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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Update

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Despite the vastness of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the concept of sequels is a strangely sparse and foreign one.  Where this becomes the clearest is that even though the common working knowledge is that Marvel sequels are mostly poor, the actual breakdown is exactly even.  Iron Man 2 was a rush job that did little more than jog in place and remind people of upcoming films, Thor: The Dark World was about on par with its predecessor only with slightly sloppier editing and a more derivative climax, and Age of Ultron had plenty of ambition but lost a good chunk of it in the editing. 

Meanwhile, Iron Man 3 is a thoughtful and well-made revisit of the series core themes in a new context, Winter Soldier complete shake-ups the genre and style of the franchise in an adventurous way, and Civil War stands as one of the best entries in the series.  Now it’s coming time for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and amid the slew of trailers, posters, TV spots, and advertising tie-ins I can’t shake the feeling the brown, drippy lightning that is the lackluster Marvel sequel is gearing up to strike for a fourth time. 

For those who’ve forgotten Guardians of the Galaxy is the story of a lovable collection of mavericks and misfits brought together by chance to save the galaxy from an all-powerful evil that was tangentially attached to the even more all-powerful evil that’ll threaten the entire universe in Avengers: Infinity War.  It was a fun little flick that brought an anarchic fun to the MCU with a slightly more adolescent vibe than their standard approach. 

Guardians of the Galaxy has always existed in a curious space for the MCU in so much as it ends up highlighting the limited lasting cultural impact most solo Marvel films actually have.  There are a handful of exceptions, but in the case of most Marvel movies, they’re fairly popular for about a week before fading from memory till that character pops back up in a marketing blitz or another crossover flick.  

For instance, despite making more money than Man of Steel Marvel’s Doctor Strange isn’t really that big of a force in the pop cultural tide pool.  Guardians of the Galaxy stands out as something that really did make waves- it cemented Chris Pratt’s movie star status, Groot became an instant cultural icon, and together with Winter Soldier it was a real coronation moment for the MCU. 

That’s a pretty substantial legacy for a sequel to follow, and it’s made all the worse by the fact the original Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t actually that great.  Don’t get me, wrong it’s a really fun movie with a lot of great elements, but even among the ranks of the MCU, it wouldn’t break a top 5 list.  A lot of that boils down to how incredibly irreverent and quirky it is, to the point of getting in the way of being anything more meaningful than jokey summer good time.  The film’s most compelling moments tend to get glossed over in favor of its rapid-fire banter and while the wit and comedy are appreciated it’s not really what elevates the film, much the same way Avengers banter was fun but all the stronger for the serious stuff that came with it. 

Just to put it bluntly, Guardians of the Galaxy ends up far too concerned with having a good time to deliver scenes of the same emotional resonance as the death of Phil Coulson or Captain America refusing to fight Bucky.  The place this is most obvious is in the character of Gamora, the sole serious character in the bunch, ends up an afterthought in the original film without any of the fan favorite moments afforded to Rocket, Groot, Drax, or Stralord. 

All of this has been weighing heavily on me as we ramp up for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in about a month as I can’t help but feel unsure about the upcoming sequel.  Mostly it looks to be more of the same from the first film only with even less of a beating heart at the center of things, which would be a real mistake.   At the very least, the trailers for the new film have done an excellent job highlighting how soulless and insufferable a lot of the gang’s banter ends up without stronger characters to hang off of. 

Even though Rocket and Groot were jokesters in the first film they both had a softer, more dramatic side that was allowed to come out, something that helped them feel like more than just an animal/tree version of Laurel and Hardy.  However, now with Groot reduce to a smaller, cuter, more marketable form it’s hard not to shake the sense we’re getting the studio-approved version of our beloved gang.  Again, I suspect seeing them in the context of trailers is exacerbating the problem, but stuff like Baby Groot shilling for Geico really cements that there is a core problem there, to begin with. 

In all honesty, it was that tie-in commercial that prompted this entire article and makes me want to turn my back on this entire MCU experiment out of spite.  It perfectly sums up the oppressive feeling of smothering corporate influence that’s come to infect something I really liked.  Partly this is buyer’s remorse on coming back to Guardians of the Galaxy again, but even then it feels like Marvel’s come to rest just a little too comfortably on their laurels.  It’s a special kind of hubris that views the characters as branding mascots with things like pathos and identity as vestigial limbs. 

The only thing that really gives me pause in this whole “actually Marvel is bad” attitude is that, if you look closely around the margins, there do seem to be elements of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 that are more meaningful than providing a new batch of quips and slogans to add to Marvel branded T-shirts at Disneyland.  Specifically, there seem to be the hints of a larger story involving family and relationships, similar to the first film’s emphasis on the characters needing to overcome their own shortsighted hang-ups to accomplish something. 

This appears more in character relations than actual trailer content, stuff like Peter’s dad Ego, the Living Planet, showing up forms a nice parallel to Gamora’s sister Nebula also hanging around.  Throw in Yondu, Peter’s surrogate father, and Drax’s line about the Guardians being a family, perhaps a surrogate family to the place the one he lost to Thanos, and it seems like there will be an actual theme to the real film.  I don’t know what that theme will end up being, perhaps something about your real family being the one you make instead of the one you’re born with, but it at least represents an effort.  I guess my concern is that said effort will end up token or lost under an avalanche of merchandising elements. 

That’s the fate that’s already befallen, Baby Groot.  See, James Gunn has said that Baby Groot actually exists for an excellent reason in the story and I’m inclined to believe him.  Groot was the one character in Guardians of the Galaxy 1 who wasn’t a bitter jerk to begin with but rather a fully rounded person. 

Reverting him back to square zero means somebody else has to slide into the “emotionally mature” space, most likely Mantis if I was guessing as she’s also taking up Gamora’s old position as the team member with fewest quotable or cool moments.  However, even accepting that valid reasoning for bumping Groot down to immature baby size it’s not stopping the studio from producing Groot branded everything.  It’s just a little hard to accept the deep, meaningful, and independent spirit of a creation when you have to see it side-by-side with the Geico Gecko. 

That particular dance of seeming “risky” and “experimental” while still being the subsidiary of one of the world’s most powerful corporations is one Marvel’s been doing for a long time now, and it can’t help but start wearing a little thin.  Maybe with the smaller scale oddities like Ant-Man or Doctor Strange I could believe there were Disney studio heads shouting “you’re a mad man Feige!” trying to hold back production but making a sequel to a mega-hit will never feel risky. 

“Risk” really is the thing I’m missing in the lead up to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, that fun and flighty feeling of excitement that something so weird and out there as a movie about a talking tree and raccoon in space was slipping through into theaters.  It was like watching a particularly thrilling high-wire daredevil act- you knew the net was there to catch them, but it didn’t diminish the skill.  Only now we’ve swapped out the hire wire for a balance beam, but the acrobat still expects applause from just walking across it. 

I’m tempted to write this off as superhero fatigue but I don’t feel any kind of fatigue over Spider-Man: Homecoming or Thor: Ragnarok or Wonder Woman or Logan.  No, the tired exasperation and mounting disinterest I feel is reserved exclusively for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and has honestly been growing ever since that Guardians branded theme park ride went up in Disneyland.  There’s only so long you can push “quirky risk venture” as a commercial brand before the cognitive dissonance becomes too much to handle and your head explodes, which is probably why James Gunn’s last movie was about how the evils of the corporate machine do just that. 

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