First of all, that is not Missouri. You can fool the outsiders, James, but you can’t fool me – I grew up less than 500 miles from where you did. I know Missouri landscapes, and this one is way too green – too lush. Those are the rich, verdant fields of a place that was underwater 65 million years ago – like Georgia. Where all these Marvel movies are filmed now, because Georgia politicians love to bash Evil Hollywood Liberals with the one hand, and give mad tax breaks to every major film company with the other. Turns out Evil Hollywood Liberal money spends as well as anyone else’s, and money is the only god my little blue orb actually worships. Is it any wonder I want to get my ass into Space?
On our last episode of Guardians of the Galaxy, a space pirate, two bounty hunters, a dictator’s adopted daughter and a man out to avenge his family’s death united to defeat a would-be-world-destroyer with the Power of Friendship…and a little help from a crystallization of one of the fundamental forces of the universe. Having made a name for themselves (well, stolen it from a sarcastic quip their first villain meant as a sick burn), we catch up to the Guardians taking odd jobs from the galaxy’s ruling class…and immediately fucking it up thanks to their own big mouths and Rocket the racoon’s incurable kleptomania. With that nice, new ship they got off of Xandar in pieces and the team incessantly bickering, it’s the perfect time for Peter “Star-Lord” Quill’s biological father to finally show up with an offer Peter can’t refuse…
The problem with super-teams is, they can get real unwieldy, real fast. Thankfully, comic book writers (particularly Justice League writer Gardner Fox) figured out an obvious solution to this half a century ago: split ’em up into smaller teams as fast, and as often, as possible. So while Star Lord, Gamora and Drax go off with Peter’s bio-dad, Rocket, and Groot are left on repair-duty…leaving them grounded and vulnerable to any pack of “a-holes” that might want the Guardian’s heads. Like the band of Ravagers Star-Lord grew up with and screwed over at the end of the last movie, led by his actual-dad, who actually raised him in the ways of space piracy, Yondu.
I’m detecting a real Bad Parent theme running through this Phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe . Ultron, of course, had the two worst dads you can have if you restrict your choices to Original Avengers. One could (and I pretty much did) boil Ant-Man down to a battle between the two surrogate sons of Hank Pym (meanwhile, his daughter’s literally right the fuck over there the whole time, but whatever). The Civil War was – if not outright caused, then certainly exacerbated by – Tony Stark’s sudden need to wreck his hate upon the man who killed his parental units. Doctor Strange spent his whole movie learning about, and then dealing with, the Ancient One’s so-called “hypocrisy.” Homecoming was a Spider-Man movie, and Young Mr. Parker can’t seem to help recruiting surrogate Bad Dads (four of ’em in six films and counting). We’ll talk about Ragnarok and Black Panther later, but if you’ve already seen them, how they fit into the theme should be pretty obvious.
Here, Ego shows up to give Quill a taste of real power after a lifetime of scavenging the ruins of planets that look like Dark Souls levels. He immediately falls for it, because dear old dad sings him a happy song about being a small-g god and wanting to seek out new life and new civilizations…and because he doesn’t recognize the name “Ego,” who was very much not Star-Lord’s dad in the comics.
Here’s how a friend put it to me: If you crammed Ego and Star Lord’s original father into one of those teleporters from The Fly, Kurt Russell’s character would walk out. He’s more personable than any Ego I’ve ever met, and J’son of Spartax never tried any plan as grandiose as “take over every habitable planet in the Milky Way by replacing all its locally-grown lifeforms with…well…himself.” Yondu may have been a pirate, mercenary, bank robber, and gods knows what else, but at least he didn’t have a god complex. That’s more Thanos line, and I do appreciate how Gamora (whom Thanos would call his “daughter” and the rest of us would call his “kidnaping victim”) is both the one who convinces Peter to hear Ego out in the first place…and the first to suspect Ego of something other than a sudden attack of paternalism. Conscious of her own dead parents, she sees a chance for Peter to relate to his parent as an adult – something she will never be able to do herself. But once they’re on Planet Ego and he’s served Peter a whole bunch of empty utopian platitudes, Gamora can’t stop herself from smelling bullshit. Now that Infinity War’s out and we have at least some grasp of Thanos’ ideology, it’s pretty easy to see why, though I must admit, on first viewing, I took Gamora’s flip-flopping as an easy way to create drama.
There were probably also legal reasons for combining two villains into one. Even though Ego the Living Planet debuted in a Thor comic, his early adventures are all very much tied up with Galactus – a Fantastic Four villain, and thus part of the grand movie-rights deal 20th Century Fox made way back when. Sure, Disney’s trying to buy up Fox’s Entertainment division now, but they probably weren’t even thinking about that three years ago, when this sucker started production. Who knows how long the suits are going to haggle over the $51 billion dollar price tag…? Oh, I’m sorry – it’s actually $52 billion. My favorite fucking number! Crucified Space Jesus, Geoff, you keep haunting me, even when I’m talking about your competition.
As ever, in this painfully literal age of ours, the clue is in the name, and Ego’s name is Ego. An ancient and self-important entity who identifies as “what’s called a Celestial,” making my inner Wikipedia editor immediately ask, “Called by whom? Where? When? This is the first we’ve heard of ’em.” Though comic book readers know them as a primordial race of absurdly powerful, absurdly ancient beings who’re ultimately responsible for pretty much every big event in the Marvel Multiverse – including its very existence. Artist/writer/legend Jack Kirby created them in the middle ’70s during what I call the “Paradise Lost” Phase of his career…a decade after he created the original Ego.
Movie Ego, here, claims to not remember anything before he found himself floating in space, and who knows? He could be lying, or selectively editing the truth, like he does when speaking in front of his son’s new surrogate family…All I know for sure is, James Gunn et. al. made Ego a Celestial with no uproar from the peanut gallery, confirming a theory I’ve been working on for awhile: that my fellow comic book nerds only care about “cannon” or “faithfulness to source material” when they think it can win them a dumb argument. I mean, look at me, and what I just did, right there.
I was hard on Guardians of the Galaxy 1 because no one else really wanted to be at the time, but I guess James Gunn’s too damn famous to pay attention to his fellow Missourian’s constructive criticisms…nah, I’m just kidding. Even if he actually read all the reviews Rotten Tomatoes uses to trick advertizes into thinking they actually do something, he probably didn’t have time to take any of them to heart. Pre-production on this thing started while the last one was still in theaters, and in consequence, everything I said about the last one still applies, but moreso. I guess this is the difference two years makes.
Star Lord’s still a self-centered douche who doesn’t even blink when his dad starts going on about leading “the cosmos” to “where it needs to be,” right after launching into a capsil review of the 1972 song “Brandy,” that would’ve made Patrick Bateman murderously envious. Gamora’s still the only adult on the ship, in the sense that she’s capable of having conversations without hitting on someone, but she goes from “zero” to “reconciliation with her evil sister,” in all of one scene. Drax, now that his revenge is basically complete, is still a pretty one-joke character, and that one joke is “insulting people to their faces is comedy…right?” (To paraphrase everyone who knows and/or loves any previous incarnation of Mantis: “Noooooooo!”) Meanwhile, Rocket and Groot are still the most interesting double-act of them all, and should totally get their own show…though even that will probably follow the “tell, don’t show” rule of storytelling as well.
And damnit, everyone’s still monologuing. I expect Ego to pull that shit, but Nebula? Yondu? Here’s a Movie Critic Quick Tip for ya: when a kinda, sorta-antagonist from the last film suddenly starts going on about their Tragic Backstory, you can expect them to either die, or pull a face-turn. Spoiler Alert…but seriously. Name an actor in their sixties who’s actually lived through a Marvel movie and isn’t Samuel L. Jackson…or Michael Douglas…Aww, shit, did I just spoil Ant-Man and the Wasp for myself…? Oh, wait – Glenn Close lived! And where there is Glenn Close, there is hope! (Assuming she didn’t die off screen before Infinity War started.)
Still, the last film seeded the idea that Yandu was protecting Quill from his true heritage by raising him up in the space pirate life, and it’s nice to see that paid off immediately…especially since it’s in a form I was not expecting. Yondu, who clawed his way out of slave pits and into a life time of rollicking adventure, is and always was Peter Quills real father. Yondu’s the one who taught Quill the skills Quill would eventually employ to save the Milky Way’s population…twice over, now. In this film alone, we see Quill pilot a spaceship through an asteroid field, crash land without killing anyone (any landing you can walk away from, right?) and hotwire another spaceship on the fly. I speak from experience when I say these are not skills you can learn in Missouri. All his life, Yondu provided an example of what a captain should be that Quill is, even if only subconsciously, trying to emulate. He’s not there yet – he still has some growing up to do. But by all the gods, Joseph Campbell called it the “Kill Your Fathers” portion of the Hero’s Journey, and surprise – a Guardians of the Galaxy movie took that literally.
As before, everything happens too fast and nobody has much room to breathe – hence the monologing in exchange for character development. Rare is the two hour, fifteen minute movie that feels like it’s on fast-forward, but here we are. These Marvel Team-Up movies have a problem…several, really, but the main one is the way they structure their climaxes around their titular teams finally ceasing their yammering and working together…like some kind of…I don’t know…team…or something…That’s great for the first film (not really, just go with it) but reliance on it leads to exactly the kind of formulaic storytelling people complain about. You think you’re sick of origin stories, but you’re not – you’re sick of this story. Sick of whole films leading up to that glory shot of the team, finally and fully assembled, with the camera doing a 360 degree pan around them. Like some other Marvel movie I could name…
Not that I’m immune or anything. I never thought I’d see a $200 million dollar, Jack Kirby-flavored space opera with a soundtrack made out of my parent’s record collection, circa 1990 – never mind two of them. I just wish Marvel would hire some better writers, who know how to weave exposition and character development and jokes and all the other things you need to make a story together into a…slightly more seamless tapestry. Here’s an idea: how about the movie side of Marvel hire a few more actual comic book writers? Or what about all those people who spent the 2000s toiling away in the animation department…? Oh…wait…what’s that, on the horizon? Why…I do believe it’s the end of days…Ragnarok.