For at least a decade, we’ve lived through a pretty unprecedented boom in superhero films. Disney releases three Marvel Cinematic Universe films a year, Warner Brothers is trying desperately to make the limping DC universe hold together, Fox has the X-Men, and that’s not counting failed experiments like Fantastic Four or Sony’s Spider-Man universe, which, as far as I understand, they’re attempting to still do, but without Spider-Man. Superheroes aren’t suddenly popular out of nowhere or anything, but the sheer glut of superhero movies being produced now makes the progenitors of the superhero boom – like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man – look modest by comparison.
It’s no secret that I’ve been critical of the superhero boom. I would support a ten-year ban on producing superhero films if such a thing were possible. But that isn’t out of snobbiness, or even out of a dislike of superhero films. I think Spider-Man 2 is a masterpiece. I saw The Dark Knight Rises in the cinema twice and think anyone who criticises its many plotholes is a pedantic killjoy. I think Logan had one of the best screenplays of last year. But the superhero boom is a feature of a much bigger problem: a trend in blockbuster filmmaking, and popular cinema in general, away from the thoughtful, interesting and weird and towards bland, hollow pleasures. It started with superheroes, and now it’s creeping all over the place, from Star Wars to the Universal monsters.
Superhero films tend to get a disproportionate amount of praise because they’ve spent a decade wearing us down, calibrating our expectations to just the right frequencies. I hate the word “overrated,” but I don’t think there’s a better word to explain the phenomenon of every Marvel release apparently being one of the best films ever made, if Rotten Tomatoes scores are anything to go by (and they aren’t). I really liked Wonder Woman, even if it had third act problems, but when people started talking about it as one of the best films of the year and it being “snubbed” by the Oscars, I felt like I was going insane. So I’ve never felt the need to speak up for a superhero film, really.
But then there’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a space adventure that, like its predecessor, mercifully does not interact with the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, instead following Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and his scrappy band of assholes as Peter meets his father for the first time. If that sounds a bit low-key, it’s worth mentioning that his father is a god/living planet hell-bent on destroying the universe.
I saw Guardians 2 at a midnight showing, immediately after seeing the first instalment again. I think that matters, because seeing them back-to-back made it obvious to me that when critics and audiences quickly decided that the sequel was inferior, they weren’t comparing it with Vol. 1, they were comparing it with their memory of seeing Vol. 1 for the first time.
Guardians of the Galaxy certainly felt like a breath of fresh air in 2014: an unabashedly fun superhero film when the genre still had a pronounced sombre streak, and a space Western before Disney started pumping out a Star Wars film a year. It had snappy dialogue, interesting characters and great performances. It’s kind of weird that the soundtrack became a chart-topper when it very self-consciously consists of songs you already know, but the film does use its music exceptionally well, especially in the opening scene, where ‘Come and Get Your Love’ sets the tone pretty much perfectly. It has a little bit of a Marvel formula ending – this time, the world-threatening blue laser is pointing into the ground instead of up into the sky – but it also makes it much more compelling and coherent than the average Marvel movie. (The trick, it turns out, is to explain the characters’ plan to the audience first.)
Guardians of the Galaxy is a good time. It didn’t leak out of my brain the way some superhero films do – I went to a midnight showing of Age of Ultron, and by the next morning I was absent-mindedly trying to remember what I’d done the night before – but I didn’t think about it all that much, either.
They were of course going to make a sequel. Guardians grossed over 770 million dollars, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the world’s foremost generator of sequels, spin-offs and crossovers. It’s easy to see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 as a corporate-mandated inevitability. I’m not generally much of a cynic, though I tend to make an exception for the Walt Disney Corporation, but it’d be hard for the world’s greatest optimist not to at least assume that Todd McCarthy would be correct when he wrote that Guardians 2 is “like a second ride on a roller-coaster that was a real kick the first time around but feels very been-there/done-that now.”
The New Yorker said it failed to capture “the fizz of the original.” The New York Times called its action sequences “wildly bloated and most[ly] cartoonish.” The LA Times said that “the magic, though not entirely gone, has taken a serious hit.” Peter Bradshaw wrote for The Guardian that “there’s a weird air of pointlessness, almost plotlessness” to it.
What I’m about to say is going to sound like a shallow knee-jerk sequel defense, because it’s been used as a shallow knee-jerk defense of pretty much every sequel made in the last thirty years. But I’ve thought about it a lot, for the guts of a year, and I want you to know I’m deadly serious when I make the comparison: they said the same thing about The Empire Strikes Back. Empire, the first sequel to Star Wars, is a truly beloved film, universally recognised as the best film in the series, and one of the best sequels ever made. But it got pretty mixed reviews at the time, especially in comparison to the first film. “It’s not as fresh and funny and surprising and witty [as Star Wars],” Vincent Canby wrote in 1980, “but it is nice and inoffensive.” David Denby wrote that it was all spectacle and no soul.
The Empire Strikes Back is the obvious example of a great sequel, but I think the comparison is apt. Guardians 2, like Empire, is a sequel to a fun space adventure that invests in its characters instead of repeating the plot, that is sincerely affecting without ever taking itself too seriously. Like the original Star Wars trilogy, Guardians 2 feels built to last. Like a film that will age well and immeasurably better than many of its peers. Like a film that, if I ever have children, I’d want them to watch, the way kids still grow up with Star Wars forty years later – the way that absolutely no kid forty years from now will be watching Thor: The Dark World.
Guardians 2 got some flak for being overstuffed or meandering, but it actually has a remarkably tight script, where every tiny detail is eventually paid off and even the most minor characters get complete arcs. The first time I watched it, a scene where Sylvester Stallone showed up to tell Michael Rooker he sucks seemed like a minor tangent, but it turned out to be setting up the emotional climax of the whole film. Even as it juggles several plots, it never feels like juggling, because the stories are not just intertwined but thematically coherent: in an era when a character saying “we’re a family” is used as lazy emotional shorthand, Guardians 2 is interested in what it means to be a family, whether it’s Peter’s relationships with his biological and adopted fathers, Gamora and Nebula dealing with the emotional fallout from their abusive childhoods, or Rocket learning to let people in. A lot of Marvel movies are “funny” in that there are executive-mandated jokes dropped in when they aren’t tonally appropriate and it’s really awkward and strained – like the cringe-worthy Beyoncé jokes in Doctor Strange – but Guardians 2 is sincerely very funny, with jokes that have personality, like a real person wrote them.
In fact, I know a real person wrote them: with Guardians 2, James Gunn became only the second writer-director to get a solo credit for an MCU movie (he co-wrote Vol 1 with Nicole Perlman). Gunn is a talented guy, from his early days at Troma right through to Super, the best film in the whole world, but I have no idea how he tricked Disney into giving him two hundred million dollars to – as far as I can tell – make whatever the hell he wanted. Guardians 2 ends with a tear rolling down the cheek of a CGI raccoon, and it pulls it the hell off. It’s not trying to do anything but be the best film it can, but still, it bounces with the giddy feeling of getting away with something.
(It is also at times visually gorgeous, where most Marvel films, including the first Guardians, are kind of grey and flat.)
But the main reason I love Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is simple and visceral: it made me feel things. I saw it in the cinema twice, and the second time I cried pretty much the whole way through the third act. When I watched Lindsay Ellis’s excellent video essay on the film, completely innocuous clips got me choked up so immediately that it’s kind of embarrassing, like Pavlov’s dog or something.
Guardians 2 has a recurring bit of setting up a serious moment and then undercutting it with a joke – Peter’s father talks to him about regretting not being a part of his life, culminating in his welcoming Peter home, and then it’s undercut by them playing an absurd impromptu game of catch with a ball of light – but it takes its characters and their feelings seriously, and it wants you to take them seriously, too. It doesn’t try to undercut Nebula saying, about the combat she and Gamora were forced to engage in by their adoptive father, “You were the one who wanted to win, and I just wanted a sister.” When Yondu recognises himself in Rocket – “you push away anyone who’s willing to put up with you, ‘cause just a little bit of love reminds you how big and empty that hole inside you actually is” – a joke comes soon after, but it doesn’t try to interrupt or minimise the importance of the moment before. When an important character dies near the end of the film, it’s meant to break your heart, and it succeeds.
You could argue that that isn’t all that impressive, and I’d argue that the primary purpose of art is to create emotional experiences, and you’d argue that manipulating people into feeling things is pretty easy and cheap. But the thing is, no other Marvel movie has made me cry, and I’m an easy crier. No other Marvel movie made me really deeply care about the characters’ feelings, or genuinely think anyone could be in jeopardy. In Captain America: Civil War, Steve Rogers says Bucky is his friend, and Tony Stark says, “So was I,” and I could totally imagine that being moving or even just interesting if I ever felt invested in Tony and Steve’s friendship. And I liked that film. More often, it seems like Marvel productions actively want me not to care, where every emotional moment has to somehow be detached and ironic: they want to have those emotional moments but don’t want to have to take them seriously in case anyone finds it too sentimental. But you can’t have it both ways.
There’s a scene in Ant-Man where Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) finally tells his daughter, Hope, how her mother died. It kind of comes out of nowhere, like they knew they needed the scene to happen so they just put it in, but it’s one of the emotional highpoints of the film, where two of the main characters finally reconcile by coming to terms with the underlying rift between them. There’s a sad musical cue, Hope is crying, and Michael Douglas seems like he’s really trying when he could have phoned it in.
And then, immediately after Hank says “I didn’t mean to lose you too,” without giving us more than a second to absorb that, Scott (Paul Rudd) pops up with a joke. “This is awesome! You guys are breaking down walls, you’re healing… I ruined the moment, didn’t I?” He might as well have popped up to say, “Just for the audience at home, I wanted to remind you not to bother caring about these characters!” I’ve forgotten so much of Ant-Man, but that sticks with me, for all the wrong reasons. Because I kind of sorta cared about Hope’s mother dying, because even if the scene seemed weirdly out of place I’m a sucker for noble self-sacrifice stories, because I desperately wanted something in this film to hold onto. When Scott makes his jokey joke, I felt stupid for even kind of sorta caring. I thought Ant-Man wanted me to feel things; I was wrong.
That scene uses humour as a shield against sentiment. Guardians 2 treats humour and sentiment and all the messy places they entangle with one another as a continuum of emotion, and it wants you to feel all of it. Near the start of the film, Peter talks about pretending as a kid that David Hasselhoff was his dad, and it’s a funny joke. By the end of the film, he tells the same story in a eulogy, and it doesn’t stop being funny, but also your heart is breaking.
Next month, Avengers: Infinity War comes out. In it, the Guardians will finally meet the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, dropped out of James Gunn’s safe pair of hands. In their own films, the Guardians and their feelings are taken seriously, even as they find themselves in comic situations. In Infinity War, they’ll be comic relief, and Tony Stark will make fun of Peter to his face for his outdated knowledge of Earth culture. Important things might happen to the Guardians – the villain of the film is Gamora and Nebula’s abuser – but ultimately, the film won’t be about them. And it probably won’t make me feel anything but disappointment that Guardians of the Galaxy had to be dragged into it.
Like when after Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker had to go fight Godzilla.