Guardians 2 is Three Good Movies Mashed into a Bad One

WTF is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2?

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy, the blissfully disconnected-from-everything Marvel movie about a group of misfit space outlaws who belatedly discover they have a conscience and try to save the galaxy from some kind of racist with a magic stone.

Guardians 2 adds even more outlaws and belatedly having a conscience and saving the galaxy from something, but subtracts one of the writers who worked on the first film, which might have an impact on the story’s overall coherence. The end result is something like a rollercoaster. It’s sometimes exciting and fun and surprising, but it ultimately doesn’t mean anything more than that, and repeating the experience is bound to be a lot less exciting and fun and surprising the second time around.

In real terms, Peter Quill, hero of the first movie, finds his long-lost alien father, who is a literal god living on a magic planet somewhere, super!assassin Gamora’s estranged sister, Nebula, tries to kill her, some models wearing gold body paint try to kill everyone, and the space pirate Yondu, who kidnapped Peter as a child, suddenly has a story arc about the power of heart.

The three good movies in Guardians 2

The frustrating thing about Guardians 2 is that it has most of the building blocks you’d need to tell a good story – it’s just that they don’t fit together very well, almost like somebody glued three half-completed puzzles together and said, “There, you guys. That has to add up to at least a whole puzzle.”

One of the things that was so great about Guardians of the Galaxy was that the wacky action and high jinks were tied to a very clear, emotionally meaningful journey taken by the film’s protagonist. Peter is afraid to get close to anyone after losing his mother when he was a child. Over the course of the movie, he learns that he has to rely on other people in order to achieve greatness. The other rag-tag misfits he joins up with learn a similar lesson and, in the end, they stand united against the magic stone.

Guardians 2 doesn’t have a similarly clear theme. Instead, it has three movies that could make sense on their own, but suffer from competing for limited space with the other two movies. And I’m going to spoil all of them right now.

Peter’s movie

Peter’s movie makes up most of the A-plot in Guardians 2 and it starts when, one day, at random, his alien father appears out of nowhere and suddenly wants to hang out. Even though Peter’s suspicious of his alien dad, Gamora convinces him to take the opportunity, because she feels bad about how he used to tell the other kids his dad was David Hasselhoff.

Peter, Gamora, and Drax – who basically has no role in this movie except to make the same joke over and over again – go to visit Peter’s alien dad on the magic planet he lives on, where they meet another character named Mantis who has no role in the movie except to demonstrate the concept “empathy.” At first Peter doesn’t trust his alien dad, and then he does, and then he discovers that his alien dad is evil and, before he can do anything about it, his evil alien dad incapacitates him and tries to drain his life force or something.

After all the other characters reconvene from separate plot lines (which I’ll get to in a second), they all start fighting Peter’s evil alien dad, and Peter recovers enough to take Yondu’s advice and use the power of heart to win the day. After the rest of the crew leaves Peter for dead, Yondu rescues him and gives a speech about how he loves Peter as a son before sacrificing his life to save Peter’s.

Peter realizes that, even though Yondu wasn’t the perfect father he fantasized about, his love was real, and that made them a family.

Yondu’s movie

Fifteen-to-twenty years before Guardians 2, Yondu took a contract to smuggle kids to Peter’s evil alien dad, which went against the pirate code and made him an outcast. Yondu then figured out that the kids he was delivering to Peter’s evil alien dad got their life force sucked out, so he kept Peter and raised him as a son, without ever admitting to himself or anyone else that that’s what he was doing.

Once the movie actually starts, Yondu is approached by some gold-paint-wearing Pretties with a contract to hunt Peter down for a bounty. He accepts the offer, all the while planning to let Peter go. When his crew finds out he’s helping Peter, they mutiny against him, and he and Rocket and Groot (the angry racoon and dancing tree) end up in the brig. Rocket and Yondu bond over how they both act like assholes to sabotage their relationships, and then they team up with Yondu’s last surviving loyal crewmember to re-take the ship and rescue Peter from his evil alien dad.

When Peter’s evil alien dad is defeated, and the crew is forced to abandon Peter to die, Yondu sacrifices himself to save Peter, admitting for the first time that he sees himself as Peter’s father.

When the pirates learn that he sincerely loved one of the children he kidnapped, they forgive him for the kidnappings and let him have a pirate funeral the way he would have wanted.

Gamora and Nebula’s movie

We knew from the first movie that Gamora and Nebula were enslaved to some dude called Thanos as children and that he tortured them until they grew up to be l33t assassins. In Guardians 2, we learn that the torture chamber was also a Thunderdome, and Gamora and Nebula had to fight each other to see who would have to have a body part cut off. Gamora always won the fights, which is the super sad reason Nebula’s half cyborg now.

At the very start of Guardians 2, the crew is defending a power station from attack as part of a contract Gamora has made with the Pretties so that they’ll give her Nebula. She claims that she’s trying to collect the bounty on Nebula’s head but, before we can find out if that’s true, all the other plot points happen, and Gamora and Nebula end up in separate stories.

Nebula sides with Yondu’s crew against him and gets a ship so she can follow Gamora to the magic planet and try to kill her. She fails, because she’s still way worse at everything than Gamora is. In her failure, she tells Gamora that, once they’d both realized Gamora was always going to win their fights in the Thunderdome, Gamora should have lost on purpose once, so Nebula maybe could have kept an eye or something.

After having silently thought about this for the rest of the movie, Gamora admits in the dénouement that she was so focussed on herself and on not getting hurt that she didn’t see the opportunity she had to bond with Nebula. Now that she knows she’s not that frightened child anymore, she stops denying her feelings for Peter and reaches out to him.

What’s so bad about that?

The biggest problem with Peter’s movie – and with Guardians 2 overall, since he has the A-plot – is that the story has nothing to do with his choices. The opening scenes are driven by what Gamora wants (to get Nebula from the Pretties) and what Rocket does (steal stuff from the Pretties, causing them to put a bounty on the crew). Peter’s just along for the ride. When his evil alien dad shows up, Peter doesn’t even want to go with him and correctly complains later that none of it was his idea.

Take a second to imagine how different this movie would be if Peter did want to go with his dad. Like, if Peter’s lifelong fantasy of having an awesome bio-dad gave him blinders for this obviously shady situation, so that he actively chose to get involved in it. The negative fall-out from that decision would mean a lot more, and so would Peter’s eventual realization that his seemingly-perfect bio-dad is really a terrible person, and that he had a father all along in Yondu. Having it not be his choice or idea that any of the major plot points happen weakens the impact.

The fact that Peter starts off suspicious of his evil alien dad also creates plot problems later in the film. If Peter stayed suspicious of his dad, he’d obviously leave the magic planet before his dad had a chance to suck his life force because, the longer they’re all there, the creepier the whole thing seems. This means that, two thirds of the way into the movie, Peter has to have a complete reversal of opinion and decide his dad’s amazing for no apparent reason. It’s a lot like that scene two thirds of the way into Legend where the movie tries to convince us that the princess is maybe being seduced by evil – both changes of heart are too abrupt and make no sense. After Peter decides to reverse his opinion for plot reasons, he immediately reverses it again once his friends are out of the room and can’t help him.

My strong intuition is that someone thought Peter would look dumb if he immediately trusted his evil alien dad, and that’s why the story happened this way. But the answer to that problem is to find a more convincing scenario for them to meet each other – not to manipulate it so that Peter neatly agrees to go with him after only a couple of scenes. The only drawback to that strategy is that it would mean taking time away from the other billion plot lines in this movie.

Speaking of which. The biggest problem with Yondu’s story – which is, in my opinion, the best of the three main stories – is that the stakes don’t seem high enough for this to be a turning point in his life. Maybe I missed something about the timeline, but it seems like Yondu was dishonoured twenty years ago and that his crew apparently stuck with him after that, through all the years he favoured and protected Peter. It’s not entirely clear why this one instance of flaking on the contract with the Pretties is enough to cause a mutiny. (On the other hand, if the pirates only just found out that he’s a kidnapper and threw dishonour on his crew, why did they just find out? It’s awfully convenient timing.)

Much as Peter’s story just happens to Peter, the most critical decision Yondu has to make in the movie’s first half just happens to him, too. Yondu doesn’t overhear that the Pretties are looking for Peter and choose to get involved. The Pretties come and find him and literally roll out a red carpet so they can personally invite him to go to Peter’s aid. It’s also not clear what he thinks will happen if he just says no. The Pretties are kind of incompetent, and Peter’s been dodging bounty hunters for a long time – that’s how he met Rocket and Groot. What about this situation, specifically, makes it so dire that Yondu has to get involved and save Peter from being captured? What makes it so that this is the moment he finally has to recognize the truth about their relationship?

To make it even more awkward and confusing, Peter isn’t even there when Yondu does this. He’s actually already been captured by his evil alien dad – and while that is a serious enough threat for Yondu to step out of his shell, Yondu doesn’t know about it for almost the entire movie.

Just like in Peter’s movie, Yondu’s movie has a problem where the characters’ motivations aren’t super clear beyond saying, “This is the most expedient way to move between two plot points we want for other reasons.”

Nebula and Gamora’s story is actually a good complement to either Yondu or Peter’s story, and it does pretty well as B-plot, but it’s not clear who the story belongs to. Nebula doesn’t really change by the end of it. She doesn’t decide to stop trying to kill Gamora – she just accepts that she’s blocked from achieving that goal. Instead, she rejects Gamora’s offer of friendship and goes on a solo mission to kill Thanos.

Gamora does change, but it’s weird that she only applies the lesson she’s learned to Peter. She doesn’t offer to help or support Nebula in her quest against Thanos, and she seems okay with the idea that her sister’s just going to walk away never to be seen again.

Oh, and speaking of people who want to kill Thanos, isn’t Drax’s whole thing that Thanos ordered the death of his family and he wants revenge? I feel like he might be kind of interested in Nebula’s new mission. You know, if his character did not become a running joke about social awkwardness. Also, isn’t his whole thing not understanding figurative language? Which he then uses freely in the second movie? Just asking.

In conclusion

I was pleasantly surprised by the first Guardians movie, because it told a good story. This one feels like a theme park ride, which I find disappointing.

I’m also very confused about why this seems to happen with the second movie in every series – the first one gets delivered as a fully-developed story with a clear protagonist and a clear journey the protagonist takes from beginning to end; the second one’s like putting all your action figures in a box and shaking it. Why?

Is it just as simple as saying, “They don’t have a story to tell, but they do have a rigid release schedule and actors who’ve held these dates for filming?” Am I naive for thinking that’s not a good way to make a movie? Is it weird to think they should either extend the release schedule or have a better plan for how these movies are going to get written? Am I wrong to even care? Is the endgame of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Disney Infinity: The Movie? Discuss.

Image: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; Disney | June 23, 2017