Monday, May 8, 2017

RockOtaku Reviews: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Hello degenerates, heathens, weirdos, deviants, rebels, and defected Imperial officers.  I am the Rock Otaku, and I’m here to show you worlds such as hard rock, metal, punk, alternative rock, movies, TV, anime, video games, and anything that makes us scream, shout, and save the galaxy again.

Today, I review a movie that I’ve recently seen that both fits my interests alongside my standards of high-octane, high-caliber blockbusters: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Before I get to the movie itself, let’s talk Marvel.  Back in 2008, Marvel set up a studio that would make their own movies, all of them set in a single cinematic universe all based on their massive library of characters.  During this time, they managed to get the rights to a large chunk of their properties back from other studios while also setting up for this style of filmmaking that would take thematically from comic books in a structure never before attempted seriously.  Their first movie, Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jr. as the titular superhero, was a critical and commercial success, and while The Incredible Hulk wasn’t as big, it had enough elements from the other film woven into its world, confirming Marvel’s and producer Kevin Feige’s big plan.  After Iron Man 2 (which was arguably the weakest of Phase 1), Thor (which is considered to be good overall), and Captain America: The First Avenger (which kicks ass), we got the big masterstroke of this mega-franchise: The Avengers, a sci-fi action ensemble movie that is both a sequel to and a crossover of the other movies while also being its own series. 

After that, and three follow-ups involving Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America in that specific order, Marvel decided to gamble on their more cosmic characters and make a movie, written and directed by cult-favorite filmmaker James Gunn, around them.  The resulting movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, was a fast, fun, energetic, and funny entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe where the stakes may have involved the entire MCU, but we were focusing on characters that could not give less of a crap unless the threat was personal or likely to haunt them if they let it happen.  Or if money was involved.  Yeah, the heroes are among the most morally bankrupt of the Marvel protagonists, but their charm, sense of humor, and tragic backstories all made them interesting, fun to hang around, and, ultimately, engaging.  And as a result, we were anticipating the inevitable sequel while also realizing that this kind of filmmaking could break barriers within the MCU, which ultimately happened as Ant-Man and Doctor Strange came out after it and proved just how far Marvel was willing to go, with particle physics for the former and actual sorcery and interdimensional science for the latter.  And now we have the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy, which is subtitled Vol. 2 in reference to Star Lord’s mix tapes.

So how was it?  It was a lot of fun.

First, the story.  From the get-go, the movie deals with the titular team on the run from a group called the Sovereign after Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) does something to tick them off.  However, things are complicated when Peter Quill/Star Lord’s (Chris Pratt) father, Ego (Kurt Russell) reveals himself to him and Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) hires the Ravagers, led by Peter’s adoptive father Yondu (Michael Rooker), to hunt them down, leading to a mutiny led by Taserface (Chris Sullivan) after Yondu’s stumbles.  Also, there’s something about Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) still having their sibling rivalry and how it affects them in this movie.  But if I went further, I’d go into some massive spoilers that I’ll leave for later.

So how was the story?  Not giving anything else away, this was a great story that managed to provide some great character motivations, stellar action, well-placed humor, and moments where the movie really tugged on my heartstrings.  A big part of that is that this is less of a repeat of the first movie and more of a continuation of the first movie.  What do I mean?  None of the characters are in the same position they were in the first film, their changes in character reflect that and the cast manage to show their growth from then and add to that.  That and it explains on plot details that came up in the character arcs of the first film but not important to the conflict with Ronan, and somehow gives them the necessary answers that we didn’t know we needed, such as Peter’s heritage, the relationship between Gamora and Nebula as well as how much of a crappy father Thanos is, Yondu dealing with the ramifications of kidnapping and adopting Peter in the first place, the bond between Rocket and Groot (Vin Diesel), even when the latter is now a baby, and Drax (Dave Bautista) understanding the concept of friendship, family, and close bonds after losing his family to Ronan before the first film (though he claims his revenge will be complete when he kills Thanos, which may happen in a massive crossover coming out in a year or two).  Plus we now have new and background characters, such as Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Kraglin (Sean Gunn) who have very interesting characters and arcs from this film while having some emotional moments and push in the story.  And the film really does aim for a focus on family as the big overarching theme, from the relationships Peter has with Ego, Yondu, and his own team, Gamora and Nebula, Rocket and Groot, and Yondu’s set of Ravagers plus the Ravager community as a whole (which I’ll explain in the spoilers).

And it ultimately works because this movie is very character-driven and the arcs are interesting for each one.  We learn more about Peter in this movie the most, and definitely the main character here from a structural and emotional standpoint, and his arc is built off of the first film and deals with his heritage and his place in the galaxy, with his resolution being based on his choices and bonds he never realized.  Drax, while more of the comic relief here and rightfully so, is engaging since he’s still dealing with the fact that he has a new group of people he calls a family as well as his newly-found bond with the innocent Mantis, who’s definitely one of the more interesting characters here.  Gamora’s arc is more about her relationship with both Peter and Nebula, with the latter having an interesting resolution that I’ll discuss later.  Rocket and Groot are here as father and son, rather than two bounty hunters with the big one protecting the smaller one, and the former’s is about being less of a jackass and more of a team member, and it ties with Yondu.  For Groot, or Baby Groot here, he’s a baby, so his arc is more about relearning what the original Groot learned while being distinctive himself.  Now for Yondu, who’s arc is more about redemption and sacrifice, as his part of the narrative deals with aspects of his personality that got him in trouble and what ultimately made him effectively Peter’s adoptive dad, and why he thinks Peter’s biological father, Ego, is “a jackass” in his terms, and the resolution may have you teary-eyed if you get where it’s going.  For Nebula, this is the movie where she goes from a total badass into the broken bird that makes us realize that Thanos may be, if not will be, the Avengers’ (and the Guardians’) greatest foe, one that’d make Loki, Ronan, and Ultron soil themselves in fear, as her arc reflects the pain she went through being the WEAKER sister to Gamora, who’s badassery is ultimately a factor in this plot.  Plus Mantis has a fun arc about learning more about the universe outside of Ego’s perspective through Drax and the others.  And Kraglin, while not having the best arc, is a more interesting and engaging character here than in the first.

For the villain here, I can mention that the Sovereigns and the Ravagers (that turn on Yondu and his supporters, including Kraglin) definitely fit this role at first, but then we arguably get a character that becomes such a despicable bastard that he ends up being arguably one of Marvel’s best, if not darkest, villains to date.  Explaining who this is would spoil the movie, and it’s arguably one of the better twists I’ve seen, even if its build-up makes it more obvious when you think about it.  Plus it gives a reason why Thanos is not to be taken lightly.

Plus the acting is well-rounded across the board, with fantastic performances from each actor, even with the voice portrayals for certain characters.  That and you have actors known for their limited range being casted and used effectively.  Plus there are several cameos that will have you floored in that they casted this/that actor or actress here, including arguably one of the best Stan Lee cameos ever, especially if you’re familiar with Marvel Comics and fan theores.

Now for the action and visuals.  The former is awesome, with some well-crafted action sequences, all in space, on various planets, and within spaceships and even planets that are well placed, full of energy, loaded with great moments of intensity, awesomeness, tension, and even humor, and some of them are very creative for this world, the MCU, and even the superhero genre as a whole.  If you thought the initial fight with the interdimensional monster that was shown in the trailers and marketing was great, especially with how it was shot and set up, alongside the space battle with the Sovereign chasing the Guardians, alongside a few other shots, then you are in for a treat, as some of the sequences are staged really well with great music choices (with two of them using Peter’s music to score them, and leading to some funny juxtaposition between the happy, poppy songs and the carnage occurring).  And they are done extremely well.  And the visuals are extremely great, with a lot of color and various uses of it, fantastic CGI, which, while looking obvious, fits the world to a tee, making it more like a comic book come to life.  And that’s the beauty with Marvel’s use of CGI; their visual style requires it to bring their comic’s visuals to the big screen accurately or aesthetically pleasing to all audiences, and the resulting digital effects match the insanity and/or rules of the environments and stories, leading to their charm.

But this movie’s charm and appeal not just comes from the action, colors, and CGI to create talking raccoons, tree creatures, and alien ducks (oh come on, we saw the stinger with Howard in the first film), but from its soundtrack.  And like with the first film, each song chosen fits the mood, spirit, theme, and even humor of the scenes they’re used, with both “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass and “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac being two of the more important ones story-wise.  But to explain the former would go into more spoilers.  Plus the use of “Southern Nights” by Glen Campbell, “Come A Little Closer” by Jay & The Americans, and even “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison, which has not aged that well, are done extremely well, with the first two being used in very funny ways and the latter setting up the atmosphere for a certain character’s home world.  That and the score, while serviceable, is well done with some drive and energy for most of the action.  Like with the first movie, the pop tunes they used are used properly, and it allows for some great moments.  And I do wonder what the inevitable third movie alongside Avengers: Infinity War will do for their soundtracks (since the Guardians are going to be in the latter, and Peter has to have his tunes), though it’ll be interesting if they have Quill, through Tony Stark, Stephen Strange, or even Steve Rogers, discover new styles from the 80s onward like new wave, hip hop, grunge, death metal, dubstep, and so on, and what his reaction would be to Nickelback (if Gunn or the Russos felt like placing a take-that towards 00s post-grunge).  Either way, this soundtrack rocks, and they even use Cat Stevens well.

If there’s a flaw here, this movie is fantastic, but it isn’t as, well, fresh as the first.  What I mean is that whereas most superhero movies beforehand were entirely Earth-set or had their major moments on Earth (even the Thor movies did this, and so does Doctor Strange, though that was to set up magic in the MCU on Earth), the first Guardians barely involved Earth in its plot.  The only time we were on our planet was at the depressing opening of that film; everything about it was set in the cosmos, Star Wars.  When you get down to it, the movie felt like a mix of Star Wars and an excessive action movie of the 80s than it did a traditional comic book movie, even if it was still one, and that was even reflected in the characters.  The morally-good characters were antagonists until the true villain made his motives clear and forced them together with our rogue, law-breaking, hard-partying, crass, and morally-bankrupt main characters (they all had criminal records or were in prison in the first film before they united to defeat a Kree zealot with an Infinity Stone) in the climax.  And this was in direct contrast with recent comic book movies where even the good guys did questionable things yet were somehow seen as heroes, even Superman for God’s sake.  That and the clear focus on fun despite the stakes and epic storytelling, with a great integration of humor and 60s/70s pop, rock, and soul music being a factor.  And it does all of this, despite having a stronger focus on why these characters are such screw-ups and, as Peter Serafinowicz’s Garthan Sall would say, a bunch of a-holes.  So as a result, what blew us away and was part of an engaging story the first time is a lot more commonplace, with Suicide Squad, Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange, with Thor Ragnarok in the future from what it looks like, taking from it to varying degrees of success as a result of how great the first film was (in the humor, soundtrack use, and even weirder story decisions).  As a result, while this is a well-put together movie, it isn’t as fresh, and the humor may get in the way of more serious moments, even when the film stops trying to be funny.

But why do I forgive this?  This movie, somehow, manages to be really funny and really touching.  The former is mostly due to Drax, but there are several moments involving Baby Groot and Mantis, who are the two cutest characters in this film, where one will burst into laughter, and even the cast have some great zingers.  But Drax is the main comic relief here, despite his tragic backstory, and manages to have the movies biggest laughs, even when he is the one laughing and explaining the joke, and he somehow has a bond with Mantis that’s both cute and hilarious.  But for the latter, the theme of family plays to a head in several moments, specifically with the relationship between Gamora and Nebula, but especially with Peter’s heritage and upbringing leading to some revelations that may leave you teary-eyed, which the movie had me at during the movie; this film not just have me laugh, but cry.  And I thought Groot’s sacrifice and regeneration from the first film as sad but uplifting, this does that again but with another major character, and that involves spoilers.

To sum up, this is a rocking and rolling good time in the theaters.  With an engaging story, interesting characters, the same charm that made the first film so fun, and some of Marvel’s best visuals to date, this movie is definitely a must see.  No seriously, the visual design and cinematography here is gorgeous, and it’s in the same summer that we’re getting ANOTHER Transformers movie which looks mediocre in comparison.  But regardless, you will be laughing, on the edge of your seat, and possibly on the verge of crying watching this.  This hits every emotional core I can think of when it comes to blockbuster action cinema, and it excels because of that.  Despite this, I can agree that this isn’t as fresh as the first, but regardless, this is still an A movie for me, following up on what is definitely an A+ movie, even if I feel that, with some time, this might go up to A+ as well.

Final Rating (Spoilers below included): 9/10 (A righteous, fun joyride though the cosmos with some emotional weight)

Now for the spoilers. 

In the comics, Ego, Peter’s father, is called Ego the Living Planet.  And the film decides to make him the father of Star Lord rather than J’son of Spartax, and while this move may anger some comic purists, the first film can be trashed for the same reasons due to some aspects (like Drax’s skin and Gamora’s clothes, plus Ayesha’s clothes here) not being like the source material.  But for me, this works in regards to the story, as it allows for the theme of family and fatherhood to play a major part in Peter’s character arc.  Specifically, the character of Ego is also made a Celestial in the MCU, which makes him practically an immortal god and capable of creating a physical avatar, he’s a planet here as well, with the appearance of Kurt Russell (with every aspect of human male anatomy, including the part you’re thinking of) to travel the universe, due to his interest in life and taking part in it.  That includes traveling to earth and falling in love with Peter’s mother and fathering Peter, gaining some affection for Earth’s pop music circa the late 70s to the early 80s.  Ultimately, this makes Peter half-Celestial (what Nova Corps called the part of him that was “ancient” in the first film), and thus immortal, plus giving him the ability to create energy balls and anything his mind is set to, including recreations of Pac-Man, Skeletor, and Heather Locklear as statues of awesomeness.  But he is one of many children Ego fathered.

That brings us to Yondu, who was kicked out of the main Ravager corps for abducting and trafficking children while being sold into slavery by his parents as well, and he still deals with the ramifications of that, even when confronting his former boss and father figure Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone, who is good here).  And among the kids he kidnapped was Peter himself, as part of a deal with Ego that is later confirmed to be the reason for Yondu’s actions, and, fearing what Ego would do to him, Yondu decided to raise him as a son, with the threat of eating him being ultimately a dark joke by the disgraced Ravager, instead of giving him to the “jackass” that is his real father.  And this is ultimately why Taserface stages a mutiny against him, after he captured Rocket and Baby Groot for the Sovereigns (with Nebula joining with the Ravagers and getting her own ship to hunt down Gamora and later Thanos as part of her revenge).  But this leads to Yondu and Rocket bonding, with the former later explaining just how alike the two are, and a great scene where Yondu, with his original fin, kills all the mutinous crewmembers with Rocket and Baby Groot to Peter’s music (for extra hilarity), while Kraglin shows his devotion to the blue-skinned badass.

And Nebula explains that, due to Gamora being a natural ace, she was continuously mutilated into a cyborg by their adoptive father, felt the pain of being physically violated and mutilated over and over again until she joined Ronan’s side in defiance to Thanos.  A big part of her pain was just how alone she felt when she would continuously lose to her sister (who was just as scared and determined to survive the Mad Titan’s cruelty), and desiring some sort of bond with her, which would lead to hatred and anger towards her, blaming her for her pain and suffering.  It isn’t until the two sister talk it out, and discover the remains of various creatures within Ego that are revealed to be Star Lord’s half siblings after they were unable to help dear father with his plan of turning the universe into extensions of himself.

That is why Yondu calls Ego, his employer for a time and the reason he was disgraced from the core Ravagers, a jackass.  Ego IS the villain of the film, having such a disinterest in mortality, a part of life that is essential to it despite him not seeing it as such, that he put parts of him across multiple worlds, including Earth, to terraform them all into extensions of himself and essentially control the universe, even if it means the extinction of several life forms (imagine how that’ll play into Avengers: Infinity War when Tony meets Quill and considering the formers arc into a paranoid, broken man who will do ANYTHING to protect the people close to him after dealing with the ramifications of creating a murderous A.I. and possibly Stephen Strange meeting with Stark to mention Quill’s heritage and how Ego nearly turned Earth into an extension of him).  That and he fathered SEVERAL children to serve as a second being to live by his side when the universe is nothing but him and his child, killing any of them that doesn’t have the potential to access his power and perform his murderous actions until Peter showed that he can.  Too bad he revealed that, to complete his goals and not get bogged down by genuine love, he put the brain tumor in Peter’s mother, effectively killing her, causing Peter to not hesitate and attack him, which leads to Ego destroying his Sony Walkman, leading Peter to be 100% against him, even when the two use their Celestial powers to fight within Ego’s core, where Baby Groot is in charge of a planet-killing bomb created by Rocket (using batteries he stole from the Sovereign, explaining their role as co-antagonists to Ego in the film, which even Yondu did, confirming their similarities) while Mantis tries to keep Ego asleep, which has been her role from the very beginning.

Plus the Sovereign travel into Ego’s core to kill the Guardians thank’s to Rocket, with their ships being piloted in a control base away from the fight (effectively making them similar in personality to gamers in an arcade, which is both interesting plot-wise and very, very funny considering how they react every time a ship is destroyed).  And they are a complete nuisance throughout the climax, while Ego uses his powers to nearly kill the characters (he’s the planet, so he alters his true physical form to trap or harm the characters, even Baby Groot) until Peter uses his Celestial powers to fight Ego’s human avatar, anime-style with a moment where he creates a giant Pac-Man to attack Ego.  Then Yondu, who’s with the main characters in the core fighting Ego, stays behind to rescue Peter after Groot sets the bomb off, with Rocket carrying the baby tree creature to safety, killing Ego, then sacrifices himself to save Peter, using his thrusters to get him out and giving his adopted son the last space suit, dying from asphyxiation in the cold reaches of space.

And this is where the film got me.  With his last words, “He may have been your father, but he wasn’t your daddy,” referencing Ego, Yondu dies right in front of Quill.  And during his funeral, which is a makeshift Ravager funeral done by our heroes honoring him, Quill makes a speech, showing that he realized that Yondu was the closest thing to a father to him, with him getting his Zune, while the fin goes to Kraglin.  And, with Cat Steven’s “Father and Son” playing in the background, the deceased Ravager, thanks to a transmission from Rocket explaining his sacrifice, gets a true Ravager funeral, which was beautiful and got me welling up, even after Stakar explained that his action, under Ego, would not get him one when he dies.  And even Stakar was there saluting his comrade, and being influenced to get his team back together, which includes Martinex T’Naga (Michael Rosenbaum), Charlie-27 (Ving Rhames), Aleta Ogord (Michelle Yeoh), Krugarr, and Mainframe (Miley Cyrus, which is a little weird, even if you don’t initially hear it) in a post-credits scene.  Talk about an emotional way to end the film, and it does remind me of The Empire Strikes Back, where the main characters are looking into space at the climax after going through some intense moments.

And the end credits scenes, which also include Kraglin trying to master the fan, Groot growing into his teenage phase, including a messy room and giving Quill grief, playing video games, Ayesha planning on using her latest creation on the Guardians, Adam Warlock, and finally Stan Lee’s cameo being expanded upon from the movie (which was him as an astronaut explaining his adventures in the framing of his earlier cameos from the other films to Watchers), and the Watchers him leaving as he tries to tell him about other stories, including the FedEx employee story he has (which is a funny tie in to Civil War, and may be the way that the Avengers meet the Guardians in Infinity War.  Plus you have the credits, which are done in an 80s-style retro cut-out style, all including a few more tunes as well as the original disco track made for the film (with contributions by David Hasselhoff, whom Peter told his classmates was his father before he was kidnapped)  And yes, that was awesome.  And let us remember this: WE ARE GROOT!

Oh, and Jeff Goldblum makes a cameo in the credits as Grandmaster, who will appear in Thor Ragnarok.

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