*some mild spoilers below*
Let’s be honest with ourselves – a full third of the reasons people want to see the second installment of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise is Baby Groot. Ever since the end of the first movie, people have been obsessing over the little guy. We loved him as a loveable giant, we loved him as a sapling in a planter, and now, with Vol. 2, we’re ready to love him again as a doe-eyed scamp, screaming and cooing and staring vacantly at important moments in the movie.
All of this, he does. Baby Groot wins the cuteness award ten times over, despite Vin Diesel still being his voice actor, but the filmmakers rely on this character a little too much. He’s the star of the opening sequence- a solid-gold dream-like dance party- but his story quickly devolves into just “hey, Groot’s here, let’s see Groot do this.” There are moments where it works (Yondu and Rocket cajoling him into freeing them) and moments where it doesn’t (Groot being doused in alcohol while Ravagers chant “Mascot! Mascot!”), but these scenes come from a good place, I suppose. The idea is that the Guardians are a family, a concept which gets reiterated over and over again throughout the film in some strange attempt to convince the mostly adult audience that the movie is family-friendly (which it is, but only if you’re the kind of family that dresses up like the Guardians of the Galaxy).
Of course, real families are competitive, petty, malicious and sometimes hurtful with one another, and the movie does an excellent job of exploring all of that. Rocket and Starlord bicker over who gets to fly the spaceship like a pair of teenagers arguing over whose turn it is next on the video game. Drax takes on the task of spouting increasingly awkward dad jokes, a strange role for an alien who developed in an entirely literal culture, but it works when he gets to laugh at Starlord and really voice his inner feelings about Mantis. Gamora is part stressed-out mom, part plucky teenager, but her storyline is less about the group dynamic with this family and more about sisterhood with the psychotic-yet-charming Nebula, who really gets to shine in the sequel. But we all know who the favorite is in a family. It’s the youngest, the pet, the rogue who needs looking after – Groot.
Time and time again, Groot has bugs taken out of his mouth, concepts and instructions explained to him, and, in my favorite scene, is told to put on his seatbelt despite the fact that the ship is being ripped apart and crashing into a forest and wearing a seatbelt wouldn’t make one inch of difference. Groot is the team’s child, their connection to some semblance of joyous innocence (the only other innocent is Mantis, who is weirdly sexualized and desexualized throughout the movie). But there is no nurturing side to the parental role the characters play towards Groot. It’s all about safety and commands, keeping Groot from harming himself or getting him to do something the others can’t.
This theme bleeds into the rest of the parental and familial themes in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Ego is, as his name might imply, obsessed with himself and his purpose, and only seeks out a relationship with his son to further that purpose. Thanos had Nebula and Gamora fight to make them more effective killers for his whims. Yondu is the only “good” parent we get, and it’s not because he was supportive, caring, nurturing or empathic. He isn’t any of those things. No, the audience is told to like Yondu because, like Ego, he reenters Peter’s life looking for a second chance, looking for redemption. Unlike Ego, he actually needs it, after his suffering at the hands of his own crew and other Ravager factions. Also unlike Ego, he actually means it. Yondu becomes selfless, sacrificing his life to save his adopted son. This act, this one good thing he gets to do, is the ultimate cinematic magic trick, making us believe that this ruthless killer and thief is actually a good man, a person with a heart of gold, and had been that way since before he even met Peter. His excuse: he was brutalized as a child so he grew into a brutal adult, but because he was sold into slavery he developed empathy. We are expected to understand that threatening to eat the younger Starlord was a joke, that his stated excuse for keeping the child alive (so he could help with heists by fitting into small spaces) was a mask for purer intentions. Normally, the revelation that a character is more complex than originally thought is a good thing, but this sudden depth comes on far too quickly. It’s like solving a Rubiks cube only to realize that it exists in two more dimensions you can’t see, and it’s still not solved.
The film does tell one of its family stories well, but it gets such little screen time that I almost want to scream about it. Gamora and Nebula, our two femme fatales, are bound by their unique connection to the Mad Titan Thanos, but it’s not a friendly connection, at least not at first. Nebula wants to kill Gamora and then kill Thanos, to give back all the suffering she’s been dealt. Gamora wants to get on with her life by getting her sister out of her hair, sending her to prison on Xandar. But things get complicated when Gamora saves her sister’s life, and then Nebula saves Rocket’s life, and then they begin working together, and they have some deeply emotional moments where they both recognize a bit of themselves in the other person, and then Nebula leaves. Hollywood, it seems, is still nervous about female plotlines and representation of sisterhood in big budget action movies, but this is pretty shameful. We get handed a trope storyline about a man-planet who wants to expand over the universe (it’s been done, trust me, I’m a huge nerd), and the writers rope the entire fatherhood theme into that plot, instead of doing what the first Guardians film did so well – link it to character, link it to a deeper sense of identity, for all of the characters. Don’t shove the girls off-camera because they have cooties, don’t use cute Baby Groot as a crutch, and definitely don’t have our stand-in father Yondu’s near-last words be, “I don’t use my head, I use my heart.” It’s almost more asinine than it’s worth.
But the movie works, the movie is still good, even with these rather obvious moves. The comedy is rich enough to withstand the saccharine, the action is entertaining and creative, and the drama is real enough to get past the tropes. The Howard the Duck cameo is very exciting, not to mention the fact that the Stan Lee appearance is now my favorite Marvel film moment of all time. And there is a pretty fantastic ensemble supporting cast too- Sylvester Stallone is the big one, of course, but Glenn Close and Nathan Fillion show up as well. Guardians breaks just enough rules but plays the family theme hard enough that the morality police are content. For a comic book movie, I’d say that’s alright.