June 12, 2017

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

So how well does the original Guardians of the Galaxy movie hold up after all this time?  Or, alternatively, after just a couple of weeks?  After a fourth, third, or even second viewing?

If I had to be a little presumptuous (at least more than usual), I’d bet that most of the big heads of companies in the entertainment industry thrive on getting as many customers to buy in as early as possible.  You see it all the time with video games, and considering that movies only have so long for their theatrical releases -- not counting trips to DVDs, Blu-Rays, and all sorts of streaming services -- I’d assume they work on the same principle.  Get ‘em on the hook early so that they can enjoy “the thing” now, and pay for “the thing” now.  Time is money.

It’s safe to say that the first Guardians got people on the hook and brought in the cash sooner rather than later.  I’ll go ahead and assume that’s the case for Vol. 2even though I don’t really have to, but whatever.  Plus, the beauty of movies is that instead of replay value after an initial playthrough, people that want to experience it again have no choice but to buy another ticket and fill up theater seats.  But the bigger question is whether or not this movie, or its predecessor, or its brothers in Marvel arms have legs.  Are the MCU offerings good just because of the immediate thrills they provide?  What happens when the thrills wear off?  Will they still be good in the future?

Probably, yeah.  And my reasoning for that can be explained with…rakes.


Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes will always be funny.  Always.  The abrupt cut of that menacing music; the sound upon impact, again and again; the torture Bob endured up to that point, followed by the torture he has to endure in that moment; the sheer absurdity of someone leaving well over a dozen identical rakes on the ground; Bob’s look of annoyance followed by his aggravated grumble; if ever there was a candidate for a perfect scene, this would be it.

A good moment is a good moment.  No matter the source, and no matter the origin, we all have to pay our respects when a story or work does something deserving of praise.  The Simpsons has done that many times over in the course of its 30-ish years on the air (feel free to lament your mortality here).  And by the same token?  So have the Marvel movies, including Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.  It may be built on something basic and even trite, but that bare-bones foundation is buttressed by all of the individual moments packed in its run time.  And indeed, I’d wager that it’s because of those moments that the movie as a whole will stay worthwhile.  Who knows?  It might even have a longer shelf life than all of the Avengers movies put together.  But we’ll see what happens with Infinity War.

So on that note, I’m kind of glad I didn’t just slap together a post (or this post, particularly) right after I saw the movie.  And no, it had absolutely nothing to do with me being too sleepy or lazy; it’s because sometimes it’s best to let your thoughts and your fingers sit before making a judgment call.  Is it the sort of movie that depends solely on base, instant reaction?  Is it -- alongside its kin -- the sort of movie where the only thing that matters is instant gratification, which forces people to confuse that with its actual quality?

Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…sorta, yeah.  But for the most part, no.

I think of Vol. 2 as more of a comedy than anything.  That, naturally, means that its quality is inherently tied to how much of a laugh it can get out of its audience.  Taken at that basic level, we’re dealing with a TENOUTTATEN movie here -- but the tradeoff is that you can’t divorce that guttural reaction from the rest of the work.  By and large, it’s a movie set in a rut as deep as the Grand Canyon; even if you can find deeper meanings and substance -- the part of a Marvel movie that people want to subconsciously see, more so than the jokes and explosions -- you can’t fully scrub away the surface-level stuff that’s easy to entangle with (and blame for) lowest common denominator exploitation.

There’s no getting around the fact that Vol. 2 is an incredibly straightforward movie.  To be fair, that’s a complaint you could toss at other MCU fare -- of course everybody will jump into a big dumb showdown in Civil War -- but here?  It feels like the basic plot hurts the movie more than it would anywhere else.  Between the absurdity of the Guardians, the spectacle of the alien worlds, and (crucially) the madcap, joke-happy misadventures woven into the mix, they’re held back every time the movie falls back on basic conventions and well-trodden ground.  Comedy thrives on being unpredictable, but when you can predict every story beat almost down to the second that it occurs…well, that’s a problem.

And what’s it in service of, I wonder?  There are two sides to the argument, of course, but if the movie was an absolute grand slam then it wouldn’t have to have two sides.  You know from the outset that Peter can never, ever have a meaningful relationship with his father or even a father in general; it’d mean that he wouldn’t be able to hang out with his new family, the Guardians of the Galaxy.  So it’s only a matter of time before there’s a big “reveal” where Ego the well-meaning, enlightened traveler of the stars turns out to be Ego the Living Planet, AKA someone whose disappointment with any life that isn’t as perfect as him inspired his mission to assimilate and remake every planet and its inhabitants in his image.  So basically, he’s a secret asshole.

Don’t worry, though.  In true Marvel movie fashion, he’s killed in his movie of origin.

It just feels like such a waste to burn through Ego in this movie.  I mean yeah, he’s not perfect by any means; I have no idea why he would think that telling Peter he put a tumor in his mother’s brain would somehow be something “her little Star-Lord” would shrug off, but I guess they had to snap Peter back into human mode somehow.  Also, I’m a little surprised to hear that all it takes to power Ego’s assimilation ploy is just one more Celestial, and even then it’s just someone who at first could only make wisps and balls of light.  Also, also, if he’s in complete control of his planet-self’s processes, then why did he bother leaving a pile of his failed protégés where anybody could find them (albeit by pure stroke of luck)?  Okay, sure, he didn’t really need to clean up, but given that he could’ve felt Gamora and Nebula snooping around, you’d think that he would have sucked up the evidence beforehand, yes?  Or just smooshed them in that cave?  Come to think of it --

No, no, no.  Not going down that road now.  I’ll be here for a week if that happens.

Underneath the sound and fury of the movie, the backbone basically has the “it’s just a matter of time” issue in spades.  It’s just a matter of time until Ego reveals his true nature and opts to kill everyone.  It’s just a matter of time until Rocket has to learn how to be less of a dick (which I would’ve thought was something he learned from the last movie).  It’s just a matter of time until Peter and Gamora’s relationship levels up.  It’s just a matter of time until Baby Groot does something adorable.  It’s just a matter of time until the Guardians have to bond again and prove how much of a family they are…which to be fair is kind of expected when you’ve got a Fast and the Furious figurehead as a marquis character.

The worst thing a comedy can be is predictable, and Vol. 2 falls into that trap an unsettling number of times.  But the tradeoff is that even if a lot of story beats are familiar, it’s the execution that saves -- and even elevates -- the movie as a whole.  To put it bluntly, it’s all about those moments.

So off the top of my head, here’s a list of those moments that may very well secure Vol. 2 as something truly memorable, and not just an obligation for moviegoers to sit through.  To wit:

Ego’s planet gets a grand tour
I know I’ve said this before, but I can’t get over just how impressive the visuals are in this movie.  That’s to be expected when you’ve got a budget in the hundreds of millions; then again, the same could be said of several DC movies, and look how those turned out.  Whereas those were eager to strip their worlds and heroes alike of color, Vol. 2 swings in the opposite direction while still maintaining a consistent look with other MCU fare (the Thor movies come to mind).  Ego’s planet is the hallmark here, with some impressive visuals that, taken frame by frame, could qualify as works of art.

Drax and Mantis laugh at Peter
It’s one thing for Drax the Destroyer -- and the Eternally Blunt, and the Endearingly Tactless -- to laugh at Peter when it’s revealed that he has feelings for Gamora.  It’s another thing entirely when someone else -- Mantis, in this case -- joins in on the fun.  Especially since it’s someone as gentle and pleasant as Mantis; seeing her break into wild guffaws just helps emphasize how much Peter is getting dunked on.  Then again, you should expect no less from Ms. Marvel Waifu.

…I wonder if I’ll regret typing that out, given that Captain Marvel is on the horizon.

Peter and Ego play catch
Yeah, it’s a given that Ego will turn out to be a complete bastard.  Still, he does manage to put up an act that comes off as convincing -- like he’s a guy that actually cares about Peter.  He actually does, ostensibly, even if it’s for terrible reasons and dark machinations.  Either way, it doesn’t take away from the fact that he tried to bridge the gap with his son; because of it, there’s a level of heartwarming applied here when he does something he should have done ages ago.  Kind of paradoxical that a Celestial would lower himself to such a trifle, but it does show that Ego’s still capable of humility.  And yeah, it does show off his character in a way other MCU villains haven’t.  (Quick, name and describe the villain of Thor: The Dark World without using a Google search.)

“I’m gonna make some weird shit
I know there are a lot of funny lines and moments in this movie, but this one is my favorite, bar none.  It comes off as this weird little aside -- no attention drawn to it, no tricks or gimmicks involved -- that’s made stronger mostly because…well, it’s just one line.  The timing helps, of course, given that it comes in the middle of Ego explaining Peter’s nature as a Celestial to him.  The fact that it’s jammed in there while hot off of Peter’s push for making whatever he wants -- coupled with Chris Pratt’s starry-eyed delivery, born from a moment of pure enlightenment -- means that that single moment packs a hell of a punch.

We should probably be thankful we never saw what he'd make.  Probably.

Peter sees infinity
And then on the opposite end of the spectrum, Star-Lord actually has a revelation that doesn’t involve his crotch.  Ego opens his mind to the breadth of the universe and the potential within and without -- the power that Peter has thanks to his Celestial powers.  If ever there was a “darkest hour”, a pretty good candidate would be having our wisecracking, dance-happy leader turn into a silent, subservient automaton.  Then again, I can’t help but wonder about the implications here.  Will Peter remember what he experienced from here on?  Will he become a wiser individual, or show any sort of change in future movies?  When you see the universe, can you ever go back to being an average Joe?  Time will tell.

Baby Groot doesn’t know what a fin is
Boy, I never would’ve guessed that Yondu would control his killer arrow with that metal plate on his head.  Then again, I don’t (and never will) claim to be an expert in extraterrestrial technology.  In any case, the treacherous Ravagers lock up Rocket and Yondu, and the only one who can save the day is Baby Groot by retrieving a spare fin for Yondu to use.  The only problem is that it’s an idiot baby tree monster they’re talking about, and thus it takes multiple treks for him to get it right.  And he doesn’t even get it right; someone else does on his behalf.

It’s okay, Groot.  I still love you with all my heart and then some.

Gamora sits in an empty field
I don’t think I’m saying anything controversial when I declare that Gamora is cut from a different cloth than the other Guardians.  In a movie that’s built on its cast getting huge laughs, the fact that she doesn’t -- and even gets passed up in that department by newcomer Mantis -- means that she’s the odd woman out.  And having seen that scene where she’s out in a desert area (that she walked to, somehow) so she can mope about Peter’s choices makes me realize that that’s kind of the point.  She’s a misfit.  She’s the weird one of the family (which is saying something), and seeing her lash out at a harmless plant is less about her frustration with Peter and more about her frustration with herself -- how she’s too stiff and serious to be more than the team mom/voice of reason.  That’s…actually pretty rad.

Rocket takes out the Ravagers (parts un and deux)
This is kind of cheating, but…yeah, I’m nominating both of these scenes as winners.  While it’s hard to argue that Vol. 2 is a non-stop thrill ride from start to finish, I’m still a fan of the action beats that are on display when they show up.  There’s a level of creativity here that makes for more potent action besides “imma punch that guy really hard”, and that’s accomplished via Rocket and Yondu.  The former’s use of traps launches incoming attackers dozens of feet into the air, while the latter’s arrow shenanigans tear through the Ravagers with some sadistic charm.  Even Groot, small as he is in this movie, gets in on the action.  As one would.

Yondu calls Rocket out
Of course, this movie isn’t all about fun and games.  Given that Rocket continuously displays how much he needs an attitude adjustment -- sometimes it seems like he’s being an ass just because he can, and helps incite the plot in the first place -- someone needed to talk some sense into him.  Who better to do that than Yondu, someone that’s just as crusty and prickly as the genetic gunman?  Yeah, it comes off as a little hackneyed, given that it’s the “we’re not so different” angle; on the other hand, the fact that anyone manages to break through Rocket’s furry armor to expose the wounded soul he actually is says a lot about both characters -- and what the movie’s trying to push.  Why, it’s almost as if there’s more to it than superficial, guttural thrills.

The battle against the living planet
So CinemaSins has a running gag/complaint where a slew of Marvel movies (and more) have the hero pitted against a meaner, sometimes bigger version of said hero.  Abomination, Iron Monger, Yellowjacket, etc.  That’s technically kind of true with Peter vs. Ego, but on the other hand?  We’re talking about a guy who under normal circumstances can only rely on guns and gadgets, and he’s fighting a living planet while on that living planet.  Because of that, even if it’s only a matter of time until Ego gets asploded, the movie still manages to make a convincing argument as to how powerful of a foe the Guardians are dealing with.  If not for Peter’s Celestial powers, the movie would’ve had a very different ending -- which you’d expect from someone that can terraform on a whim.

Though it does make me wonder: would Ego have won instantly if he changed the atmosphere of his planetary self?  Was that in his toolset?  Come to think of it, is a stable oxygen-based environment more common in the outer reaches of the MCU than in the real universe?  The mind boggles.  

And then Pac-Man shows up
I know I just finished throwing shade on movies that just have its heroes resorting to fist fights to resolve situations, but…hey, I like fist fights too.  (Tekken 7 makes me so happy on a spiritual level.)  Besides, this is Peter we’re talking about -- a guy who doesn’t go out of his way to kung fu fight with baddies; seeing him use his Celestial powers to play Superman is a worthwhile departure, and easy to swallow through the implication that -- thanks to his powers being tied to Ego’s existence -- the use of his Celestial powers is a one-time event.  And crucially, he uses it to good effect by reminding us of what type of movie this is: whereas dear ol’ dad opts to turn into an angry rock titan, Peter becomes -- wait for it -- a giant Pac-Man.  And wins.

I guess Bandai Namco wanted to make up for having their mascot show up in Pixels.  Though to be clear, they already earned their redemption…I think.

Yondu’s funeral
So here we are.

I don’t know what it is about the MCU and funeral scenes.  Granted there aren’t that many, but when they happen -- like in Thor: The Dark World and Civil War -- they really come off as something special, and something that impacts our heroes more than the battle to save the world.  Vol. 2 is no exception.  While I’ll admit that I didn’t put too much stock into Blue Space Merle beforehand, now I can’t help but think of him in a different light.  He was rough around the edges, he committed who knows how many crimes, and he made enemies wherever he went.  But in the end, he showed his true colors…and not just a healthy shade of cerulean.

Yondu was the father Peter never knew he had.  Even if a lot of choices he made were sub-optimal (to put it mildly), he did manage to become something more for our hero, well before both movie’s end and his final sacrifice.  Is it enough to excuse his crimes, or to make us believe that Yondu was actually the nicest guy in the universe?  Absolutely not.  On the other hand, look at the Guardians.  No matter how fancy the name, they’re a group of bounty hunters, assassins, murderers and thieves patrolling the cosmos for a quick buck.  He’d be in good company if he didn’t bite the space dust.

In a way, Peter is more like Ego than he’d care to admit.  The Celestial spent who knows how long trying to find his perfect heir, to say nothing of the fact that -- despite all of the beauty and wonders of the cosmos -- there was nothing that could convince him of unfettered life’s merit.  He was always looking for absolute perfection when he could’ve been content with what he had.  And indeed, what he had was plenty.  But that wasn’t enough.  He had to have things his way, with clear definitions and every need met to the letter.

Peter’s not innocent, either.  At the outset, he was mistrustful of Ego and rightly assumed that the whole thing was a trap.  But because of his need for a father -- his father -- he ended up getting suckered by the promise of Celestial catch and Pac-Man statues.  He needed something to fill the void, even if that void was a lot smaller than he would have guessed.  But instead of plugging up that void with the perfectly-fitting piece -- Yondu, or even his fellow Guardians -- there was a moment when he was willing to throw it all away for the sake of perfection.  It wasn’t too late for him to go back and rejoin the Guardians, but it was for him to bond with Yondu.  The answer was right under his nose all along, but he couldn’t come to terms.  And why would he?  Yondu’s a blue space criminal.  Who could ever see him as a father figure?

As it turns out?  Peter could.

He and the other Guardians give Yondu the sendoff he deserves -- alongside the other Ravagers, no less, which leads to a ceremony both humble in its makeshift approach and thunderous in its fanfare.  But no matter how they choose to celebrate, it’s an emotional affair.  It’s hard for Peter, for Gamora, for Drax, for Groot, for Mantis, and yes, even for Rocket.  Between him and Peter, it’s hard to know who felt it more; one lost a father, while the other lost a new friend.  Both of them lost someone they connected with on a deeper level, even if they didn’t see eye to eye.  So it’s no surprise that one of them is solemn as he looks on, while the other sheds silent tears.

Now look.  Is it strange to watch a CGI raccoon emote and cry on screen?  Yes.  Is it schmaltzy in its approach, given that it was only a matter of time until Rocket peeled off the mask and showed his inner sorrow?  Yes.  You know what’s coming.  You know the beats.  But damned if those beats aren’t effective when they’re executed well.  And in the end, that’s what it’s all about.  It’s important to be original.  It’s important to push boundaries.  It’s important to stay unpredictable.  But in the end, what matters most is that your work must be good.  High execution is a requirement for any story to last longer in someone’s head than a few seconds after its final moments.  In the end, that’s where Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 excels.  It’s not perfect.  It’s not the be-all and end-all.  But in the quest to answer the question of “how do you make a good movie?” it posits some powerful answers.  And in a lot of cases, it does so in such a way that you’d never notice if you didn’t think about it.

The merit is there under your nose, as long as you’re willing to recognize it.  To respect it.  And to that end, I’m putting this movie right around HERE on my SmartChart™:

And there you have it.  Thanks for reading, and…let’s see how the new Spider-Man turns out.

…But man, can you believe that Sylvester Stallone was in this movie?  Wasn’t expecting that.  Or for him to come within a few hairs of screaming “YOU BETRAYED THE LAW!”

Eh.  Maybe next time.

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