to let down their defences one after the other and where the Guardians series, initially viewed as one of the most frivolous and shallow corners of the MCU, reveals itself to be the most emotionally sincere and essential part of the whole damn project. But, y’know. With dick jokes and a talking tree.
After the 36 goddamn seconds of languid multi-coloured masturbation that is the new Marvel Studios Intro (not a fan) we find ourselves in Missouri in 1980. Meredith Quill (Laura Haddock) is driving through the countryside with her boyfriend Ego (Kurt Russell). Russell is made to look 30 years younger here through some damn impressive CGI, or possibly it’s one of the clones of Russell that Walt Disney ordered made right before his death.
Ego shows Meredith a weird glowey flower that he’s planted in the Earth’s soil and tells her that soon they’ll be everywhere in the universe. Because Meredith has apparently been ingesting some exotic herbs herself she simply says “I don’t know what you’re saying but I like the way you say it” and they kiss. Flashforward 34 years.
The guardians have been summoned by an alien species called The Sovereign to their planet which is called…um, The Sovereign.
The Guardians have been hired to stop a gigantic space monster from eating the Sovereign’s batteries. How they knew the monster was going to be there, I have no idea. Maybe one of his monster friends ratted him out. Anyway, the monster lands from the sky and Peter yells “Showtime, a-holes!” which is significant because it is showtime and they are indeed a-holes. They bicker, they complain, they take cheap shots at each other (figuratively) while taking shots at the monster (literally). The opening fight continues the Guardians tradition of basically trolling the audience. Whereas Guardians had Peter dancing around an alien planet punting mutant rats to the tune of “Come and Get Your Love” apropos of absolutely nothing, Vol 2 instead follows Baby Groot as he dances to “Mr Blue Sky” while the entire epic battle between the Guardians and the giant monster is kept almost entirely offscreen. But here’s the thing, much like how the characters are not actually as massive a-holes as they first appear, the movie is trolling you to make a serious point. During this sequence, every member of the Guardians saves or protects Baby Groot. Baby Groot is what makes this group of knuckleheads a family, what brings them together and redeems them both in each other’s eyes and in the eyes of the audience.
After Gamora slits the beastie from neck to nuts, the Guardians go to collect their reward from the Sovereign High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki). The Sovereign are a bunch of xenophobic racists who coat everything in gold…
The Sovereign hand over Nebula (Karen Gillen), who they caught trying to steal their precious batteries and the high priestess makes some casually eugenicist remarks about Peter being a hybrid. That bit of unpleasantness dispensed with they take off for Xandar to collect the bounty on Nebula.
Unfortunately, they’re quickly followed by a fleet of Sovereign fighters because Rocket, little furry sociopath that he is, decided it would be a great idea to steal some of the Sovereign’s batteries for himself. Things look pretty grim for our (anti)heroes as they’re swarmed by hundreds of Sovereign unmanned drones because the Sovereign may be bigoted, narcissistic assholes but they are also possibly the first alien race in all of fiction to realise that if you have enough technology to send spaceships flying through the void at super luminal velocities you probably already have the technology to pilot them remotely from the safety and comfort of your couch.
Anyway, The Sovereign chase the Milano into a Quantum Asteroid Field which is (or possibly isn’t) a field of floating space debris. Unfortunately, Rocket and Peter both try to pilot the ship and then threaten each other with Drax’s famously large turds so as you can imagine they don’t produce their best work and the Milano gets shot up real bad. It almost looks like its all over but then a mysterious egg-shaped ship appears and blows all the Sovereign fighters to hell. The Milano crashlands on a nearby planet and Gamora reads Quill and Rocket the riot act for trashing their home and almost getting everyone killed. She says that either of them could have gotten the ship through safely if they’d been flying with their heads instead of what’s between their legs, and Peter counters that if little Starlord did have a hand on the end it would be a better pilot than Rocket (and also a better penis now that I think about it). This little family tiff is broken up by the arrival of the Egg Ship which lands nearby. Ego emerges with his pet bug lady Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and tells Peter that he’s his Dad.
We now shift to the snowy planet of Contraxia, where Yondu (Michael Rooker) and the rest of his Ravagers are hanging around a real classy establishment called the Iron Lotus and it’s this sequence right here that made me fall in love with this movie.
Just…umph. I love it. The snow, the neon, the yellow sexbots, a half-naked blue Michael Rooker. It’s the bucket list. I love how this movie looks. Yondu sees a familiar face, Ravager Chief Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone) and tries to talk to him but Stakar gives him the cold shoulder, telling Yondu that his name is dirt with the other Ravagers ever since he broke their most important code.
He tells Yondu to never show his face around decent, murderin’, pillagin’ Ravagers again and screws off. The rest of Yondu’s Ravagers, meanwhile, are starting to become dissatisfied with Yondu’s leadership, particularly Tazerface who, like Iago, secretly plots and conspires against his unsuspecting captain.
Yondu is (gingerly) approached by Ayesha who hires the Ravagers to track, kill and clean the Guardians for stealing her batteries and also to make Rocket into a Davey Crockett hat, a job that Yondu gladly accepts.
Meanwhile, Ego tells Peter that he’s been searching for him ever since Yondu decided to keep him for himself. Ego says he could never understand why and Peter says it’s because, as a skinny little kid, he was good for getting into tight places and extracting tight valuables. Ego invites him and the Guardians back to his planet so that he can finally fulfill his “special destiny”. Even Quill’s not that dumb and tells Gamora that the whole thing has trap-stink but she reminds him that he spent his childhood telling the other kids that David Hasselhoff was his Dad and that he finally has a chance to have a Hoff of his own. Plus, if it turns out Ego is evil, they can just kill him (spoiler, he is, they do).
So its decided that Quill, Gamora and Drax will return to Ego’s Planet with Ego and Mantis while Rocket and Groot guard Nebula and fix the ship. Drax worries about splitting the group up and Peter says “You’re like an old woman” and Drax answers “Why? Because I’m wise?” which is a great line. Actually, let’s talk about Drax.
While I am ninety nine per cent on board with everything they’re doing with Drax in this sequel (the sensitive nipples, the oversharing, the famously large turds) I really, really,really do not like Drax’s constant negging of Mantis. I mean okay, maybe he doesn’t find her attractive and he doesn’t see anything wrong with telling her that because he’s Drax, fine, but by the sixth or seventh time it’s gone from “funny” to “mean” to “okay no seriously are you trying to get her to join your cult, what’s with the constant humiliation?” It is not cool and it likes me not.
Anyway, Drax is wise and it was stupid to split up the team because the Ravagers arrive in the middle of the night and Rocket has to fight them off single handed before finally getting captured. Yondu tells Rocket that he’ll let him and the Guardians go free in exchange for the batteries they stole and the rest of the Ravagers are all “…what?” Even Kraglin (Sean Gunn) the most loyal of all Yondu’s men, says that Yondu keeps protecting Quill no matter how much he lies to them (they’re still sore about losing the Infinity Stone and only getting a lousy Troll doll). Yondu claims that he’s just being practical because killing the Guardians of the Galaxy will bring the Nova Corps crashing down on them, but nobody’s buying it, least of all Tazerface who declares his candidacy for Yondu’s job. Yondu is about to whistle him up a little ditty of death with his flying arrow, but gets shot in the head by Nebula, who convinced Groot to free her so that she could rescue Rocket.
Meanwhile, Ego is showing the other Guardians around his planet on his cosmic flying mouth guard.
Ego shows them around…himself because he is the planet and the planet is him. He explains that he is a celestial who travelled the universe searching for meaning and that’s how he met Peter’s mother. And now, Peter can finally take his rightful place by his old man as a Celestial.
So a little background on Ego: He was created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee and first appeared in the pages of Thor in 1966. However, he’s usually considered a Fantastic Four villain, which means that Fox technically owned the movie rights to him along with all the other Fantastic Four related properties they’ve been doing such a bang up job of looking after. The creators only realised quite late in the day that they didn’t have the rights to Ego and had no back up plan if they couldn’t get him because he was too perfect for their concept of the villain (I mean, he’s a planet sized manifestation of pure selfishness called “Ego”. It’s not like they could just swap in Stilt-Man). This led to a frantic sit down with Fox where Marvel were able to get the rights for Ego in exchange for Fox being able to change Negasonic Teenage Warhead’s powers in Deadpool. And is it just me that adores the idea of all those super serious studio suits sitting around swapping superhero rights like kids in a playground trading Top Trumps?
Anyway, Ego tries to teach Peter how to manipulate matter and Peter is shocked to discover he can tap into the energies of the planet. This makes him pretty darn cocky and so he puts the moves on Gamora, telling her it’s about time to end their “Sam and Diane, will-they-won’t-they thing”. This leads to a row where Gamora storms off yelling “I DON’T KNOW WHAT CHEERS IS!”
Gamora doesn’t trust Ego because, y’know, the main villain hasn’t been revealed yet and he’s a big Hollywood star so she goes exploring.
Back at the Ravager’s ship, Tazerface and the rest of the Ravagers straight up murder those of their number who’re still loyal to Yondu as they beg their almost comatose captain to save them (all except Kraglin) and they lock Rocket and Yondu up in the brig. Nebula is all “Mwah, mwah, buh-bye” and flies off to find and kill her sister. Then the Ravagers make Baby Groot their mascot and pour beer on him and I can absolutely understand the reasoning that went into that scene.
Anyway, Kraglin and Baby Groot free Yondu and Rocket and Yondu uses his new prototype fin to straight up massacre every single last member of his crew. But of course, they were mean to Baby Groot so this Old Testament-esque spree killing is perfectly justified. Yondu sets the ship to self-destruct and they fly off in a shuttle to find the rest of the Guardians but not before Tazerface is able to contact the Sovereign and rat them out, with the last thing he hears being the Sovereign laughing at his dumbass name.
Back on Ego, Gamora is attacked by Nebula and they have a big epic, drawn out battle that only ends when Nebula admits that she never wanted to beat Gamora, she just wanted a sister. And we learn that every time Nebula lost to Gamora, Thanos cut away another part of her and replaced it with metal parts.
For a long time after I saw this movie two scenes really stuck with me, really stayed with me. If I’m honest, that’s something that doesn’t really happen with Marvel movies. I love these films, but it’s not like they sear themselves into my soul. They’re disposable, they’re supposed to be. But Guardians 2 was different. The first scene was the one I already talked about, Yondu looking out the window of the Iron Lotus, but that’s just because I think it’s an absolutely gorgeous shot and I love the use of colour.
The second was this:
That image of Gamora with the big massive cannon on her shoulder, face contorted in a snarl as she unleashes fiery death on her adopted sister really lodged itself in my brain and I think I’ve finally figured out why. At their best, comics take our everyday, emotional struggles and alchemise them into big, epic, literal confrontations. If you have siblings, you’ve probably had, at some point, a big, awful, no-holds-barred, here’s-what-I-really-think, yelling, crying, screaming row. And you almost certainly didn’t fire a massive space cannon at them. But you equally almost certainly felt like you were. There is something so gosh-darned real about this scene of multi-coloured Amazon space women trying to kill each other on a planet who is also Kurt Russell. It’s raw and visceral and it hurts. Because when you take away the lazers, and the silly names, and all the sci-fi trappings it boils down to one horribly damaged woman telling her sister: “You knew what Dad was doing. You did nothing.”
While trying to find a way out of a series of catacombs, Nebula and Gamora come across a massive pile of bones of countless different species. Meanwhile, Mantis confesses to Drax what Ego is actually up to. He’s been fathering offspring for years to find one that would be compatible with him and help him spread throughout the universe until the only thing left in all creation is him. Because obviously, the only thing that matters to Ego is Ego.
He brainwashes Peter to go along with this and it almost works until he makes the mistake of revealing that he was the one who gave Meredith Quill cancer and destroys Peter’s Walkman to try and sever his last connection to humanity. This causes Peter to go berserk and blast his Dad so hard he turns into David Hasselhoff.
Ego activates the flowers that he’s planted throughout the universe which causes them to start swallowing up whole worlds. The Guardians arrive and fly to the centre of Ego’s planet to try to destroy him and also the Sovereign arrive and Pac Man is there for some reason and guys, things get nuts.
Anyway, they manage to kill Ego by sending Baby Groot with a bomb to blow up his brain (okay, that is some straight up ISIS shit guys) and have to make their escape as the planet crumbles around them. Yondu refuses to leave without Peter and Rocket gives him the last spacesuit and rocket pack while he gets Baby Groot to safety. And Yondu flies to Peter to safety and gives him the spacesuit, sacrificing his life.
For his son.
So, again, to steal blatantly from Lindsay Ellis, this is a movie about who should be forgiven. The movie essentially says that there will always be people who hurt you and let you down, and some can be forgiven and some can’t. This movie is about finding the line between the monsters like Thanos and Ego who cannot be forgiven, and those like Rocket and Gamora who did terrible things but are still good at heart and deserve a chance to be better. And the movie puts Yondu in that second category. Your mileage may vary on whether that’s true. I think (I hope, I pray) that I’m a good Dad. But the way I see it, I get no points for that because I had two of the best parents anyone could ask for and I would have to fuck up pretty damn bad to squander that advantage. Yondu was, objectively, a pretty shitty parent. Possibly even abusive. But when you consider what he started from, the fact that his own parents literally sold him into slavery some grading on a curve is justified. In the end, he loved his son. He protected him as best he knew how. And when he was asked to make the greatest sacrifice any parent could make for their child, he didn’t even flinch.
The movie ends with families coming together. The Guardians give Yondu a funeral, Gamora and Nebula share a hug, Rocket and Peter forgive each other and they all watch as the Ravagers light up the starways in honor of Yondu, finally forgiving him and honoring him as one of their own.
Because in the end, he deserved to be forgiven. May we all.
This one’s special, folks. Visually breathtaking, funny as heck and fulla the feels.
Taking a whole handful of disparate and obscure Marvel cosmic characters and weaving them into a heart-warming meditation of family, forgiveness and overcoming trauma? That ain’t adaptation. That’s alchemy.
Our Heroic Heroes: 24/25
Does an excellent job of fleshing out all of our main cast and building on the work done in Part One.
Pff. What villain problem? Kurt Russell’s villain works so well not just because of a game and affable performance but because this is an antagonist who perfectly encapsulates everything wrong with our heroes. How hard do you think the writer’s were high-fiving when they realised that there is a Marvel villain literally called “Ego”?
Our Plucky Sidekicks: 25/25
Karen Gillen just kills it this time around, finding deep reserves of rage and vulnerability underneath Nebula’s cold cyborg exterior. And Rooker? Practically perfect in every way.
Kraglin practices with Yondu’s arrow and accidentally stabs Drax with it.
And the audience went:
Drax in pain never gets old.
In honour of Yondu’s sacrifice, Stakar reunites the Ravagers in a team that bears a suspicious resemblance to the original Guardians of the Galaxy team from the comics.
And the audience went:
I love obscure fan service as much as the next rodent, but that is a deep cut, Marvel. I mean, the only Cosmic Marvel character more obscure that Guardians Classic would be oh here we go…
Third (really?) Stinger:
A servant tells Ayesha (who has a bad case of crazy-hair) that she has been summoned by the council to answer for her failure to recover the batteries. She tells the servant that she has created something that will stop the Guardians for good, saying “I think I’ll call him…Adam.”
And the audience went:
Adam Warlock. ‘Kay. We have officially run out of characters I care about.
Fourth (guys C’MON!) Stinger:
Peter tells surly Teen Groot to clean his room.
And the audience went:
DEATH TO TEEN GROOT! GIVE US BABY GROOT! BABY GROOT OR WE RIOT!
Fifth (YOU ARE SERIOUSLY HARMING MY CALM, MARVEL) Stinger:
The Watchers leave Stan Lee as he calls after them “No! Come back, I still have so many stories to tell!”
And Mouse went:
Infinity Gem Count: 5
Man, if you can’t rely on a Guardians of the Galaxy movie to unveil a new shiny rock, what’s this world coming to?
Wait a minute, was that Stan Lee?!
That was Stan Lee, finally confirming the old fan theory that Stan’s various FedEx delivery guys, army vets and Class A preverts are all the same dude who is the Watcher, or a Watcher or working for the Watchers or somehow Watcher adjacent.
Hey, what’s Thanos doing?
FINAL SCORE: 96%
NEXT UPDATE: 7 December 2017
NEXT TIME: Right, so. I appreciate that it probably doesn’t feel like this to you what with having to wait three weeks for this review (thanks for being so supportive guys) but I’ve been working flat out recently and I kind of need a bit of a break. So instead of the regular BARs (Big Ass Reviews) I’m going to be using December to close out the War Shorts reviews and then we’ll get back into the swing of things in 2018.