Lukewarm Takes #21 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Welcome, friends, to the latest installment in Lukewarm Takes, the column where I take a leisurely stroll through the major movies that have been released in the three years since I stopped being a film critic. It’s a sturdy workhorse of a feature that has been on the sidelines for the last couple of months as I concentrate more on work with more pressing deadlines, like Scalding Hot Takes and Control Nathan and Clint.
Accordingly, I chose this entry because of its connection to Avengers: Holy Fuck That’s A Lot of Superheroes! and Superman III, the most recent entries in those columns. I’d been eagerly anticipating the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel since not long after the first film started. I loved James Gunn’s irreverent space opus the way other members of my generation loved the George Lucas movie from the 1970s with all the space monsters, especially the Outer Space Raccoon that Wore People Clothes.
It was as if, in Guardians of the Galaxy they’d made a version of Star Wars that was all Han Solo and no young Luke. It was at once shiny and winningly dirty, a cosmic trip with a warm beating heart and, as I stated earlier, an Outer Space Raccoon that Wears People Clothes. I really like that character.
Guardians of the Galaxy is definitely one of my top five Marvel movies, and one of my favorite superheroes movies of any stripe. So why did it take me this long to watch it? Simple. I liked it too goddamn much. I liked it so much that I worried that if I were to watch the sequel I would dislike it and then I would doubt my love for the original, and then in comic book movies and movies in general and then in life itself and I’d just be this vacant-eyed husk just barely going through the motions, believing in nothing, dreading everything.
And that, friends, would suck. It would really suck. I would not be able to do my best for you, readers and patrons, if I just wandered around all day mumbling, “The Space Raccoon isn’t even funny. I was wrong. About everything.”
It’s happened to me before. I used to believe in oh so many things. I believed in people. I believed in institutions. I believed in countries.
For example, I used to be a real America head. You know the kind: America-themed wardrobe. Big-ass red, white and blue Confederate flag belt buckle. I was the guy who’d come to a party, grab himself aa cold one, domestic of course, and holler as loudly as possible, “I don’t know about y’all, but I think America is FUCKING great and I’ll fist-fight anyone who dares suggest otherwise!”
I loved me some America. Thought it was the best country, and didn’t hesitate to express that opinion publicly, sometimes while committing hate crimes against immigrants. But then America kind of started to suck, with the racism and the sexism and the Jello-O pudding pops and the endless string of devastating revelations about the awful, awful men who hold power in our society and Donald Trump getting elected President and all.
I felt, real talk, disillusioned, like the country I had grown up ambivalently experiencing some positive feelings towards seemed to devolve ever further into Fascism.
What if I lost faith in the Outer Space Raccoon Who Wears People Clothes the way that I’ve lost faith in Western-style democracy and the fundamental decency of the American people? That would suck. In some ways, it would be worse than losing faith in your country, its leaders and its underlying character. No, in every way it would be worse.
So I am pleased to report, dear reader, that it turns out that I loved Guardians of the Galaxy because it is fucking great and its sequel may be even better.
My appetite, for Space Bro, Green Lady, Sassy Space Squirrel, Overly Literal Warrior and the Dancing Tree was whetted by their fairly central role in Avengers: Infinity War battling Gamora’s big, bad purple space dad Thanos.
I enjoyed the Guardians in Infinity War, particularly Rocket and Groot’s chemistry with Thor, but I worried that I was suffering from Christopher Pratt exhaustion, particularly since having him share a screen with Chris Hemsworth highlighted how much they look alike, although Hemsworth looks like Pratt if Pratt went through some manner of hunkifying machine. And casting Pratt opposite Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man highlighted the similarities in their glib, wisecracking personalities.
I was supremely bored by Jurassic World and Pratt’s place in it but I think my boredom/low level irritation with Pratt as a super-enthusiastic mega-superstar celebrity is rubbing off on how I see him as an actor.
Pratt is like a golden retriever puppy. He can’t do a whole hell of a lot, but everything he does is adorable. Pratt brings an innocence at once puppy and child like to the role of Peter Quill, AKA Star-Lord, a dashing, roguish space captain who discovers that his long-absent father is Ego, a sentient planet who often takes the ruggedly handsome, exquisitely bearded form of a perfectly cast Kurt Russell.
As Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnorak all recently illustrated, the throbbing emotional core of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is family. That is particularly true of Guardians of the Galaxy 2, which fixates of course on the old comic book standby of the superhero team as an unlikely but surprisingly sturdy surrogate family but is also very much about sisters and fathers, biological and otherwise.
Like all abandoned children, myself included, Peter longs for something to fill the vast emotional void left by a parent checking out early and never looking back. Peter Quill yearns to be made whole again by the undoing of the one formative trauma that cannot ultimately be undone: abandonment.
Ego offers Peter both more and less than the opportunity to finally have a father; he tells him that like him, he is a God whose powers are more incredible than he could possibly imagine.
For a brief idyll, it feels like Peter will finally know fatherly acceptance, that he will finally be made whole again by an absent father’s love. It’s a feeling all the more heartbreaking for being so inevitably false and short-lived.
You desperately want to believe that Ego is not much too good to be true, and that his reconciliation with his son could be something more than just another evil scheme even if various trips you’ve made to Ego’s Wikipedia page tell you otherwise.
If a dude is going to be an entire planet, you can do a whole lot worse, and not much better, than Kurt Russell. With the possible exception of his portrayal of Captain Ron in the motion picture of the same name, Russell has never been this larger than life, literally and metaphorically.
Russell brings a combination of paternal warmth and underlying menace that reminded me of both the murderous stunt man he played in Death Proof and David Carradine’s deadly mentor in the Kill Bill movies. Like Thanos, he makes for an incredibly difficult and complicated father figure but a terrific villain.
Thanos spends much of Infinity War dealing with stepdaughter Gamora, who here wrestles with a similarly complicated and painful relationship with her sister Nebula, who Karen Gillan powerfully plays as a weapon of a woman fueled by hatred, anger and a furious desire for vengeance and revenge. You know, a typical sibling relationship but one depicted with a depth and intensity rare for any movie, particularly one derived from comic books.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 knows what audiences want and is not shy about delivering, as evidenced by an early set-piece where Baby Groot tries to rock out to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” in the foreground while the other Guardians battle a giant octopus-looking space monster in the background.
Andre Bazin was wrong. The purpose of deep focus is not to more accurately reflect the way we see the world, as a seemingly endless series of stimuli competing for our attention. Nope. The purpose of deep focus is to make it possible to see Baby Groot, adorable, adorable Baby Groot, rock out to some sweet-ass golden-era Jeff Lynne while Drax, Gamora, Rocket Raccoon and Peter Quill fight a big-ass space beastie at the same time. In this scene, deep focus finally realizes its ultimate potential.
It may be pandering, but I fucking loved it all the same. The same holds true of all of the movie’s other familiar moves as well. I could not get enough K-Tel Super Hits of the 1970s on the soundtrack, nor shots of characters swaggering in slow-motion, looking all bad ass and shit. I dug the movie’s wonderfully lived-in visual aesthetic, which alternates between the fetishization of dirt and rust and decay you find in Star Wars and the recent sequels and the blinding, kaleidoscopic shininess of the Marvel cinematic universe at its most cosmic and surreal.
And I loved that Gunn gave probably the best role in the entire film, Yondu, not to a big name or rising movie star but rather to Michael Rooker, one of “those guys” best known for his portrayal of the title character in Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer. Yondu emerges as a figure of Shakespearean depth here, a tough, emotionally scarred survivor with an underlying sense of honor and fundamental goodness.
If Ego, in his original form, is the father everybody wants, then Yondu is the crazily flawed stepdad figure you end up finding a way to appreciate and even love.
I have an intense emotional connection to Michael Rooker rooted, perversely, in his darkest work and the greatest moment of my life. When my wife was in the hospital in labor with Declan, and then dealing with the complicated aftermath of his premature birth, I was tasked by my then-employers at The Dissolve with watching and writing about Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer and Martin for a list of scariest horror movies.
I unsuccessfully tried to get out of the assignment by playing the whole “My wife is literally having a baby now” card so while I was dealing with the incredibly intense, crazy-making and joyful experience of my wife giving birth to our first child I was sneaking away at strategic moments so that I could watch Rooker make his name playing a deranged mass murder in a film blessed with an almost unbearable level of verisimilitude.
So I guess you could say me and Rooker go way, way back. So maybe it’s not terribly surprising that I was so deeply moved by the soulful blue outer space redneck he plays in his other career-defining performance that I wept like a baby for a good minute at the end of the film.
I wept! As in, crying intensely, tears pouring out of your eyes as you’ve overwhelmed with happy-sad emotion. At a movie with a Space Raccoon who Wears People Clothes In It!
I was relieved to discover, dear reader, that I am not only capable of believing in things despite a long and unhappy history of belief going horribly awry and leading to the most crushing, painful kind of disappointment, I’m also capable of experiencing emotions like pleasure (while watching this excellent movie) and sadness (at Yondu’s fate).
It turns out I’m not dead on the inside after all, just profoundly jaded. I’m not going to be afraid again. As God and you as my witness, I will see Guardians of the Galaxy 3 opening weekend. That is, if I think my fragile constitution and delicate composition can handle it. It might suck, you know, and then where would I be?
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