(This piece of writing started life as a review of Guardian’s of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but in trying to articulate exactly how I felt about the film I felt like many of the narrative failings are symptomatic across all of Marvel’s newest releases. It contains full spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2)
In my opinion, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a disappointingly mediocre film. There are numerous failings throughout on a technical level. The cinematography is awful, constantly framed to make the most of the 3D technology but instead sidelines the action and takes you out of the filmic world. Avatar came out eight years ago, stereoscopic 3D is no longer new and this clumsy camera work no longer defensible. Similarly attention has to be drawn to the VFX. Whilst all of the practical effects and set building are consistently brilliant, there are numerous times where I felt that the CGI work lets everything down. This is particularly true of Ego, both the planet and the character played by Kurt Russell; being a celestial compromised entirely of blue light, Ego is almost entirely computer animated, but numerous times I was taken out of the narrative because I felt like the VFX work looked a little janky. I walked out of the cinema this afternoon thinking Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 already looked a little dated and I don’t imagine it will hold up to much scrutiny over time.
Structurally everything the film manages to do well is undone elsewhere within the text. For example, Baby Groot is a wonderful comic character that undercuts the tone through his adorable naivete; it is a marked change from his character in the previous film and it manages to get a laugh every time he appears on screen. The same can not be said of the other comedic foil, Drax, where the humour is not only forced but it built upon the exact same “social awkwardness” from the original film. This joke doesn’t really have legs and therefore just comes across as a lazy rehashing of the previous film. This follows through into the writing – every line of snappy, funny dialogue gets lost when the ultimate moral of the film (it’s a treatise on fatherhood) is so heavy-handed. All deftness in the dialogue is truly lost when Starlord monologues the exact lesson the film is trying to impart. Also particularly grating is the way ’70s references are shoe-horned into the film. In the original they were genuinely funny, and fitted within the narrative as a way for Peter Quill to understand his fantastical surroundings. In GotGv.2 David Hasslehoff appears as himself, for little reason than “just ’cause” – the film takes what made the original so memorable and then fully jumps the shark.
But perhaps the biggest structural problem I had with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is something I’ve noticed across all of Marvel’s most recent releases – I just didn’t care about the villains.
To discuss where I feel Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 goes wrong I think it’s best to start with how Marvel used to get this right. I’d argue that across the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that there are only two and a half interesting, compelling villains. These being: Tom Hiddlestone’s Loki from the Thor franchise; Vincent D’Onoforio’s Kingpin in the Netflix Daredevil series; and the half point goes to Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier (played by Sebastian Stan) in all three Captain America films.
All three of these characters are brilliant for separate reasons. Loki was the first “big bad” of the MCU and it worked because of a brilliant performance on the part of Tom Hiddlestone. Loki being the trickster god, motivated only by spite, gave Hiddlestone so much to work with in every appearance. Being a character based around trickery rather than strength and violence gave the actor all of the best dialogue and thus the most memorable scenes in every film he appears; the character is entirely based around charisma, which allowed Hiddlestone to give an OTT performance that falls just on the right-side of scenery-chewing. It’s a performance that audiences just love to watch, and that is why the MCU will never be rid of him. Essentially Loki works as a blockbuster villain for the simple reason of being fun
D’Onoforio’s Kingpin is a very different beast. There’s the old adage that a compelling villain is the hero of their own story, and this is exactly what we see in Kingpin throughout the thirteen hour running time of Daredevil. The first series is such arresting television because, for the vast majority of the narrative, both the villain and the hero are fighting for the exact same outcome – a safer Hells Kitchen. This version of the Kingpin was raised in New York by an abusive politician father who used to beat him and his mother. Losing faith in politics to to have a positive impact on the world, he turns to organised crime in order to effect real change in the city; in his mind by monopolising the criminal activity in the area, he would be able to control the gang violence and illegal activity that makes the area such a dangerous place. This is what makes Kingpin a phenomenal antagonist – his altriusm. In other words, this is not evil for the sake of evil but rather the “villainy” is derived from a ill thought out attempt to do good.
This brings us on to Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier who is by far my favourite character in the entire MCU. This is for two reasons: Firstly Bucky has the clearest personal relationship to a protagonist and this is used extensively within the narrative. All three Captain America films use Steve Rodgers desire to protect Bucky from himself and others as a significant part of the narrative arc. There relationship isn’t shoehorned in, but rather is organic within the story being told; as a result the scale of these movies are often smaller, more intimate. Secondly, I love The Winter Soldier because he is the only villain being used for social commentary. Don’t get me wrong Captain America: The Winter Soldier is still, at heart, a Disney film designed to make money so it stops just short of an explicit political statement but it’s very easy to see the film as a reflection on a post-Snowden, post-NSA America. Both the second and third Captain America films are built around basic questions on power, the restriction of civil liberties and Government corruption. The Winter Soldier is an interesting character as he is a catalyst through which topics external to the fantasies of the MCU can be raised; he brings the human, real-world aspect to the current crop of Avenger films.
Let’s turn now to the villains in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The “B-villain” is Ayesha, the leader of the sovereign race who the titular heroes manage to anger at the start of the piece. Initially she really does work as a character, as her dialogue is snappy and Elizabeth Debicki really bounces off Chris Pratt in their early scenes together. But the Sovereign’s lose all of their sheen when stretched throughout the films 130 minute running time. Ayesha’s motivation is weak – it’s a case of wounded pride and ego that drives her to such extreme lengths in the film. If we return to the idea that a good villain is the hero of their own story, what does that make Ayesha when any narrative arc is absent? What makes it worse is that the Sovereign army is completely devoid of all threat or menace. They are literally only go against the Guardians in the form of faceless drones. Far from a compelling villain the Sovereigns are bland, motiveless, and never once pose a real threat so therefore any exist on screen to make a pretty explosion when shot at. In layman’s terms, they’re incredibly boring on screen.
The “big bad” of the piece Ego also initially starts out as an interesting screen presence . His role in the narrative as Peter’s father leads the audience into a similar territory of Loki and Bucky – it immediately seems a more intimate story. Indeed before his (incredibly signposted) villainous turn there’s plenty of wonderful father/son moments that start to build a relationship within the narrative; in many ways the familiar link is places on screen as a pseudo-Checkhov’s gun. Then ten minutes later Ego is trying to destroy all known living life across the universe in one big cataclysm. The reason Bucky/The Winter Soldier is such a fantastic character is because ultimately all three Captain America films boil down to one thing: Steve Rodgers wants to help his best friend. In Captain America Bucky was the person Cap couldn’t save, his personal failure as a hero. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier the titular hero is fighting against the internal corruption of booth his country and his best friend. Captain America: Civil War is essentially the Captain turning on his own country in order to protect Bucky. Despite featuring all of the typical bombast of a super hero movie, all three films boil down to the same incredibly simple relationship. But Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 doesn’t understand this simplicity. The stakes are raised to a universe saving level almost immediately (and seemingly only for one piece of throwaway dialogue) and thus any intimacy at a narrative level is thrown out of the window; the familial Chekhov’s gun is never fired. Ultimately Ego being Star-Lord’s father is completely irrelevant to the plot of the film – everything in the film would work just as well, fatherhood moral included, without the relationship.
I think it’s very clear at this point that I didn’t particularly like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but it is the villains of the piece that grated on me the most. Both Ayesha and Ego start out so strong but by the end of the film the have devolved into the type of boring, inconsequential characters that are plaguing the MCU right now. You have to bare in mind that this film is part two of three, yet so little happens of consequence that it’s hard to feel particularly excited about the next film at this point – especially with everything hinting that Ayesha will play a much larger part. Ultimately I am scared about where the Marvel Cinematic Universe will go with villains going forward, as they can keep relying on Loki or Bucky to bail them out narratively. Thanos is the next “big bad” across all future releases – which they have been teasing him for 5 years across 5 films – but at this point I’m pretty pessimistic about how he’ll finally turn out.