Action, Visuals, and Character Growth in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Christopher Maher: Hey Sam hope work was alright! So, yesterday we saw The Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I enjoyed it overall. Some jokes went on painfully long. The final action sequence did the same thing as every final Marvel action sequence, in that it was big, bloated, and elongated for no reason other than to convey importance. But overall I enjoyed it.

I was going to start this review on a positive note, because overall I did enjoy the movie and I think it does a lot of things better than most Marvel fare. But I already mentioned action sequences, so let’s start there. It’s rather ironic to me that the Marvel movies are overall not great pieces of action cinema. They are confusingly edited and blocked to the point where I simply don’t know what’s going on anymore, and don’t care. The final sequence in every major Marvel movie has too many characters doing too many things, but even their little fights are confusing to me. There is a sequence in this movie where Nebula and Gamora fight hand to hand, and though the sequence is brief I was surprised by how spatially disorienting and uninteresting it was. Even rewatching the opening of Captain America: Civil War the other day I was blown away by the way quick cuts were used to simulate excitement as opposed to strong blocking (though I’d argue over all Civil War does a much better job of keeping us spatially grounded). Again, I think Guardians Vol. 2 did a lot of strong things (writing and visuals, which we’ll get to) but for something that’s nominally an action movie, I found the action noticeably lacking, as is the case with most Marvel flicks. What do you think? Have you seen this video essay by Patrick Willems discussing set pieces and the place horror has in them?

Sam Russell: I honestly can’t watch “video essays” anymore. They’ve become so obviously formulaic and make really obvious points with such smug authority. Why has that genre of web video pigeon-holed itself into such a hyper-specific thing? Ah I don’t know. Whatever.

I thought Volume 2 was really fun, but I agree it has a lot of flaws. I think I’m just starting to get the hang of grading Marvel movies on a curve. Because they all exist as a part of a brand machine, no matter how good, bad, or weird they get they will always be slave to predetermined set of rules/methods/aesthics etc. So the conversation about these movies is shifted from “how good is this” to “where does this rank among these (presently) 15 films.” For me, Volume 2 ranks pretty close to the top.

I agree that for super hero films, Marvel is not particularly great at action scenes. They’re okay at interesting visual moments that plays great in marketing, which usually involves shocking large things crashing. (Hellicarriers crashing into cities, into each other, a city being raised and dropped, stuff like that.) I agree that a lot of what sucks about bad action scenes is unimaginative blocking, disguised by shaky cinematography, and fast paced editing. In 2015 the internet exploded with the revelation (memed with “fun-fact” glee) that Mad Max: Fury Road was cohesive thanks to the carefully framed shots keeping important action in the same part of the frame from cut to cut. There are certainly formal things to be done to improve Marvel (and most movies’) action scenes. But I’d argue that Guardians is more of an adventure movie than an action movie, and what’s more of the issue for me is not that I can’t tell what’s going on in an action scene, it’s that I don’t care. Action scenes are inserted not because violent physical conflict is the next logical step for the characters to take, but because there needs to be an action scene every few minutes. It also doesn’t help that Marvel needs to work extra hard to earn real emotional stakes because all of these characters are immortal, if not via superpowers, via brand.

CM: I’ll agree with you briefly before getting into the stuff I thought worked out well (and I also want to eventually touch on your point about Marvel movies being measured against each other, but we’ll get to that later, because it’s in my notes too). The issue I have with the big “final action sequences” is the sort of explosive non-matterness of them. This movie was about eight heroes versus… rubble? There are no stakes, because nothing any of the particular characters are doing matter. It’s interesting: Guardians Vol. 1 beat this because though they were dropping a big something on a city, the main characters were split up into different specific objectives they had to accomplish, so the individual characters felt they had some stakes to deal with.

I’d agree this was more an adventure movie, and I think it works well in that regard. The extremely social media active James Gunn had been vocal about his decision to have this flick take place pretty closely on the heels of Vol. 1, because he wanted to make a movie about them learning to be a team. It was a smart writing choice. The best Marvel movies deal with issues between their heroes (because their villains are criminally underdeveloped) and Guardians Vol. 1 was good because the inner-team tension made each scene have a lot of clashing wants and needs (which is what we call “drama”). My favorite scene in Vol. 1 involves Drax and Rocket getting drunk and pissed at each other before Drax calls the villain of the movie because it’s what he wants to do, not in service to the team. This movie chases this thread, adding wildcards Nebula, Yondu, and Mantis to the core mix. The central part of this movie splits its main cast into two general plots and watches as they bounce off of each other in new configurations, another good choice.

What else did this movie do well? Opposed to most Marvel movies, the color was trippy and far out – one of my favorite scenes from a visual standpoint was Gamora simply sitting in a green and red and purple and tan field, something you’d never see in an Earth-bound Marvel movie. There were a lot of arresting visuals too: Yondu walking down a gangplank as Ravagers fall through the air around him in slow-mo is an image still in my head, and the red trail of his arrow is a nifty touch.

I know you liked the Golden Sovereign – what else appealed to you?

SR: I agree that a lot of the intra-hero drama is pretty well handled. I thought Rocket and Yondu had the strongest through-line. I liked that they explored those two characters’ relationship to their respective teams. I also thought this film was beautifully designed. Yes, the Golden Sovereign aliens looks absolutely beautiful. The monster they fight in the intro breathed rainbow energy beams. Every creature they come across is weird and imaginative, and the planet landscapes are mesmerizing. Trippy, psychedelic, and wonderfully pulpy. For a time I had a subscription to the Guardians of the Galaxy comic books, and I remember there were a few issues drawn by Francesco Francavilla. The use of color in this movie reminded me of his art. There is zero fear of super saturated primary colors, and it absolutely leaned into the bouncy, surreal, cartoony comic bookness. And I love it.

Don’t know how to segue to this…

****MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD****

The socio-political side of my brain was really peeved by two things, and it’s not just with this movie but with most movies of this ilk. First, why do they need to completely redeem Yondu? We see his character grow and learn in a really authentic way, but these big genre movies have a way of completely absolving characters once they make the tiniest break through. Yondu was a cruel and abusive parent figure to Peter. I think Peter could respect his growth, and still recognize the tragically nasty parts of him. I think “abusers deserve your love and respect because deep down they love you” is a dangerous and irresponsible message to send to audiences. But on a less preachy note, I think it really erases the nuance and humanity of the character. Honoring the broken side of Yondu even after he helps the protagonists would have been a more interesting choice.

Secondly, why does there need to be an “unspoken thing” between Peter and Gamora? It is so insanely irrelevant to everything happening around them. There isn’t that much chemistry, and it doesn’t really serve either character’s arc. Many of these films shoehorn romance in just because it’s kinda the thing to do. And I’m all about the ooey gooey feel good smooches when it works, but this movie didn’t have time for it and didn’t need it. It’d be far more interesting and truer to the characters if Peter harasses Gamora for the entire film and learns to respect Gamora’s constant reminders that she’s not interested in him. Instead, at the end of the film she confirms his baseless fantasies. Whatever.

CM: I agree about 75% with your Yondu critique and 100% with your Gamora/Peter critique. The thing about Yondu is that yes he was terrible to Peter, but throughout this movie and Vol. 1 we see him redeemed a bit, learn a bit about why he’s the way he is, and find out that even his evil act of “keeping Peter” was sort of a redemption in comparison to some of the other kids he trafficked. So to go from a child trafficker to a horrible father figure to a world saver in Vol. 1 already laid some tracks for his slow redemption. I agree his redemption is too full, but I do think a bit more background work was laid for it than you’re recognizing (in all honesty last movie I sort of thought they treated him as fully redeemed and an overall good guy by the end, so I think it was a good move by this movie to backpedal a bit and remind us he was still pretty nasty).

Finally, in regards to the Marvel Movies overall, I still feel like they’re a lot of pretty good movies made by talented people, but their uniformity that you mentioned at the beginning of the review hinder them. I don’t know if they’ll last the test of time so much as fifteen years, which is a bit sad even though that’s the way they’re designed. Blockbusters of yesteryear felt more durable to me, and it’s unfortunate to see so much money and talent flushed on something so temporal.

SR: I give this movie 7 Guardians out of 10 Galaxies.

CM: I also give this movie 7 Guardians out of 10 Galaxies.

OTHER THOUGHTS:

  • SR: The joke of Drax laughing at things was done like 10 times…
  • CM: I thought the Yondu Rocket relationship was strong too, though a combination I really enjoyed was Rocket and Drax. They were enemies in Vol. 1, but their budding friendship felt natural here, unlike some of the more forced relationship growth such as Peter/Gamora.
  • SR: Swear words are not jokes.
  • CM: I appreciate the MCU’s willingness to double down on characters who would have weird worldviews: much like my other favorite MCU hero Vision, Mantis is a real weirdo due to her weird upbringing.
  • SR: Chris Pratt is a god awful actor and I don’t know why it took me so long to notice this. I still like him, he’s charming, and works as a kinda postmodern parody of an action movie (why he works so well as a 90s throwback swashbuckler in Jurassic World IMO) but when it comes to dramatic action, he is embarrassingly bad.
  • CM: You know I loved that asteroid field. Quantum astroids is a clever and ridiculous idea. Some of the Sci-fi elements of this movie were pretty fun, inventive and over the top in a enjoyable way.
  • SR: Using Fathers and Sons by Cat Stevens is the absolute easiest shortcut to making a scene emotional. That scene felt really powerful. But they were literally standing, doing absolutely nothing as the camera panned across their blank faces. But Cat Stevens was playing so I felt all the feels.
Advertisements

5 thoughts on “Action, Visuals, and Character Growth in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s