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June 8, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Under Your Nose (Part 1)

So by the sound of things, the Wonder Woman movie is actually pretty goodReally good, even.

When I first checked Rotten Tomatoes, the movie was hovering at around 97% on the Tomatometer -- a number so high that it would’ve made me do a spit take if I had anything in my mouth.  Granted that was an early glimpse; I’d imagine that it’ll take time for all of the reviews to reach some semblance of a consensus (and let’s not forget the droves of reviews from critics and bloggers all around who aren’t part of the club).  But for now?  Yeah.  I’m reassured.  I’m happy that it seems like the DC Extended Universe has something worthwhile to its name now, after three back-to-back misfires.  And I’m glad that they seemingly succeeded with the one character they absolutely, positively had to get right.

Does that mean that the DCEU is finally in the race against Marvel now?  I don’t know.  Maybe.  It’s not hard to imagine that Wonder Woman is a fluke, given Justice League looming large like a black obelisk arisen from the accursed depths.  Even though Zack Snyder has stepped away from the movie and the DCEU for personal (but totally understandable and regrettable) reasons, it’s worth noting that he didn’t control and craft it alone.  Suicide Squad says hi, after all.  There’s still time for the executives from on high to screw everything up -- namely, their chances of taking on the MCU.  We’ll see what happens, though.

Wait, isn’t this supposed to be a post on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2?  Yeah, but what else is there to say besides it’s funny, it’s good, and go watch it?  There might not be anything more to scrape up -- but I’m sure as hell gonna try.


If you’re reading this post, then I’m going to go ahead and assume you’ve already seen Vol. 2 and its predecessor -- or, failing that, you’ve read extensively about both.  If you haven’t, then I guess you don’t care about spoilers or anything.  Or, alternatively, you’re playing the philanthropist and giving me some extra pageviews so I can feel better about myself.  I’m not opposed to that, if only for bragging rights.  But in any case, movie-talk incoming.

I guess there’s one question that needs answering more than any other -- or at the very least, more than the binary “is this movie good or bad” thin you’d expect.  That question boils down to one word: why?  And for once, it’s not just me going “Why is this movie good?” or its cousin twice-removed, “What makes this movie good?”  See, I’ve been thinking recently about the stuff I like and why I like it; it’s an effort to not only understand myself but the world of fiction that we all so adore and need in our lives.  On a personal level?  It’s about me trying to find a revelation that’ll help me take my writing to the next level, by way of knowing why my influences have influenced me.  Hell, there’s a chapter in a manuscript copy I’ve got which pinpoints the exact moment when I was fresh off of seeing the first Guardians of the Galaxy.  The traits are not subtle.

But I’m not the sole cause for why the MCU is a multibillion-dollar perpetual engine.  There’s a reason why these movies keep turning out big profits and bigger audiences; why they’ve built legions of fans across the country, if not the world; why they’ve changed the way Hollywood operates, i.e. convincing studios all over that the key to success is to make their own cinematic universes (even if those studios fail miserably as early as the outset).  So what is that reason, then?  There has to be more to it than “lol jokes” or “dude, that action” or “iunderstoodthatreference.gif”.

Maybe there is no reason -- at least not an ironclad, irrefutable truth that applies to everyone everywhere.  I’ll say upfront that I probably give these movies as a whole WAY too much credit, and they’ll all fall apart upon fourth, third, or even second viewings.  More importantly, maybe there is no secret or deeper meaning.  The MCU has its reputation, and it’s impossible to shake at this point.  Commercialism!  Mainstream!  Nerd culture!  And so on, and so forth.  Maybe that’s all there is to it, and that’s all anyone -- even a needlessly-analytical, quasi-sentient afro -- really needs or wants.

But you know what I think?  Based on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, here’s my theory.  The reason why people keep coming back to the Marvel movies is simple. 

They actually don’t want to see the Marvel movies.

Don’t worry.  I’m going to explain exactly what I mean (in my characteristic, multi-thousand-word style).  And the first step towards explaining that is to go back to how I felt prior to seeing Vol. 2 -- i.e. someone who was willing to skip out on the movie as a means to get some other stuff done.  And sleep.  Also sleep.  But I did eventually manage to drag myself to the theater to watch it.  Looking back, I feel stupid for even thinking that I could skip out on a Marvel movie (especially one that’s possibly laid the groundwork for the reveal of the final Infinity Stone).  I thought I knew what I was getting into with Vol. 2, but ended up getting something much more.  Something that, however briefly, and however cynically, managed to touch me.

You know what you’re in for with this movie, which on some level makes anything I say about it redundant.  You’ll get jokes.  You’ll get action.  You’ll get CG out the Fin Fang Foom.  But that’s all surface-level stuff -- and as proficient as the Marvel God Engine is at pumping out the surface-level stuff, we’re at a point where it’s not enough to do what’s expected.  Well, in terms of long-lasting satisfaction and overall merit, at least; some people are okay with the basics, and that’s fine.  But I think that the reason why I like the Marvel movies is that, as evidenced by Phase 3, they’re going deeper and deeper to pluck something more from the ether.  The filmmakers are trying to do more than exist inside that mainstream, stereotyped groove.  Vol. 2 is proof of that effort.  By trying to be more -- by offering more, especially the stuff you wouldn’t expect, or ask for, or even know you wanted -- the movie manages to justify its grab for more cash.

Well, mostly.

Let’s be real here: Vol. 2 is not some transcendent masterpiece.  Indeed, it’s at its worst when it ends up relying on basic conventions and expected turns of the plot (such as it is).  Predictability is a sin for a movie like this -- and indeed, for any given story out there in this wide world of ours.  Guess what?  The entire plot of this movie is built on a foregone conclusion.  After the first one played up the mysteries surrounding Peter’s origins and birth -- especially why he could hold an Infinity Stone without dying -- the second one wastes no time in providing the answers.  He’s the son of Ego (the living planet, as it’s revealed later), which makes him part Celestial.  But it’s an inconsequential reveal from damn near minute one; you’re just counting the seconds until:

1) it turns out Ego isn’t the nice guy you think he is
2) Peter still forms a bond with his father
3) Peter realizes who his real family is (the Guardians)
4) the Guardians bond over being a family…even though they did that in the last movie
5) Ego gets killed off, which takes another asset from the MCU villain toolbox -- which is not looking very full these days, because holy crap they introduced and dealt with Dormammu in one movie holy shit why would you do that
6) and the adventure continues

I also don’t know what the end goal is with the Peter/Gamora relationship.  It’s fine, but at times it feels less like a natural evolution of the characters and more of a run through a checklist -- like they were convinced that it was something they have to have to develop the characters, but more importantly to appeal to the common folk.  For some reason.  I’d probably be more okay with it if Gamora wasn’t following the same basic trajectory as Black Widow (cold and tough female agent/assassin starts coming out of her shell because of the weirdos around her), but she’s doing it worse than Widow.  The super-spy is taking on a role that’s on her own terms, acting as a pillar of support as well as reason because of the time we’ve spent with her.  Gamora’s trying to sprint to catch up, and her development is partially (or largely, depending on your perspective) tied to how much she’s willing to bond with Peter.

The weird thing about Gamora is that they’ve clearly displayed an ability to do more with her, especially in the context of this movie.  A decent-sized chunk of the movie features her sister, rival, and sparring partner Nebula, whose murderous rage is strongly juxtaposed against Gamora’s nigh-eternal stoicism.  It reaches a point where the blue-skinned cyborg goes from a furious prisoner to an even more furious seeker of vengeance -- one that opens fire on Gamora the second she gets a spaceship with decent enough guns.

Though speaking of guns?  I can’t be the only one who thought that the gun Gamora grabbed from the downed ship was -- if not for the use of bullets instead of a giant fuck-off laser -- a direct reference to the Proton Cannon from the Marvel vs. Capcom series.  Also, apparently Gamora has super strength or something?  Okay, sure, I’ll allow it.

Gamora and Nebula do fight it out eventually, but it’s decidedly brief.  That probably has something to do with the fact that we get a keen insight into both sisters in one scene, and in the movie at large: apparently, Nebula isn’t just filled with hate because she could never beat Gamora in a fight, or even because Thanos basically tore apart and rebuilt her body each time she lost.  Granted those are probably underlying reasons, but underneath all of that, Nebula’s angry because all she ever wanted was a sister in the green-skinned Guardian.  And she never got that.  It’s enough to thoroughly shut Gamora up for a good while, and more importantly push her to try harder -- convincing her that she needs to do better for her family.

That’s a hundred times more impactful than the dance over whether or not she and Peter will officially hook up.  I don’t envy James Gunn and crew for having to develop and balance a number of different characters at once, and only within a two-ish hour span once every few years.  But it’s possible as long as the moments that do get included are substantial.  Gamora and Nebula coming together to bond and survive against the threat of a sentient planet?  That’s rad.  Peter trying to romance Gamora by relating their situation to 80s sitcoms?  I’m honestly hard-pressed to give a shit.  And to be clear, it’s not as if Gamora + relationship = bad character.  But for now, Gamora + relationship with Nebula > Gamora + relationship with Peter.  That’s my stance, though I’m willing to be proven otherwise.

Knowing full well that this movie was going to be a hit no matter what, the filmmakers didn’t have to do that.  They didn’t have to beef up Gamora and Nebula as characters.  They could’ve just stuck to what was expected, and what would’ve been passable as a vehicle for brand maintenance, merchandising, and soma-laced feel-good vibes.  But they didn’t.  While there are still some flaws present with the characters and the movie as a whole, there’s a genuine attempt to be more than just “ROCKET SAID SOMETHING FUNNY SO I LAUGHED” or some such ilk.  It’s trying to do something unexpected, and every time it does, it’s a lot more appreciable than when they do whatever because “that’s what the audience came to see”.

This is what I mean when I say people don’t want to see the Marvel movies.  Being a Marvel movie has increasingly become a dirty term -- a stigma, and an anathema that to be fair isn’t without merit.  We’re dealing with a hulking colossus now whose presence blocks out the sun.  And because of it, we know all of the colossus’ tricks by now.  We know what to expect, and even if box office success and critical consensus can say otherwise, I understand that weariness.  I’ve felt that weariness, and I’m the biggest (headed) shill for them on the planet.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 -- and every movie that follows -- will have to justify their existence by supplying an essence that goes beyond the bounds of what we expect from a Marvel movie.  Civil War did it by making its title fight into a painful, legitimately hard-to-watch grudge match.  Doctor Strange did it by turning into a drama punching hard enough to obliterate the average man’s liver.  Did Vol. 2 do it?  Did it justify its quality and its existence by being what a Marvel movie isn’t?  I think that the answer to that is yes.  Maybe it didn’t manage to escape all of the MCU biases, but it did its share.

It managed to feature Yondu and his funeral, after all.  And because of it, I’m inclined to believe that the answers I seek -- that we all seek -- have been under your nose for a long time.  You see --

Wait a second.  “Under your nose”?  AW SHIET, TITLE DROP!

And that’s a good enough place to stop for now.  Join me next time as I get in even deeper with Vol. 2.  But for now?  I’d like to display the fact that, contrary to popular belief, I can make a post that is (or pretends to be) a reasonable length.

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