January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I’m spending every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.
Released: 5 May 2017
Director: James Gunn
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $200 million
Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Karen Gillan, Kurt Russell, and Michael Rooker
After incurring the wrath of the Sovereign, the Guardians of the Galaxy are saved by Ego (Russell), a Celestial being who takes the form of a sentient planet. Claiming to be Peter Quill/Star-Lord’s (Pratt) true father, Ego promises to open Quill’s mind to the vast power and knowledge of the universe, but Quill’s adopted father-figure, Yondu Udonta (Rooker), reveals a far more sinister motive behind Ego’s seemingly benign nature.
Despite being one of Marvel’s more obscure properties, and having undergone many changes over the years, the Guardians of the Galaxy proved to be a massive financial success after making their live-action debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Since the property was deemed to have strong franchise potential, and to even become as integral to the MCU as the Avengers, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the director and cast of the first film were soon revealed to be returning for a sequel. While determined to expand on the cast and lore of the first film, Gunn was mindful about overloading the sequel with a slew of new characters; Gunn went solo on the film’s story, which he planned to focus on exploring a new version of Star-Lord’s heritage, and was afforded a great deal of creative control regarding the direction of the story and its place in the wider MCU. Gunn also continued to push the importance of practical effects and set wherever possible, especially as the film would make far more liberal use of computer-generated effects to bring Ego (one of the most complex CGI creations ever) to life. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s box office gross of over $863 million surpassed that of its predecessor, but reviews were generally more mixed; while the film was praised for being visually impressive and telling a surprisingly touching story, the pace and tone received some criticism. Still, the film cemented the team’s importance to the MCU and its success easily justified not only a third movie but also a holiday-themed special.
I was pleasantly surprised by Guardians of the Galaxy; despite knowing next to nothing about the team or the concept heading into it when it first came out, the trailers and marketing had won me over and appealed to my love of science-fiction romps and bizarre comedic superhero adventuring. The film was a real breath of fresh air for the MCU at a time when things were just starting to really gear up towards full-on cosmic shenanigans and it remains one of my favourite entries not just in Phase Two, but in the entire franchise. So, to say my anticipation was high for the sequel would be an understatement; once again Marvel had outdone themselves by somehow getting Kurt Russell onboard and just the idea that they would even consider doing a concept like Ego, a literal sentiment planet, really told you all you needed to know about the scope of the MCU going forward: nothing was off limits, not even the most bizarre cosmic element of the source material.
Some time has passed since the events of the first film, and the Guardians of the Galaxy have become somewhat renowned as a freelance peacekeeping force, of source and are happy to help those in need…for a price. Thanks to having saved the galaxy, they can afford to charge higher rates for their services, but it’s undeniable that they’re a much more well-oiled team than the band of misfits and outcasts we saw in the last film. The family dynamic has been dialled up to eleven, with Quill and Gamora (Saldaña) acting as the parental figures of the group, Drax the Destroyer (Bautista) and Rocket Raccoon (Cooper/Sean Gunn) acting as petulant teenagers, and Baby Groot (Diesel) as the curious and mischievous child. However, while they have clearly grown as a team and a surrogate family, the Guardians remain flawed and troublesome characters: hired by the Sovereign to destroy the inter-dimensional Abilisk, the team struggle to get their shit together and attack the beast between bickering with each other over their priorities and weapon choices and expressing concern for Baby Groot, whom they are all fiercely protective of. Although far from his larger, more capable self from the first film, Baby Groot proves instrumental in helping Rocket escape from the Ravagers, but is primarily here to cute appeal and comic relief; young and childish, he has trouble understanding things sometimes, which leads to a number of amusing instances where he struggles to retrieve items or follow instructions.
As before, the one member of the team with the most sense remains Gamora, who is the only one capable and clear-headed enough to deliver the killing blow to the Abilisk. To be fair, Quill was the one who recognised that the creature had a pre-existing wound on its neck for Gamora to exploit, but Drax’s best plan was to foolishly try and attack the beast from the inside. While their methods are often haphazard and lacking in finesse, they get the job done and it’s Quill who takes point in speaking for the team to Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the enigmatic and alluring High Priestess of the Sovereign race. While Quill flirts with Ayesha and attempts to keep relations with the proud race amicable, they incur her wrath when Rocket steals a bag full of their incredible rare and Anulax Batteries; of all the members of the team, it’s Rocket who struggles the most to let go of his selfish and underhanded ways, which brings him into continued conflict with the team and Quill’s leadership. A grouchy and antagonistic character, he actively pushes people away, even those closest to him, to avoid being hurt by them; he finds an unlikely confidante in Yondu Udonta (Rooker), an embittered space pirate who has spent his life doing the same thing and urges Rocket to recognise that he has people who actually care about him and help repair his relationship with Quill and his misfit family.
Overwhelmed by the Sovereign fleet, the Guardians are mere moments away from being blown to smithereens thanks to Quill and Rocket wasting time and energy bickering over their piloting skills. Although they are saved by the timely intervention of Ego, the Milano is crippled, but Quill finds something he has long been missing in his life: his father. A sentient planet, Ego reveals himself to be an ages-old Celestial, a being who has known nothing but loneliness for the longest time; his only companion is Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a naïve and sheltered character who strikes up an odd relationship with Drax and uses her empathic powers to help Ego sleep…and to ease his conscience. Thanks to some extremely impressive de-aging effects and a facial double (Aaron Schwartz), the film opens with Kurt Russell appearing in his prime years back in the eighties to woo Meredith Quill (Laura Haddock) and sows the seeds (literally and figuratively) for Ego’s true plot to spread his consciousness across the entire galaxy using seeds planted on distant worlds. To do this, he needed to sire a part-Celestial heir but was continuously met with failure; the bodies of his rejected children are literally piled up and hidden away on his planet, and his joy at finding Quill can harness his cosmic powers soon turns to anger when his son chooses to turn that very power against him to oppose his dreams of galaxy-wide conversion.
The Sovereign turn Nebula’s semi-cybernetic stepsister, Nebula (Gillan), over to the Guardians. Nebula’s hatred and resentment of Gamora has only grown between films; as children, their adopted father, Thanos (Josh Brolin), had them fight for supremacy over and over, and Gamora won every single time, reaping in Thanos’s praise while Nebula was replaced a piece at a time with mechanical parts. Gamora is happy to return Nebula to Xandar to collect her bounty and rid herself of her brutal stepsister once and for all, but Nebula is driven by rage and bitterness and takes every opportunity she can get to break free and hunt her sister down. This leads her to forming a brief, mutually beneficial alliance with the Sovereign and Taserface (Chris Sullivan), a mutilated member of Yondu’s crew who might be a laughable threat with a ridiculous name but he incites a mutiny and flushes those who stand against him and his followers out into space. This only further complicates matters for Yondu, who raised Quill as a space pirate and thief after learning of Ego’s true nature and intentions for the young Quill, but his part in child trafficking left him and his crew dishonoured and ostracised from the wider Ravager community by prominent Ravager figurehead Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone). Betrayed by many of his crew, Yondu is forced to team up with Rocket to enact a merciless revenge with his fancy tricky arrow and rush to Quill’s aid when Ego’s true intentions are revealed, and an intense and brutal battle between Nebula and Gamora sees the two sisters reaching a mutual understanding and gaining the Guardians an additional unlikely ally for the finale.
As before, music and pop culture play an important part not just in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s soundtrack but in defining Quill’s character, especially in relation to his mother. The flashback at the start of the film shows how Ego assumed the form of an irresistible 1980s rogue: he’s got the mullet, the car, and the tunes to go along with it and easily wins over Meredith with his good looks and silver tongue. Ego’s undeniable charisma and ability to manipulate his form are made more explicit when he pours vocal honey into Quill’s ears with stories of his love for Meredith and even assumes the form of his childhood hero, David Hasselhoff (Himself), showing that Ego knows exactly how to manipulate people by playing to (and preying on) their likes, hopes, and dreams. Quill’s love for music stems from his mother, who put together mixtapes for him that he listens to endlessly on his Walkman and onboard the Milano; so great is his love for music that Rocket even prioritises setting up a loud speaker for them to listen to Quill’s tune during their battle with the Abilisk and Quills still firmly drawing his pop culture reference from his childhood and the seventies and eighties. Just as these elements help him to remember and feel closer to his mother (and bond him closer with his newfound family), so too do they help to quickly build up a trust between him and his father when Ego expresses a liking for the same music and pop culture that was so integral to Quill’s childhood.
I remember being a little disappointed by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 when I first saw it as I was expecting the film to be bigger and better than the first but, similar to Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015), it struck me as being just as enjoyable as the original, which actually knocked my rating of it. I have no problem with it telling a story more focused on the tea dynamic and exploring these characters further, I just hadn’t expected it when I first saw it, so I definitely appreciated it more on repeat viewings. However, there is still a decent amount of onscreen action and visual spectacle to keep viewers entertained: the Sovereign are a minor antagonistic force in the film existing mainly to drive the plot forwards and get our heroes to Ego, but they have a unique armada comprised of thousands (maybe even millions) of remote drones that are piloted very much like arcade machines and lead to some frantic space battles and an intense chase through a “quantum asteroid field” that’s like the asteroid chase from Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980) on steroids! The hexagonal jump points help to add to the mysterious nature of the galaxy and result in an amusing scene where Rocket and Yondu are warped in bizarre ways by multiple jumps, and Ego pilots a sleek, egg-like ship that is unlike any other in the galaxy, but the true visual spectacle of the film is realised when the characters arrive on Ego’s planet. A lush, verdant alien world home to some bizarre, vegetation and an elaborate palace housing Ego’s memories and plans, Ego’s world is just like him: beautiful and alluring at first glance but hiding a dark secret beneath the surface that comes to fruition when Ego’s very face warps the planet’s crust.
The dysfunctional family dynamic between the titular team is a pivotal element of the sequel; although they’re far more trusting and accepting of each other, they still wind each other up and get on each other’s nerves. While much of this is embodied by Rocket, Drax’s blunt and literal perspective doesn’t help matters much and Quill is continuously distracted by his attraction to Gamora. Despite Drax’s assertions that Gamora isn’t interested in him in that way, she’s incredibly supportive of Quill and is touched by his stories of his childhood pining for a father who wasn’t there, which confuses and angers him when she suspects that something isn’t quite right about Ego’s planet and raises questions about what counts as true family, blood or those you are closest to. Naturally, the question of Quill’s parentage is a huge plot point of the film; after being left as a blatant dangling plot thread and piece of sequel bait in the first film, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 goes to great lengths to establish that Quill isn’t fully human, like his comic book counterpart, and is instead part-Celestial thanks to being one of Ego’s many progeny seeded across the galaxy. This afford him many fantastic abilities when present on Ego’s plant form, and potentially opens up the vats secrets of the universe to him, but his human nature and the nurturing of his mother, his oddball family, and his father figure, Yondu, prove to be strong enough influences on Quill’s morals and character and force him to reject Ego. Quill is further driven to this decision when Ego drops the bombshell that it was he who caused Meredith’s fatal brain tumour, thus dooming her and pushing Quill into an enraged defiance that sees him pull out all the stops to oppose Ego’s plan to terraform the worlds he’s seeded.
This means not only turning down the ability to construct greater things, and even life, using Ego’s cosmic power but also the virtual immortality offered by Ego’s planet; disappointed by sentient life across the galaxy, Ego realised that his destiny wasn’t to simply walk among men, but to dominate and consume them through “The Expansion”. His façade as a loveable, charismatic figure quickly gives way to a cold-hearted, self-centred parasite befitting of his name and capable of great love (for he truly loved Meredith and was tempted to give up his enterprise for her) but also intense anger. Fully capable of manipulating every element of his planet-form to his will, Ego is a monstrous, nigh-unstoppable God-like being comprised of pure energy but capable of bending matter as he sees fit to protect his brain at the core of his planet. Thanks to being part-Celestial, Quill is also able to manipulate the planet to a degree, leading to a visually impressive sequence where Rocket drills through Ego’s crust using lasers and Quill constructs a massive version of Pac-Man to go head-to-head with his father. With the Sovereign closing in and adding to the melee, Mantis strains her powers to the limit to put Ego to sleep while Rocket cobbles together a bomb to destroy Ego’s core. Although the threat is ended and Gamora and Nebula finally reconcile (and Quill and Gamora finally admit their true feelings to each other), Quill forever loses his immortality and Celestial powers…and also his true father when Yondu sacrifices himself to save Quill from Ego’s destruction and the vacuum of space for a surprisingly emotional and heart-breaking finale. However, Yondu is finally honoured by the Ravagers in death, and Kraglin Obfonteri (Sean Gunn) assumes command of his arrow and his crew; while the Guardians find dealing with a moody adolescent Groot to be a challenge in the post-credits scene, they remain unaware that Ayesha has vowed to destroy them by breeding a perfect instrument of destruction dubbed “Adam”.
It’s definitely true that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 holds up much better with each subsequent viewing; in many ways, it’s more of the same from the last film, but with a far greater focus on the characterisations of the titular team and the dysfunctional family dynamic they have. While it doesn’t necessarily match or expand upon the space-faring action and excitement of the first film, and may disappoint some viewers in that respect, the grounded, more personal story told here is a poignant and affecting one. Seeing Quill struggle with his heritage, his feelings for Gamora, and to hold the team together is what makes these outlandish characters so surprisingly relatable, and the banter and relationship between each member of the team is some of the most entertaining produced by the MCU. What we have here is a film that peels back the layers of one of the most obscure properties in Marvel, and the MCU, and makes even their most alien members human and vulnerable; expanding on Yondu’s character and showing how complex Rocket is as a character was a surprising highlight, as was the heart-breaking final reconciliation between Yondu and Quill. There’s plenty of amusing elements throughout the film thanks to Drax’s blunt nature and Baby Groot’s childish antics, and Kurt Russell seems to be having the time of his life being part of his big-budget production. The cosmic scope of the MVU was expanded even further with the introduction of the Celestials and laying the groundwork for the future dynamic and troubles coming to the Guardians and, while I don’t rate it as highly as the first film, that’s not to say that there isn’t a great deal to enjoy here and I’d say it’s well worth your time, especially for those who might not have been convinced by the Guardians’ characterisation in the last film and wanted to get to know these characters better.
What did you think to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2? Were you disappointed that the film wasn’t as action-packed as the first or did you enjoy the more character-focused story? What did you think to the added emphasis on the team as a dysfunctional family? Which of the new characters introduced was your favourite? What did you think to Ego’s plot and the changes made to his character? Would you have liked to see Quill retain his cosmic powers or did you dislike that he was made part-Celestial? Which members of the team would you like to see included in the MCU later down the line? I’d love to know your opinion on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, so sign up to share them below or leave a comment on my social media, and be sure to check in next Sunday as Sci-Fi Sunday continues!