I’m still gathering my thoughts after having seen Guardians 2 last night. Since I don’t like banging out straight reviews, I’ll just get the obligatory over with by saying yeah, it’s a very entertaining movie, much in the same mold as the first. I’ll get more into what worked well and what didn’t further down, but what I wanted to focus on is how it kind of symbolized an ongoing trend of post-modernism (for lack of a better term) in today’s filmmaking, and perhaps the heart of that symbolism is Quill’s mixtape, itself an icon of the past.
First, I want to preface this review by saying that over the course of the last couple years I’ve taken to the habit of listening to Pandora playlists. After GoG 1 came out I put that in as a classification keyword and it began to spool out what it thinks is the ideal GoG playlist. The eerie aspect of GoG 2 is that one of the songs that wound up in heavy rotation on Pandora forms the backbone of the film. It makes me wonder whether Gunn did the same thing and that’s how he gathered the inspiration for the script.
At one surreal point in the film, Kurt Russell’s “Ego” almost seems to break the 4th wall by humming along with this song and explaining to his son (and more to the audience) why he (like all father figures in the Hero’s Journey) needed to go away. It was at this moment where something really clicked to me about how self-reflexive today’s generation of creatives are. I mean, Kurt Russell himself is a retro symbol, being asked to deliver exposition about how the song Brandi is the reason he had to be a deadbeat dad.
Just as the generation that brought us George Lucas and Spielberg empowered filmmakers who had a love for classic cinema from 30s and 40s, today’s filmmakers reminisce mostly about the late 70s and early 80s, the very era that is the focal point of my blog.
You could say this all started with Quentin Tarantino, but the advantage he has over all the rest is that his references are too arcane for anyone but film nerds versed with grindhouse and spaghetti westerns to detect. Most of the rest, everyone from Seth McFarlane to JJ Abrams and James Gunn, wear their influences directly on their sleeve.
Shawn Levy is another guy on this list. He’s the guy who brought us Night at the Museum and is currently working on Stranger Things, an ode to the 80s.
While Mel Brooks movies often delivered what I’d call an “extended punch-line”, the first time I noticed this sort of thing in a movie marketed primarily as action/adventure was Night at the Museum. Here’s an example from the second film.
And here’s the same sort of thing from Guardians 2. What makes this unusual, which is not clear from the trailer, is it completely grinds the plot to a halt during the climax of the film.
These sorts of moments are something you’d expect more from an Airplane style genre parody, but we’ve entered an era in which audiences have come to expect an experience that suspends disbelief visually but in which the characters are one step away from being aware they are in a movie and sliding through various tropes and cliche’s.
If it feels like I’m about to make a point, I am. I think the reason for all this is because Generation-X and above were saturated from media since birth. I grew up watching wall-to-wall TV. Sure, it was only the three networks and UHF at first, but darnit I watched what was on, and then things passed through the entrance of cable, VCRs, DVDs, and now on-demand streaming.
Just as Quentin Tarantino learned how to make movies by working in a video rental store, the average audience-goer is much more aware of how visual storytelling works than past generations. If they can’t quite put their finger on it, there are sites like TV Tropes or blogs like this or video channels to break it all down for you.
So the idea of the autuer in his ivory tower manipulating audiences with various levers has eroded. We’ve seen it all before and we kind of know how it’s gonna go and so the only thing left is to be amused by it all, or watch characters who in turn are just as bemused by the unfolding plot developments that they too start yammering self-reflexively about it.
The problem (yes, you knew I would get to this) is that the more self-reflexive something is, the less weight it has. Characters who spend their time stepping back and commenting on things are not truly living it. They’re living more in their own minds. Imagine if you will having a really great dinner date and commenting to your date “Wow, I’m having a really great dinner date.” It’s like watching your life instead of living your life. You also see this in people on vacations always taking selfies rather than actually experiencing the trip. More and more the purpose of life has become not to live it but to ruminate on it via social networks.
But back to GoG2. At one point Quill, after learning he can make stuff via his godlike powers, talks about how he’ll erect a statue of Pac Man. Quill himself is probably very much the ideal embodiment of James Gunn just as Ted relates to McFarlane. Later on Quill admits wishing his father were David Hasselhoff, and The Hoff actually sports a cameo in the film which is every bit as gratuitous as Sam J. Jones in Ted, only Ted was a comedy through and through, whereas this film is ostensibly Action/Adventure and is supposed to be a “real” part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. OK, it’s a Universe that includes Howard the Duck, but it’s still “serious”.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like this style of filmmaking. I like it, but at the same time it’s like junkfood or (to use a blunter tool) nostalgia porn. The first time I started to get hit up with this sort of thing, it felt novel. But as it’s become a growing trend, it starts to get repetitious after a while, similar to listening to my Pandora playlist of oldies over and over again. There is comfort in the familiar, but at the same time one would like to leave the theater with something to think about. A movie doesn’t need to be 2001 to do this. Most films carry some sort of moral or philosophy at its core. It’s one of film’s greatest strengths to be able to ask deep questions framed in narrative that makes it easy for everyone to digest. So the problem with popcorn movies is they usually tell us what we want to be told and do not really challenge the status quo in any way.
Since I did like the film overall, I will highlight what the overall message of GoG is, which is its ultimately its redeeming value, while also explaining flaws in how it delivered the message….
In the first film, the characters started out all the equivalent of juvenile delinquents. They all had problem childhoods or past trauma of some sort to help excuse them for their bad behavior. By virtue of circumstances they learned the first step of self-actualization which is to get beyond feeling like islands of one and bonded. Most of this is the reformed rogue archetype. It’s just like how Han Solo moved beyond selfishness to save the day at the end of Star Wars or Nick Wilde in Zootopia reformed himself out of sympathy for Judy Hopps. People like to see movies where characters go through a process of change, growth, and redemption.
In the second film, since this growth has already happened, there needed to be a way to continue this theme. It decided to turn its redemption focus onto two of the least likely sources, being the outlaw Yondu and the cyborg Nebula, sister of Gamora.
I was actually hoping that after Yondu was betrayed at the end of volum 1 that they would not have simply made him into the main heavy of volume 2, so I was happy with how they handled things. Rather than having him flip out over having been betrayed, the plot fast-forwards to the point where it’s made clear that he just gave Quill a free pass and because of it, the rest of the ravagers think he’s lost his macho mojo.
It’s at this point where I can see the clear fingerprints of another film franchise: Pirates of the Caribbean. This is because like in Pirates, there is the idea of a “code” of conduct one must follow, and also like Pirates, there is the trope of a morally ambiguous character who we all suspect has a heart of gold but is hidden by layers of repression by virtue of the school of hard knocks.
Truth be told, the GoG universe itself feels like nothing but a mashup in the first place, but then again, I suppose the same was true of Star Wars as well. But for Disney to draw from another of its own franchises for inspiration seems a little…incestual. But the idea of a pirate as an adopted father is nothing new in the first place. It goes back to Treasure Island.
There’s something deeply psychological about splitting the father figure between good and bad role models. The “bad” father figure is seen as more of a symbol of freedom. A child doesn’t really want to consider that the bad guys actually kill people or do any other unseamly acts.
The problem with Yondu is he is a pretty ruthless killer indeed, thanks to the arrow that he sliced through many people in the first film. There’s also a scene in the second film where Yondu appears to have just finished banging an android prostitute (I suppose if it’s an android it’s more acceptable?). The idea of what constitutes “good” and “bad” is very muddy in these films.
Nebula was rendered as a cardboard cutout of anger personified in the first film and most of this one as well. I was even less expecting her redemption than Yondu. I was happy they went there, but then it’s about the actual execution.
Some reviewers have commented that the film appeared to have been written by committee, which is also a criticism levied against The Force Awakens, and I can understand why that is.
Once the pieces are assembled on the board and it becomes clear that Yondu is gonna function like a good guy, and after a while it also becomes clear Nebula will turn around. Having Nebula as a captive is a common strategy to allow some sort of therapy session where the antagonist and protagonist can work through their issues. So once the two girls start talking, you kinda know where it’s gonna wind up and no amount of fighting in the meantime will prevent the ultimate reconciliation.
The only question in my mind was whether Yondu or Nebula or both of them would wind up getting killed off before credits rolled. I won’t tell you how that panned out as it would be a huge spoiler, other than to say that I was never really left guessing too much about where they’d wind up motivationally.
The plot tries to establish an official antagonist early on with the Sovereign, a group of space-snobs that Rocket pisses off by stealing some of their bling. By Rocket sliding back into roguish ways, the film sort of back-slides the group away from being heroes back to being juvenile delinquents. However, the Sovereign spend most of the film behind the scenes, being content to contract Yondu as a bounty hunter.
Yondu had every reason to take the contract since he was bitch-slapped by Sly Stallone for not following the ravager code. If Yondu had been more concerned initially with his own reputation than any lingering bond to Quill, it would have given him the opportunity to change his mind before passing the point of no return. Instead, Yondu takes the contract having decided from the outset not to follow it but to just steal back the bling and resell it on the open market. Either way it would have allowed his crew to mutiny, but we are never given a chance to see Yondu have any sort of interior struggle. Between films he has “gone soft” and he just remains soft throughout the entire film, despite having been cast out of his order. This is weak storytelling.
Nebula, on the other hand, is kept “hard” as a heavy with the vendetta against her sister. We’re not given enough of a hint of reconciliation in her actual dialogue or performance up until the moment Gamora saves her from her burning ship. Because by this point there is a lot of parallel movement going on in the plot, right when the two of them seem to be about to actually reconcile, the film CUTS to the other characters, denying us the full weight of a dramatic payoff. We are asked to just accept that it’s happened off-screen. To me, this is a lazy ADD style of filmmaking where I guess they felt “hey, we kinda know what happened here so we don’t have to show it”. Well, you damn well DO need to show it. There’s more to filmmaking then just finding out what happens.
But the main problem in execution isn’t so much in what isn’t shown but how story beats are literally rammed down our throats by the dialogue. There is the old adage that I’m sure I’ve repeated here many times, “Show, don’t tell”. It’s something any filmmaker should know, but few follow today. Perhaps because of the need to talk down to potential kids in the audience (not that kids should see a movie with wearing and penis jokes in it–the age inappropriate moments being something I’ve just resigned myself to despite seeing this in an audience that had plenty of kids in it) or to keep things easy to follow for foreign audiences, characters feel the need to proclaim what it is they’re feeling and why in a totally unnecessary way.
There are moments where characters talk about why it is Rocket is such an ass-hat, that he’s suffering the trauma of being a lab experiment, and Rocket explains that he and Yondu are alike. This dialogue feels like footnotes on the side of the screenplay. It’s obvious already. It does not require characters stopping dead in their tracks and going on monologues about how they’ve figured all this stuff out.
Where this really made me cringe was one moment where Yondu pulled sort of a Yoda moment and said “I don’t move the arrow with my head, I use my hea…” (short for heart). The reason that simply didn’t work is that we’re not talking about raising an X-Wing from the swamp here. We’re talking about driving an arrow that kills people by puncturing their hearts. He moves it with the power of love??? I can root for the guy cleaning up his act up to the point, but this is a bridge too far.
The Sovereign move into the background to allow Kurt Russell’s ego to become the focus. Obviously he’s the father in the Darth Vader mold, only he’s a stealth bad guy, his motivations kept a secret until late in the film. By virtue of this delayed reveal, the plot slows down in order for Russell to deliver reams of exposition to explain why he’s a deadbeat dad and that Quill’s got secret powers. Stories need conflict, but the best this part of the film has to offer is a sense of “hmm, this paradise is too good to be true.” It’s been done before (just as everything else) but there’s no denying that it dragged.
Also, there is a problem with any sort of father/son conflict. I never got a sense that Ego could or would ever be able to kill his son. He killed a bunch of his other songs, but none of them had the mojo he said he needed in Quill. So when the two of them fought, Quill seemed to be willing to kill his dad (for reasons that are a spoiler) but his dad only ever wanted to sort of pin his son down and keep trying to convince him to join the dark side.
Since it was already revealed the Quill was immortal, it’s not clear whether Ego really could kill him even if he tried. As it actually played out, immortality isn’t quite what it’s sold as, but again, that is anotehr spoiler.
When Quill eventually does shake off the brainwashing I was surprised how little it had to do with concern for the “bombs” that Ego planted in planets all over the cosmos. Quill’s motivation seemed limited to immediate friends and family. We’re shown scenes of these bombs expanding outwards like lava, but this is mainly four our benefit. Quill is told about it but doesn’t seem to care too much. So while they are supposed to be the Guardians of the Galaxy, saving the Galaxy tends to be only a byproduct of saving themselves. It would be nice for the group to develop a sense of duty BEYOND their immediate friends.
The reason I still give the film a thumbs up is that it is bold, in a way, to take things in such a sappy and sentimental direction in the sort of dreary nihilistic culture we live in. But if Gunn wants to deliver sentimentality, he has to go beyond saccharine. The film often asks that we emotionally invest simply because there is a big sign hanging over a characters’ head that says “cry here” or “go aaah there”. The characters need to earn the emotions we feel for them, not simply feel entitled to them.
Gunn is at his best when he delivers on sitcom-like ensemble comedy, but he is just not a sophisticated enough filmmaker to really make the touching moments feel real. There were a couple moments where I did tear up, but that was more about me wanting to feel an emotion than deft filmmaking craft. There were other moments where the film wanted me to feel an emotion and I felt its sense of entitlement and just couldn’t muster the feeling.
I’m also saying very little about the action/FX here, but it does, I think, play a factor. When you look at the Night at the Museum clip one thing that should stand out is how subdued it is. In Guardians, similar dialogue-based moments play out in the middle of gratuitous FX overload. This is one of the things that I felt didn’t ring true to me. People whose adrenaline is pumping tend to have, at best, very economical exchanges. Only in movies do they go on long heartfelt monologues. But the reason you see more and more of this sort of thing is that films are not given time to breathe. Some of these moments probably could have happened over a pause in the action but from a corporate perspective it was deemed better to keep the action going simultaneously. As a result there is a kinetic visual (and aural) overload effect where you want to just focus on the character interaction and instead there is all this CGI overload flying all around and getting in the way.
Action for its own sake is never really that fulfilling to me. The action in GoG1 was overkill as it was, and GoG2 just takes it up another notch to the point where spaceships are always in the process of disintegrating and people are getting blown out into space. When this happened the first couple times in GoG1 it’s one thing but it’s happening so often that it seems to be sort of the trademark of this universe that ships are so fragile. Looking back on the experience after sleeping on it I get the sense of the film being very Avatar-like in the sense that I don’t know how much in the way of physical sets they even built. Much of it feels almost like it was just a bunch of choreographed gymnastics in a bluescreen. The climax at the end featuring a planet (rather than a ship) disintegrating reminded me a lot of the lava battle on the rock rafts in Star Wars: Episode III. It was very videogamey, which I feel is probably the new normal as far as action filmmaking goes. That being said, I did see it in 3D and there were times when the dimensionality was put to good effect, even though I suppose 3D is now not seen as nearly as imprissive a gimmick as it used to be, which is part of my whole deal about the diminishing returns of spectacle.
What I need to see in any movie, popcorn or no, is characters I care about. For the most part, I do care about the GoG characters (even though at times the film surfs on that goodwill). That’s more than I can say of most popcorn movies, which is why I chose to see this one and I opt out of most others.
Films like this are invariably cultural events. The sheer amount of money and effort invested to make them is shocking to behold. The money is up there on the screen, as gratuitous as it is, but the same might have been said for the big Sword and Sandals epics of the 1950s. It’s just that back then it took the form of big sets and a cast of 1,000 extras and now it’s armies of FX workers. This film is only a precursor to the full weight of the summer onslaught. How many of these I’ll watch, I don’t know, but I have my sights on War for Planet of the Apes. I’ll probably cover the new Apes films in future posts.