UCLA screenwriting instructor Tim Albaugh notes that a story is interesting when someone becomes something, not when someone is what he or she was trying to achieve. (That’s why The Matrix still works and its two sequels fizzle, he says.) With the titular heroes of Guardians of the Galaxy, these wounded individuals unwittingly sabotage what they secretly want because they don’t know how to handle it. They’re deeply flawed, dysfunctional characters, prone to co-dependency, narcissism, and a seemingly contradictory supreme lack of self-esteem. So why do they work so well together?
Unlike a lot of characters onscreen (not just in superhero stories), these folks have issues that aren’t resolved or cured by the end of the film, writes clinical psychologist and comics fan Dr. Andrea Letamendi. Rather than make them ineffective, their flaws and the way they adapted to them made them powerful, even endearing. The Guardians sally forth with their baggage, finding strength and resilience together. It’s a dysfunctional family dynamic that works because of its problems, rather than in spite of them.
As for the sequel, which opened last week, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 travels a loopy narrative not unlike one of the arrows Yondu controls with a whistle, but it doesn’t fail to hit its mark. Director James Gunn – here with solo screenwriting credit as well – wisely knows that he can’t recapture the quirky freshness that made 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy a surprise hit. So he indulges in clever misdirection from the first scene, ultimately using his flawed heroes to build a story around theme while we’re busy following the beats of the plot.
It’s a looser groove – more ELO’s funky “Mr. Blue Sky” than the throb of The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb” – that lulls you into its rhythm before striking an emotional wallop.
Those familiar with and new to the Guardians get a taste of their oddball aesthetic in the opening scene as the team fights a beast with the legs of an octopus and the tooth-filled maw of the sarlacc from Return of the Jedi. We see only part of the battle, though, as Groot, the anthropomorphic tree (voiced by Vin Diesel) who blew into splinters while protecting the others in the previous film, now dances around the battle as a precocious toddler (sapling?). The camera follows him while Peter, aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Rocket (a technological jack-of-all-trades raccoon with the voice of Bradley Cooper) get down to business.
It’s an amusingly executed metaphor for the team itself that tells us instantly what to expect. Whatever they face is just a backdrop for their interactions with one another.
That’s as it should be. Audiences and critics alike fell hard for the original adaptation of the zany Marvel comic because of the characters. (The 2014 film is rated 91 percent “fresh” on RottenTomatoes.com and grossed $330 million in the United States alone that year.) Back then, Peter was a half human who had been kidnapped from Earth just steps away from his mother’s deathbed and grew up as a thief among space pirates. Gamora was essentially another orphan, raised as an assassin by the space supervillain Thanos. Drax, a muscular alien clueless to the nuances of metaphors, was focused on avenging his family’s deaths. And Rocket and Groot, whose entire vocabulary consisted of three words (“I am Groot”), were miscreants out only for the next hustle. The five came together first for a lucrative score, then found their conscience and seized upon the chance to be heroes.
If the theme of the original film was acceptance, this film’s theme is family – the one you have, the one you want, the one you make, and the one you never realized was there. The Guardians are a family whose affection and loyalty is never in doubt (just watch how they pass little Groot around to keep him safe during a dogfight). Yet their relationship has conflict because these characters often get in their own way.
Aside from the metaphorical setup, the opening scene kicks off the plot, with the gold-skinned Sovereign having hired the Guardians to slay the beast in exchange for handing over Nebula (Karen Gillian), Gamora’s estranged sister. But Rocket impishly steals from the Sovereign, putting him and his friends on the run. As Peter and Rocket bicker about who the better pilot is while they’re under attack, a mysterious charmer named Ego (an affable and lion-haired Kurt Russell) comes to their rescue. Turns out he’s Peter’s biological father, who’s heard about their previous exploits and wants to reconnect. Peter relishes the chance, even as he fears what he’ll find is too good to be true.
Meanwhile, Nebula escapes and guns for Gamora. Gamora and Peter literally dance to Sam Cooke around their unspoken attraction, and Rocket and Groot find themselves sidelined with Yondu (Michael Rooker), head of the Ravagers, the space pirates who raised Peter. The Ravagers mutiny against Yondu, calling him soft for making excuses about one of Peter’s double-crosses.
That’s a lot to juggle, but splitting up the team for the second act focuses on the characters’ dynamics. Pratt has fewer chances to show off Peter’s adolescent goofiness, and some of the jokes work harder than they should. But this being a film about family, those bumps are forgivable.
Beneath the humor, the action, and Peter’s beloved oldies music, there’s loads of emotion between Nebula and Gamora, Peter and Yondu, Rocket and Yondu, and especially Drax and Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Ego’s empathic but socially awkward assistant. Bautista plays Drax’s guilelessness so well that we forget his character carries a world of heartache until Mantis weeps simply upon touching him.
This film is sneaky by how it weaves its theme and heart through characters we wouldn’t expect, piercing us like that arrow in ways we didn’t see coming. By not resolving all the characters’ failings, Gunn explores how their dysfunction creates new problems, keeping the franchise fresh. The Guardians might live through another adventure, but they’re still the most loveably flawed heroes out there, making us eager to follow them to another part of the galaxy.