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Monday, March 25, 2019

Director Report Card: James Gunn (2017)

4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

It feels weird to refer to anything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a billion dollar success story and the most profitable franchise in cinematic history, as “risky.” Yet the original “Guardians of the Galaxy” really did seem like a weirder, nerdier superhero film when it was first announced. That it would become a huge hit and one of the MCU’s hottest titles shows the quality of the first one and how savvy Disney’s marketing is. Thus, the sequel was hotly anticipated and work started on a part two quickly. The studio’s confidence in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” was evident when it received the plum first Friday in May release date, generally regarded as the kick-off to summer movie season. Audiences ate it up again, James Gunn’s unlikely ascent to the Hollywood A-list being ensured.

In the months since the end of the first “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Peter Quill and his make-shift family has only grown more renowned. The Guardians are hired by the Sovereign, a haughty alien empire, to protect some special batteries. When Rocket instead steals the batteries, they are pursued by the Sovereign. A strange man appears to save the Guardians, whose ship is still destroyed in the attack. The man introduces himself as Ego, a living planet, and Star-Lord’s long-lost father. Peter – accompanied by Gamora, Drax, and Ego’s assistant Mantis – is taken to Ego’s world and discovers his destiny... Which is not what he expected. Meanwhile, Rocket forms an uneasy alliance with Yondu and Nebula seeks out her sister.

If the first “Guardians” was about a group of heartbroken oddballs finding solace with each other, the sequel is about the cost of that make-shift family. Rocket’s irresponsible and selfish actions kick off most of the story, the cast learning to forgive him – and Rocket forgiving himself for his self-destructive actions – is the story’s emotional core. If Peter Quill was still grappling with the death of his mother in the first film, here, he’s faced with his father and a troubling legacy. He has to grapple with the difference between the perfect father fatherless sons imagine and the grim reality... Before accepting the easily overlooked truth in front of him. This theme, forgiveness and acceptance among make-shift families, extends to every subplot. The idea is solidified with an ending scene where infant-like Baby Groot, the youngest member of the Guardians family, passes between everyone’s arms, embracing each of them.

If what Gunn has said about his own childhood is any indication, “Vol. 2” is an even more personal film than the first. Yet it also has a similar issue with having to juggle a lot of characters, each with their own subplots and history. “Guardians 2” is a heavily plotted movie, with four or five story threads viewers have to keep track of. It’s also a movie of divergent tones, whipping from wacky comedy to comic book action to quirky drama. That the movie still works extremely well is a testament to its quality. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” comes dangerously close to shaking apart at times but somehow holds everything together in a very pleasing way.

Yet the wider scope does allow for Gunn to indulge in even more cosmic weirdness this time around. This is a mainstream blockbuster where the main antagonist is a living planet, after all. I guess if audiences accepted a tree and a raccoon as lovable characters, that's not any more outrageous. Ego only becomes a more odd character as we learn more about him, Kurt Russell's body being blown apart and reforming on camera. A giant brain puts in an appearance, along with tentacles of energy and huge, rocky faces. The Ravagers get an expanded role, the weird and ugly space-mercenaries getting even more screen time. Over the course of the film, we visit the genetically perfected world of the Sovereign and a pleasure planet occupied by robot prostitutes. When Star-Lord says “I”m going to make some weird shit” at one point, you can almost imagine Gunn saying the same thing to the Disney execs.

The film's far-out comic book concepts and outrageous humor cross over clearly in one sequence. In order to reach Ego as quickly as possible, Rocket passes Yondu's ship through fifty star-gates. This results in everyone's faces distorting wildly as they scream in agony. (That's also where Stan Lee's cameo, confirming a popular fan theory about the Watchers, is dropped.) The sequel certainly doesn't back from the original's ribald and referential humor. There's a running gag about Drax's nipples after all. There's a long, hilarious discussion about Ego's penis. One scene has Baby Groot retrieving a series of more unlikely items. A similar and even funnier moment has the big battle pausing so Star-Lord can ask around for a piece of tape. That seem irrelevance is evident in small but very successful gags, like Ayesha's royal carpet roller getting stuck for a minute. Some of the gags, like that revolving around a unripened space fruit, are so absurd they almost don't work. As with the first film, Gunn manages to make pop culture more meaningful. He derives pathos from a David Hasselhoff shout-out, turns Pac-Man into a crowdpleaser, and makes a Mary Poppins homage a delightfully sweet moment.

If “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is densely plotted, with an overly large cast, the film was obviously aware of it. In order to balance an ensemble that is sometimes pushed in too many directions, Gunn thinks of a pretty orderly solution. The film largely pairs up its various characters in teams of two. Rocket and Yondu are teamed together for long portions of the story. Drax and Mantis end up bonding in unexpected ways. Gamora and Nebula meet up, their sisterly rival rising to a different level. This leaves Star-Lord and Ego to drive most of the plot's major beats. It's a smart decision, the movie compartmentalizing its large cast, keeping thing orderly, preventing some of the unsteady screenwriting that was present in the first.

James Gunn has said Rocket is the member of the Guardians he relates the most too. In light of recent actions, you can't help but see some parallels, in the way that Rocket's self-loathing manifests in him pushing his loved ones with bad decisions. His pairing with Yondu seems odd at first. The film does an extraordinary thing where it manages to clarify Rocket's flaws and his connection with Yondu through one monologue. That moment, where Yondu lays out his own past, is among the film's most emotional. It's also a display for Michael Rooker's acting. Rising from a small supporting role, Rooker turns the space-redneck into a surprisingly parental and sincere person.

Another lovable addition to the cast is Pom Klementieff as Mantis. An insectoid empath, Klementieff makes Mantis a lovably innocent character. Unacquainted with social interaction and human emotion – which has been largely interpreted as a metaphor for being on the spectrum – Mantis is adorable. This is a source of comedy, such as the way she bluntly explains her powers, but also for pathos. This is most clear in her unlikely pairing with Drax. Dave Bautista's ability for deadpan comedy is utilized even more this time. Yet there's also a stillness to his performance. Such as the brilliant moment where, when talking about his deceased wife and daughter, Mantis – who experiences emotions through tactile connection – touches his shoulders. She breaks down in tears but Drax, who has lived with this pain for years, simply stares off at the sun.

In the previous film, Gamora and Nebula's subplot was the only clunker. Freed of having to set up Thanos, who is referenced here but never seen, the relationship between the sisters can be focused on. Nebula grows from a typical supervillain to another wounded soul, someone traumatized by her psychotic upbringing at Thanos' hands, who resents the better loved sister. In fact, Nebula – performed by a hard-as-nails Karen Gillain, who growls most of her dialogue – eventually emerges as an unlikely member of the team. How she makes peace with Gamora near the end is especially sweet. Zoe Saldana still works best when bouncing off other characters. Such as the scenes, comedic and romantic, she shares with Peter.

In recent years, Marvel took steps to fix their perceived lack of good villains. Kurt Russell's Ego would prove to be another quality bad guy. Russell is immensely likable, of course. He's the kind of dad any boy would want, ruggedly masculine but also funny, wise, and sensitive. That's the exact kind of charm Russell has built his entire career on. This is, of course, before the extent of Ego's villainy is revealed. His plot – expand his existence to planets all over the galaxy, wiping out millions of lives – is standard comic book evil. Yet Russell and the film makes sure to clarify Ego's humanity. He's motivated by very relatable emotions. He doesn't want to be alone. He wants his life to have meaning. As Quill turns on him, as his plot falls apart, he's even shown fearing death in a very human way.

As Star-Lord, Chris Pratt still mostly plays the part as a quibbing man-child, though his pain and insecurities are still close to his chest. In order to disguise the Ego twist, Elizabeth Debicki's Ayesha was reported as the film's main villain. That wouldn't have been as interesting, though Debicki is pretty good as a regal alien with a carefully constructed outward attitude. A veneer which falls apart more and more as the Guardians continuously stymie her plans. Sean Gunn, the director's brother, gets a bigger role as Yondu's right hand man, Kraglin. In fact, Gunn even gets a few moments of genuine emotion to himself, with a well-placed cry of remorse. Another secondary villain is Taserface, played as fantastically unaware of his own ridiculousness by Chris Sullivan.

While the characters and comedy are the main reason to see “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” it is a big budget action movie. And a pretty good one at that. The opening fight with the rainbow spewing interdimensional beast is well executed, concluding with the delirious shot of Drax slashing away at the beast's inside. The chase through a quantum asteroid field, another really crazy idea, is satisfyingly intense. Since it was so cool last time, we get a longer sequence devoted to Yondu taking out tons of dudes with his magic arrow. In its final act, “Vol. 2” becomes a bit excessive with its CGI action. In the interior of Ego's planet, there's lots of energy blasts and rocky tentacles. It all becomes a bit too much, though it is certainly never hard to follow.

After the chart-topping success of the original, Gunn admitted that there was some pressure on him to replicate the success of the first film's soundtrack. There aren't as many crowd-pleasing hits here. Glenn Campbell, Sam Cooke and “Lake Shore Drive” don't make as much of an impression on the viewer. However, Gunn still makes great use of some numbers here. The dance party opening of ELO's “Mr. Blue Sky” perfectly captures the effervescent joy of Baby Groot. The team separating and Quill going off with Ego is cut around the percussion and bass of “The Chain” brilliantly. The same can be said of “Come a Little Bit Closer,” an unlikely number to score Yondu's massacre of his former team to. But the best use of songs in the film belong to “Brandy” by Looking Glass, a bit of cheese reclaimed as an emotional checkpoint for the hero, and Cat Steven's “Father and Son.” That last one is on the nose but, fuck it, it works fantastically.

Gunn clearly loves playing in this corner of the Marvel Universe. In fact, he might love it a little too much. While “Guardians Vol. 2” is steady in its story focus, the film does go a little over-the-top with the sequel hooks. The film introduces most of the original 1969 Guardians of the Galaxy team as Yondu's original Ravagers team. It casts well-known actors like Sylvester Stallone, Michelle Yeoh, and Ving Rhames in the parts, so the audience is certain these guys are important. The subplot with the Sovereign serves its purpose but was likely chosen to set up the next movie's antagonist, who happens to be a major player in cosmic Marvel history. None of this stuff bugs me. In fact, I think it's all pretty fun. Yet it's also a largely inessential addition to a story that stood well enough without all this stuff.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” on account of being a sequel, doesn't have the exact freshness of the original. While it is flawed, it might also be a better written and structured film than the first. Regardless of where it stands in your ranking of Marvel movies, the sequel is still an absolute delight. The cast is having a ball, it's hilarious, hugely imaginative, and an effectively emotional motion picture. It has all the stuff I go to movies for and a dancing tree baby. Gunn continuous to make hugely ambitious and highly personal art even within the realm of 200 million dollar superhero movies. [Grade: A-]

I had to re-write the end of this Director Report Card a few days before I started posting. For a while there, it seemed like Disney kicked James Gunn out of the director's chair for "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3," following alt-right trolls acting in bad faith and digging up some tasteless Twitter jokes Gunn made ten years ago. This threw the third "Guardians" film into crisis, Disney pulling it from its future release schedule. Some members of the cast considered walking. Some wondered if the movie itself was basically cancelled. In the turmoil, Gunn seemed to jump ship, waltzing over to Marvel's Distinguished Competition to direct the "Suicide Squad" sequel/reboot.

Instead, a week or two ago, it was announced that Disney re-hired Gunn to make "Guardians Vol. 3" again. Apparently, he had been quietly re-hired quite a while ago, the official announcement being held off until the controversy died down a bit. Amusingly, this does not mean Gunn is leaving "The Suicide Squad" behind either. Apparently, he's going to write/direct the DC ensemble superhero movie about a group of misfits – from the sounds of it, Gunn's line-up is heavy on unconventional characters, recalling "The Specials" – before going back to Marvel to write/direct an ensemble superhero movie about a group of misfits.

What a strange time to be alive. While I obviously love and enjoy Gunn's superhero works, I do hope he returns to weirder, smaller movies some day. I think he probably will, as that sensibility still directs his big budget stuff. Anyway, that concludes my latest Director Report Card. Thanks for reading.

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