MCU Retrospective: Thor: Ragnarok

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. And now, for something completely different (again).

80/100

The Thor movies, historically, have been weaker entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the first, while very near and dear to my heart, was uneven and showed the MCU’s growing pains, though it certainly had standout moments and performances; the second is widely regarded as one of the worst movies in the MCU. (For what it’s worth, director Alan Taylor doesn’t like it either, saying, “The Marvel experience was particularly wrenching because I was sort of given absolute freedom while we were shooting, and then in post it turned into a different movie,” which seems to be a common refrain among Creative Committee-era Marvel.) Even Chris Hemsworth was feeling burnt out, worried that his character was becoming static and uninteresting. Things were looking, if not dire—by this point, it would take a hell of a lot for any MCU movie to be in truly dire straits—then at least unexciting.

The solution, as it turned out, was to hire a New Zealand director best known for his wacky vampire mockumentary (yes, that’s correct) What We Do in the Shadows, which had a budget of about $1.6 million. Taika Waititi came in with a sizzle reel featuring Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” and suddenly found himself at the helm of a $180 million movie, where he gave the Thor franchise a much-needed makeover and suddenly found himself a bonafide celebrity in the process. Thor: Ragnarok serves as a soft reboot of the franchise, poking fun at its over-dramatic past exploits, introducing new characters for future stories, and injecting an enormous of humor and color into one of the more dour MCU series—to say that Waititi revived Thor both as a character and as a series sounds dramatic but would be entirely correct.

The tone shift becomes apparent from the first moment Thor opens his mouth. Trapped in a cage above a floor of lava, he says, “Now, I know what you’re thinking. Oh no! Thor’s in a cage. How did this happen?” This is a far cry from the exposition-heavy openings of Thor and Thor: The Dark World, which utilized ponderous flashbacks to explain their MacGuffins; instead, we are greeted with Thor talking to a skeleton and offhandedly mumbling about “Infinity Stone things.” No more flowery language, no more self-serious talk of duty and kingship: Waititi wisely lets Hemsworth play to his considerable comedic strengths, and the result is a movie that never lets up on the gas pedal of humor while leaning heavily into Waititi’s off-kilter Kiwi sensibilities. 

And so after Thor gets out of that cage and defeats fire giant Surtur (Clancy Brown), and after he receives ominous warnings about the impending doom of his home from Ragnarok, the apocalypse in Norse mythology, Thor arrives back on Asgard to chat with his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), whose mannerisms—and the fact that he’s staging a rather melodramatic play singing Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) praises—tip off Thor to the fact that this isn’t his father but is, in fact, his adopted brother, who faked his death in The Dark World.

How fitting that Loki, who all his life longed for affection and acceptance he never got, would spend his time as king of Asgard running a PR campaign to make himself look like a hero, all so he can bask in adulation from the masses. As Tony Stark says in The Avengers, “And Loki, he’s a full-tilt diva, right? He wants flowers, he wants parades. He wants a monument built to the skies with his name.” Or, as Mobius puts more succinctly in Loki, “What an incredible seismic narcissist!”

If Thor’s confrontation with Surtur already toed the line of absurdity, we’ve now merrily leaped to the other side: Loki-as-Odin merrily eating grapes as he watches his own death, cameos from Luke Hemsworth, Sam Neill, and Matt Damon as actors in the play, and, as Matt Damon-as-Loki dies, a solemn choir singing Brian Tyler’s score that played as in Thor: The Dark World as the real Loki “died.” It’s fantastically different from anything that came before in Ragnarok’s predecessors: this is not your average Thor movie, and it’s much better for it.

Thor reveals Loki’s trickery, and the two go off to track down Odin with a little help from a certain Sorcerer Supreme (Benedict Cumberbatch in a fun and quick cameo). Odin has been laying low in Norway, his age catching up to him. Atop a stark cliffside, Odin blindsides his sons by revealing that they have a sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), whom he locked away when she got too bloodthirsty, and then after this revelation, Odin promptly perishes.

It’s a small, intimate scene with beautiful visuals and strong performances, and it’s a good sendoff for Odin as he reminds us that he can have moments of kindness with his sons while also being the shittiest father in the MCU. He includes Loki when he says, “My sons,” which is nice considering that the last time he saw Loki he said, “Your birthright was to die,” but in the same breath divulges that he imprisoned his firstborn and never told his other children. Where the other Thor movies typically tried to pretend that Odin was a good father and a good king, Waititi mostly strips the veneer off him, laying his flaws on thick (though still never quite interrogating them enough).

So Odin dies, but his legacy does not: Hela immediately arrives in all her glory—and there’s a lot of it. Blanchett looks absolutely fabulous, and she chews on scenery with relish; there’s little complexity driving Hela, who simply wants to rule through bloodshed, but Blanchett has such a blast in the role (and, seriously, she looks amazing) that she vaults Hela up into the upper echelon of Marvel villains. If you squint, you can see a commentary on colonization—Waititi himself is half Maōri as well as the MCU’s first non-white director—in Odin and Hela’s conquest of the realms and the subsequent burial of Odin’s sins, and the way Odin and Asgard let the problems rot and fester so they are unprepared when they rears their ugly heads, but as has happened before, audience members are left with only breadcrumbs to form commentary from, though these breadcrumbs are pretty tasty. 

Hela handily destroys Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer, which sends both Loki and Thor into a tailspin; Loki, panicking, calls for the Bifrost to take them back, but Hela grabs ahold and tosses both Loki and Thor out of the Bifrost while she gets taken to Asgard. From there, the story becomes bifurcated: we cut between Loki and Thor navigating the colorful world of Sakaar and Hela beginning her reign of terror on Asgard. 

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

While in both Thor and The Dark World the scenes on Asgard stood a step or two above the scenes set elsewhere, here it’s the opposite. The time spent on Asgard with Hela is certainly still enjoyable due to both Blanchett and the addition of Waititi’s fellow Kiwi Karl Urban as Skurge, a lackey who gets roped into Hela’s bloodthirst rather unwillingly. It’s just that there’s not much to do other than reveal once again that Odin was terrible and summarily dispense with the Warriors Three (Zachary Levi, Ray Stevenson, and Tadanobu Asano)—Sif (Jaimie Alexander), it seems, was too busy filming Blindspot to attend the reunion. 

It’s not exactly a heartbreaking moment, as the Warriors Three had precious little screen time before (though Levi certainly hammed up his two minutes in The Dark World), and Hela dispatching them so easily establishes not only her threat but also Waititi’s willingness to turn the Thor world on its head. This disregard for the past is refreshing, and in some cases needed for this particular franchise, but the deaths of three of Thor’s closest friends perhaps should carry a bit more weight. Levi’s Fandral and Stevenson’s Volstagg barely get a word in edgewise before getting stabbed, and Asano’s Hogun fares only a little better before Hela promptly skewers him; Thor, when he does return to Asgard, does not acknowledge any of this, and so the inclusion of the Warriors Three simply to get killed in a very nonchalant manner sits a tad uncomfortably. To quote a different Disney franchise, “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to,” but maybe not this quickly.

While Hela has been killing his friends, Thor has been having a hell of a day on Sakaar. First, a space wormhole deposits him in a pile of interdimensional trash. Next, an ex-Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) shows up and captures him with zero regard for his social standing. Then, he is ushered to the being known as the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) as an instrumental, hellish version of “Pure Imagination” plays in the background. He learns that he has been dumped on a planet known as Sakaar, where the Grandmaster keeps everyone entertained by having slaves (though he prefers the term “prisoners with jobs”) fight each other to the death, à la panem et circenses; Thor, full of bluster and looking extremely ripped, has the honor to become the Grandmaster’s next pet fighter. Also, Loki has been there for weeks and has already ingratiated himself with the Grandmaster, being the sly trickster that he is, and he declines to assist Thor.

It’s a lot to take in, so Thor is understandably euphoric when he realizes that the ominous “champion” the Grandmaster has been praising and whom he has to fight is none other than the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). But Thor’s “friend from work” has no interest in playing nice, it seems, even smashing Thor up the way he did Loki in The Avengers (“Yes! That’s how it feels!” Loki holleres), though Thor puts up enough of a fight that the Grandmaster has to interfere lest his precious champion lose and become unpopular.

This Sakaar storyline, adapted from the Planet Hulk comics, is immense fun. It’s got Jeff Goldblum melting people with sticks and improvising jazz on an alien piano—what more could you possibly want? It also adds a dash of bright color into the MCU, and while its visuals don’t quite match Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, it’s a refreshing change of pace and shows the dividends that pay when Marvel plays outside its typical sandbox. Waititi’s voice can be heard loud and clear throughout Ragnarok (and not just because he does the voice and motion capture for Thor’s fellow gladiator Korg) in a way that’s hard to imagine happening while the Creative Committee was still around. Large chunks of the movie were improvised, allowing the actors’ natural humor to shine, and directorial freedom was nearly absolute. Oh, it’s definitely a Marvel movie with all the requisite fights and whatnot, but it’s definitely a Taika Waititi movie, too.

The Thor/Hulk buddy comedy that unfurls after their fight is a happy marriage of two characters who have had precious little previous screentime together despite sharing two Avengers movies. Thor tries to badger and pester Hulk into turning back into Bruce Banner, but Hulk, finally having found a group of people that accept and even adore him (as opposed to Earth’s frosty reception after he destroyed Johannesburg in Avengers: Age of Ultron), resists. Hemsworth and Ruffalo spit childish insults at each other with glee, and though the dynamic shifts when Hulk inevitably turns back into Bruce Banner after seeing a clip of Black Widow, it only increases in fun as Ruffalo gazes wild-eyed around at the chaos and stress of Sakaar, marveling at their love for his alter ego.

Thor and Bruce set off to go back to Asgard, and on the way, run into Valkyrie, who’s had a change of heart. She had left Asgard after Hela, years and years ago, slaughtered all her fellow Valkyries; disillusioned with Asgard and lamenting the loss of everyone she loved, this Valkyrie retreated to Sakaar to drink her remaining days away. But, as she says, “I don’t want to forget. I can’t turn away anymore. So, if I’m going to die, well… it may as well be driving my sword through the heart of that murderous hag.” Thompson is a fantastic addition to the MCU, and she and Hemsworth have great chemistry, though thankfully not of the romantic kind. (There is a deleted scene somewhere that reveals Valkyrie to be bisexual, as she is in the comics, and it adds another reason for Valkyrie to hate Hela so vehemently, but it was cut for, uh… reasons, I guess. Sure.)

The unlikely trio dub themselves the Revengers, snag and then lose a certain trickster god after another betrayal, start a revolution in the gladiator pits, steal the Grandmaster’s orgy ship, and head back to Asgard through the Devil’s Anus to stop Hela (imagine saying that sentence back in Phase One!). The confrontation between Hela and Thor in the throne room gets the film tantalizing close to truly dissecting Odin’s faults—“It would seem our father’s solution to every problem was to cover it up,” Hela comments—before brother and sister, the warring sides of Odin’s legacy, duke it out and leave conversation by the wayside.

Hela easily lays waste to Thor, blinding him in his right eye like his father before him, and things seem to be looking very dire for our seductive Lord of Thunder and his fellow Asgardians, who are trapped between Hela’s forces. Luckily for them, Loki, in his fully horned glory, reappears with a ship that dwarfs the Grandmaster’s, proclaiming, “Your savior is here!” It’s a move that redeems Loki while never letting him become a good guy: he’s still devious and narcissistic, but he cares for his brother and he cares for his people at the end of the day. (Of course, the completion of his redemption arc makes him excellent cannon fodder for Avengers: Infinity War.)

“What were you the god of again?” she sneers as her knives pin Thor to a balcony railing. As Thor’s bravado fades, his mind transports him back to Norway, where Odin waits. Falling to his knees, for perhaps the first time in his life Chris Hemsworth looks small(ish). He feels hopeless without Mjolnir and without Odin, but then his father asks him, “Are you Thor, god of hammers?”

What follows is just so damn satisfying. “What were you the god of again?” Well, Hela finds out, and quickly too, as Thor lets loose. Fireworks go off, Hulk fights a giant wolf, Loki flips his helmet in a cool way, and Thor proceeds to absolutely wreck Hela’s minions as Led Zeppelin plays in the background. Other MCU movies play up Thor’s physical strength, and so does Waititi, but he also allows his titular character to run wild with the true power of a god, and hot damn does it feel good. 

This is Thor as we have never seen him: battered and bloody, sans an eyeball, but at the height of his power with lightning crackling all around him, no hammer necessary. Finally, finally, Thor stands on his own two feet as a dynamic character in his own right, stepping out of the shadow cast by his charismatic, scene-stealing brother. It took six years to get there, but what a hell of a payoff.

But his newfound power still isn’t enough to defeat Hela, and Thor realizes that he has to destroy Asgard in order to destroy her, bringing about the Ragnarok he was trying so desperately to avoid. But, as he says, “Asgard is not a place. It’s a people,” and so Loki dashes to Odin’s vault to free Surtur (and steals an Infinity Stone in the process), all the remaining Asgardians are loaded onto a ship, and we all watch as Surtur and Hela obliterate Thor’s home and all its riches, technology, and history. But perhaps, given its bloodied history, it’s “easier to let it burn,” as Loki says earlier in the film. The past caught up, Asgard had to reckon with it, and in this reckoning it gets reborn looking very different, but now free of its past sins.

And then… Korg makes a joke about it, and so we arrive at the crux of the problem with Ragnarok, and why it doesn’t crack my top three: it’s too funny. “Wait,” I hear you clarmoing, “Anna, what’s the problem with that?” The jokes almost always land, after all, and they make Ragnarok one of the most memorable MCU entries with such lines as the improvised, “There was one time my brother transformed himself into a snake, because he knows how much I like snakes, and so I picked the snake up to admire it, but then he turned back and went, ‘Blergh! It’s me!’ And then he stabbed me. We were eight, at the time.” That is an absolute classic.

The problem, however, is that the abundance of jokes hampers the film’s burgeoning commentary on colonization and legacy because it all becomes couched in humor, which can certainly be effective at conveying messages but needs space in order to be so, and Ragnarok has precious little of that. When Waititi goes for the more serious moments, he can land them—both scenes with Odin on the cliffside, Loki saying, “I’m here” at the very end of the film—but the balance here skews far more towards humor, undercutting the emotional impact of, say, your home world getting destroyed by your secret imperialist sister. Waititi can certainly balance comedy with drama, and would go on to take home an Oscar for exactly that skill in Jojo Rabbit, but here the balance is off. There is no time to process anything: the Warriors Three get killed within seconds, a pedestrian reveals that Jane broke up with Thor in an offhand line. None of the mayhem promised by the revelation in The Dark World that Loki is now posing as Odin happens, and instead that and most of his deep-seated family issues get turned into jokes. Asgard gets destroyed, joke. Thor finally takes the throne as his theme from the first Thor movie swells, joke. 

As Marvel movie sins go, this is far from the worst one, and it’s no small feat to go from New Zealand indie movies to successfully revamping the image of one of the world’s most famous superheroes. But just a little more breathing room, just a little more time to get messier with the characters and give the emotional beats all the weight they deserve, would have been nice.

Groundwork and stray observations: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • Not much groundwork, since the whole point of Ragnarok is to blow up the Thor franchise and start over. The mid-credits scene does nicely set the stage for Infinity War’s opening, though. 
  • Natalie Portman does not appear in this film, presumably because her experience during The Dark World left a bad taste in her mouth, but Waititi’s remodeling of the franchise lured her back in for Thor: Love and Thunder, where she’ll be playing Thor, but also Jane. Jane gets cancer, but she can wield Mjolnir and get superpowers, but then that accelerates her cancer… it gets a bit weird in the comics, but it will be nice to have Portman back and not simply relegated to “love interest.”
  • I didn’t mention Heimdall (Idris Elba) in the bulk of the piece, but it’s very nice to see him get to do something other than ominously judge from afar. Elba is great.
  • When Thor sees Odin in a vision towards the end of the movie, Odin says, “Asgard is not a place. Never was. This could be Asgard.” The “this means Norway, a place which will in fact become Asgard come Avengers: Endgame, with Tønsberg (seen in both Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger) becoming New Asgard.
  • A statue of Beta Ray Bill’s head is on the outside of a building in Sakaar; when Christian Bale was cast for Thor: Love and Thunder, there was a lot of speculation he would play Beta Ray Bill, who has wielded both Mjolnir and Stormbreaker, the axe Peter Dinklage makes for Thor in Infinity War. Bale will instead be playing Gorr the God Butcher.
  • I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the only good thing to come out of Bruce and Natasha’s “relationship” in Age of Ultron is Thor attempting to calm down Hulk in this film by saying, “Sun’s getting real low.”
  • Fun fact for any What We Do in the Shadows fans out there: Carlo van de Roer, who played absolute legend Stu in the movie, helped create the lighting rig that makes this Valkyrie scene so cool.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: I mean… come on, it’s Thor absolutely wrecking shit while “Immigrant Song” plays. Can’t beat that. 

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Captain America: Civil War, 3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 4. Thor: Ragnarok, 5. Guardians of the Galaxy, 6. The Avengers, 7. Spider-Man: Homecoming, 8. Captain America: The First Avenger, 9. Iron Man 3, 10. Iron Man, 11. Doctor Strange, 12. Ant-Man, 13. Thor, 14. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 15. Thor: The Dark World, 16. Iron Man 2, 17. The Incredible Hulk

Thor: Ragnarok Trailer

Thor: Ragnarok is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

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MCU Retrospective: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. The a-holes are back!

85/100

Like its predecessor, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opens with a bang. After a brief sojourn with Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) parents back in 1980, with Laura Haddock reprising her role of Meredith Quill and a de-aged Kurt Russell making his debut as Peter’s father, we get treated to an opening credits scene that rivals even Vol. 1’s highs: Baby Groot (the voice of Vin Diesel) dancing around to the Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” in one long tracking shot as the rest of the Guardians get ravaged by an interdimensional beast in the background. It’s an absolutely joyous beginning, one that sets up the strengths of the movie to come: an abundance of humor (Dave Bautista as Drax very seriously intoning, “I have sensitive nipples”), a more comfortable—if still prickly—team dynamic between the Guardians, top-notch music choices, and a bright color palette that is a welcome change of pace from the monochromatic norm for Marvel. Director James Gunn takes what worked in the first film and amplifies it, though the paths he treads still feel fresh.

The Guardians, consisting of Peter Quill, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Groot, and Drax, have been dispatched by the golden Sovereign race to deal with this interdimensional beast in exchange for their prisoner, Gamora’s adopted sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). The exchange seems to have gone smoothly until it’s revealed that Rocket stole some valuable Anulax Batteries (“Harbulary Batteries,” Drax confidently declares), and so Sovereign leader Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) sics a fleet of ships on the Guardians.

With the help of a mysterious man in a pod-like ship, the Guardians destroy the Sovereign’s fleet before they crash land on a planet. The man from the pod, looking like current Kurt Russell, meets them and introduces himself as Ego, Peter’s father. He offers to take Peter to his planet, and so the Guardians split up: Drax, Gamora, and Peter go with Ego, while Rocket and Groot (and Nebula) stay to fix the ship. It’s a classic sequel move, à la The Empire Strikes Back: the gang gets separated and thus are forced to grapple with their own demons.

These inner demons are the driving force of the movie. Peter, having been plagued all his life with daddy issues, has to face the father he feels abandoned both him and his dying mother, only to discover that maybe his father isn’t all that bad. The movie never fully tricks the viewers into believing that Ego’s a good guy, but it gives us enough to fully understand why Peter—who’s spent so much time longing for a bit of kindness from Dad and a sense of belonging—would buy into Ego’s shtick. (And there is a hint of genuine sadness in Ego’s voice as he discusses how lonely he is.) It’s not just that Ego shares a bit of Peter’s humor or that he has a beautiful planet to himself, it’s also that on this planet, Peter suddenly has access to superpowers and immortality. They feel like signs he’s finally home. 

And what a beautiful home it is. Ego’s planet is introduced with the sweet sounds of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” and it stands out as one of the most colorful sequences in the MCU. In a franchise that succeeds based on a certain level of predictability, Vol. 2’s array of brilliant colors present throughout the movie stand out, and Gunn puts a unique visual stamp on his film which few other Marvel films possess. The cinematography by Henry Braham similarly remains consistently impressive and stands far above most other Marvel films, representing what beauty can be found when the films are allowed to have a bit more character and individuality. Gunn, for what it’s worth, said that he had the utmost creative freedom when shooting Vol. 2, and while he might have been exaggerating due to the Marvel sniper aiming at anyone who speaks out of turn, it’s worth it to note that this was likely the first Marvel production completely free from the Creative Committee’s control, and Gunn’s voice is clearly heard throughout Vol. 2 in a way only rivaled by Taika Waititi in Thor: Ragnarok. It looks like a proper comic book, bright and colorful and sometimes a bit chaotic. Glorious.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

Gamora, meanwhile, while initially urging Peter to get to know his father, quickly changes her tune once she begins to suspect Ego of malintent—she’s had a lot of trouble with her own family, most notably Nebula, and now that she feels a member her newfound family beginning to slip away from her and towards someone else, she reacts poorly. Drax spends a hefty chunk of this movie as (very effective) comic relief, but his friendship with Ego’s servant, Mantis (Pom Klementieff, an absolutely excellent addition), produces one of the most touching moments of the film: as Drax describes a day spent with his now-dead daughter, Mantis—whose empathic abilities let her feel what others do—lays a hand on his shoulder and begins weeping as she experiences the pain that Drax carries with him wherever he goes. 

Back on the ship, Nebula is filled with thoughts of revenge on Gamora, and Rocket stews with rage after he and Peter grate on each other’s sizable, fragile egos. (Baby Groot just looks cute.) They aren’t alone with their thoughts for long, however, as Yondu (Michael Rooker) has been hired by Ayesha to seize the Guardians; despite Rocket’s best efforts (and a wonderful setpiece to Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights”), Yondu apprehends the three Guardians and Nebula. But then Yondu’s crew mutinies, and so he’s thrown into the ship’s brig alongside Rocket, Baby Groot is left to his own devices after getting manhandled, and Nebula flies off to go kill her sister. 

It sounds like a lot of spinning plates, and indeed it is, but Gunn balances them all well and allows each character to get their due without the movie feeling too overstuffed (but maybe just a little). Despite the balancing act going on, however, there’s not much plot actually happening: Peter and company go to see his father, Rocket and company get captured, and that is about it. Vol. 2’s plot doesn’t truly kick into gear until the third act, and for the first two-thirds of the movie, we are left to ruminate with the characters and a building sense of unease surrounding Ego. This kind of lulling story may not work for everyone, especially as it represents such a marked departure from the general shape of an MCU storyline, but coming off the heels of the disappointingly rote (though still fun!) Ant-Man and Doctor Strange, Vol. 2 feels like a breath of fresh air. The film is largely driven by character rather than simply going through the motions of the plot to get through it all, and as we know, character focus in the MCU will win out over plot almost every time for me. Vol. 2 lets its characters breathe, something that few other MCU movies seem able to do as they instead breathlessly rush from one action sequence to another. (Not to say, of course, that there aren’t action sequences in Vol. 2. There are still plenty.)

Part of the reason Vol. 2’s plot may seem thin is that there’s no clear villain until the third act. Ego, while obviously suspicious, is played with enough charm by the ever-great Kurt Russell that you find yourself wanting to believe his intentions are good, and so instead you can focus on the great character beats that happen in the leadup to Ego’s villainous reveal.

Gamora and Nebula, in particular, get standout moments in Vol. 2, and Saldana and Gillan’s performances make up for their stilted deliveries in their first Marvel outing. Where their awkwardness in Vol. 1 felt as though it came from the layers of makeup and odd dialogue that goes hand-in-hand with sci-fi and fantasy, here the two performers play their characters more comfortably: the awkwardness comes from Gamora and Nebula’s turbulent childhoods and lack of social skills rather than lack of acting prowess. The two rarely interacted in Vol. 1, but here their fraught relationship comes to the surface as both Nebula and Gamora find themselves without daddy Thanos to impress this time around. 

Nebula’s intense resentment towards Gamora, Thanos’ favorite, results in a fun sequence clearly inspired by North by Northwest as Gamora tries to outrun her sister’s ship and Nebula attempts to blast Gamora to bits. Though neither ends up dead, they do finally talk. It turns out when they were younger, Thanos would make the two of them fight together; when Gamora inevitably won, their father would replace some part of Nebula with a machine, so it’s no wonder Nebula’s got a bone to pick. “You were the one who wanted to win. And I just wanted a sister!” For a character who barely existed in Vol. 1, she works wonderfully here, and Gamora too becomes a much better character. (Her “unspoken thing” with Peter also succeeds where it was middling in Vol. 1, helped by the fact that it’s unspoken rather than acted upon in a rush.)

But it’s Rocket Raccoon who gets the biggest arc in Vol. 2, helped along by Yondu. Gunn perfectly bounces this pair of acerbic loners off each other as they reckon with the damage they have caused. Yondu, with his crew having mutinied against him, is ready to accept what he thinks he deserves and die, but Rocket is determined to get out of there. With the help of Baby Groot and Yondu’s right-hand man Kraglin (Sean Gunn), they escape, assisted by Yondu’s enormously cool flying arrow and “Come a Little Bit Closer” by Jay and the Americans. (The song choices in this one might even eclipse those of Vol. 1—they’re just so good.) When Yondu reveals that Ego wants to use Peter as an amplifier to take over the universe so that he, Ego, literally becomes everything, they set off to save him. Ego is a very literal name, apparently. 

Yondu and Rocket work so well together because they see themselves in each other, and that forces them to do some self-reflecting, even if they don’t want to. “I know everything about you,” Yondu growls to Rocket. “I know you play like you’re the meanest and hardest but actually you’re the most scared of all… I know you steal batteries you don’t need and you push away anyone who’s willing to put up with you ’cause just a little bit of love reminds you of how big and empty that hole inside you actually is… I know who you are, boy, because you’re me!” It’s one of the MCU’s most in-depth examinations and gives a raccoon more character than many of his human compatriots in other films, which says something about the strengths of this movie (and the weaknesses of the other ones). 

So, finally, as Yondu, Rocket, Baby Groot, and Kraglin go off to save Peter, Drax, and Gamora, who all finally accept each other as true family, flaws and all, the villain of Vol. 2 emerges, and to no one’s surprise, Ego the Living Planet turns out to be a massive narcissist. He meant it when he said he was lonely, but he’s only lonely because he thinks so highly of himself and his godhood that he couldn’t deign to spend his life among mere mortals. Meredith Quill got close to bringing him down to earth, and so he put a brain tumor in her head to avoid that fate. When Peter, whose love for his mother proves stronger than his desire to belong with his father, rejects his Celestial powers, Ego’s mask of kindness drops and we are submerged in the typical Marvel world-ending battle. 

The third act is the most unwieldy of the film as all the different players established earlier collide in one big messy heap, though it’s certainly not the most egregious Marvel finale. The bright colors that saturate Ego’s world make for an eye-catching final battle even though it begins to get a bit out of hand and go on for too long—but, again, it’s certainly not the first Marvel film to do that, and its offense is much smaller than Avengers: Age of Ultron or even the original The Avengers. Plus, Ego makes a a pretty compelling villain to watch, far more so than Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser from Vol. 1 (no offense, Lee, it wasn’t your fault). 

Even with the cluttered nature of the Ego vs. Peter showdown, it still manages to squeeze in affecting character moments and rollicking humor (mostly via a quest to find tape and Baby Groot, who was the cutest baby alien ever until Baby Yoda came along), and Yondu’s death as he sacrifices himself to save Peter is one of the most gut-wrenching moments in the MCU—and that’s no small feat, considering how ugly they make his teeth look (and the fact that he was basically sending kids to their deaths, of course)—and the resulting funeral with “Father and Son” playing is a hell of sendoff. 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t the neatest Marvel film. It’s a bit messy and rough around the edges in places, but when it does succeed, it easily sets itself apart from its peers—even the original Guardians of the Galaxy, though it’s not quite the shock to the Marvel system that its predecessor was. But it’s still a feast for the eyes and full of an odd, thorny kind of heart that just beats stronger when you get to its core, much like its protagonists, and it serves as a reminder that while Marvel can sometimes get a little stale, there is something special to be found there every so often.

Groundwork and stray observations: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • Ego is a Celestial, beings which were mentioned in Vol. 1, as the mining colony Knowhere was situated within a Celestial’s skull, but will have much bigger roles to play come Eternals.
  • The “Adam” that Ayesha teases in a post-credits scene is none other than Adam Warlock, who will presumably show up at a future point in time. (Though not Vol. 3, apparently.)
  • Stan Lee’s cameo involves him talking to a group of Watchers, an alien race that, as their name suggests, watch over everything but don’t interfere. The Watcher named Uatu has become prevalent in What If…? and is played by Jeffrey Wright, though it remains to be seen if we will get further live action Watchers (Nick Fury sort of becomes one in the comics and chills on the Moon; it gets pretty wild.)
  • Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster from Thor: Ragnarok shows up in the credits.
  • The group at the end of Vol. 2, consisting of Sylvester Stallone’s Stakar and cameos from Michelle Yeoh, Ving Rhames, Miley Cyrus, and Michael Rosenbaum, is a nod to the original Guardians lineup from 1969.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Yondu’s funeral + Cat Stevens. Instant waterworks. 

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Captain America: Civil War, 3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 4. Guardians of the Galaxy, 5. The Avengers, 6. Captain America: The First Avenger, 7. Iron Man 3, 8. Iron Man, 9. Doctor Strange, 10. Ant-Man, 11. Thor, 12. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 13. Thor: The Dark World, 14. Iron Man 2, 15. The Incredible Hulk

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Trailer

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is currently available to stream on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Guardians of the Galaxy

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. And now, for something completely different.

80/100

There’s a scene from the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy where Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill introduces himself as “Star-Lord” with all the seriousness and self-importance in the world, and he is promptly met with a violent, “Who?delivered courtesy of Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou).

That about sums up the reaction that many confused Marvel fans had when the first trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy was revealed, introducing us to an entirely new team comprised of that goofy dude from Parks and Recreation, a green lady named Gamora (Zoe Saldana), former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista playing someone called Drax the Destroyer, an honest-to-god raccoon (Bradley Cooper) named after a Beatles song, and a talking tree dubbed Groot (Vin Diesel). Who?

No one knew who these guys were. Even Iron Man, certainly far from the most famous of Marvel superheroes, had some name recognition, and Captain America, Hulk, and Thor were all Marvel staples. The Guardians of the Galaxy, though, not so much. This was Marvel’s first nonsequel since Captain America: The First Avenger? Marvel’s cultural importance had certainly grown, and coming off the heels of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it was coasting on public goodwill, but here was its first true post-Avengers test: introduce a bunch of new characters that no one knows anything about and hope the film is good enough to strengthen brand loyalty rather than frighten casual fans away. It was risky: even the Thor films had elements of familiarity, setting much of the story on Earth and making some of our denizens main characters, but this was a movie set almost entirely in space about a bunch of nobodies directed by a guy who cut his teeth in horror-comedies. Even with the support of the Marvel brand behind them, Guardians’ success was far from assured; in fact, it was such a bizarre premise that Amanda Seyfried turned down the role of Gamora due to concerns over the talking raccoon and his tree buddy, thinking the movie might bomb. Would this be the first real MCU flop?

Luckily for Marvel, James Gunn ended up making one of its strongest films to date; it was a completely different tone from The Winter Soldier, which had arrived several months prior, but, like that movie, Guardians proved that Marvel wasn’t afraid to adapt and reinvent their wheel (not the wheel, just their wheel—at the end of the day, it’s still a Marvel film first and foremost) to stay fresh in the eyes of their fans. Winter Soldier went gritty, Guardians went goofy, and it paid off in spades.

Guardians’ opening scenes perfectly set the stage for that triumph, exhibiting the blend of heart and humor that courses through the film: we start with a young Peter Quill (here played by Wyatt Oleff) running away from a hospital after his cancer-ridden mother (Laura Haddock) dies. It’s a shocking opening, setting a much more somber mood than Marvel goes for and maybe even eliciting a few tears, despite the brevity of the scene. 26 years and an alien abduction later, an adult Quill goes to investigate an abandoned planet, the rain pelting down around him as he scopes out the harsh landscape.

And then, amidst this gloom and doom, something marvelous (ha) happens: Peter starts up his Walkman, “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone starts to sound, and our hero begins to dance his way through these dank, vermin-filled ruins. In an instant, the movie has transformed; any tears that might have gathered vanish, replaced instead by a broad grin. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition, one that perfectly establishes the tone of the movie and introduces us to our hapless hero. Though he won’t speak for another two minutes or so, it’s already hard as hell not to like Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill. 

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

Quill isn’t our only hero, though. When he brings a mysterious orb to sell through a broker, he attracts the attention of some nefarious people, including Quill’s pseudo-foster father Yondu (Michael Rooker), who is tempted to let his Ravagers eat Quill as payback for stealing the orb; Gamora, who happens to be the adopted daughter of Thanos (Josh Brolin, in his first MCU appearance), and through him works for Kree warlord Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace); Rocket Raccoon, a raccoon bounty hunter with a penchant for stealing prosthetics; and Groot, a talking tree who only ever says, “I am Groot.” The latter three all try to hunt down Quill—Gamora by herself and Rocket with Groot—but end up being apprehended by the Nova Corps, the planet Xandar’s police force. 

(Specifically, they are apprehended by John C. Reilly as Rhomann Dey, whose boss, Nova Prime, is played by Glenn Close. The door is open for a return from those two, provided they didn’t get annihilated when Thanos destroyed Xandar before Infinity War; Reilly and Close are two of the most well-known and well-regarded actors the MCU has collected, and they’re relegated to glorified cameos here. It’s actually kind of funny, watching these A-listers take a backseat to a sitcom actor.)

Our ragtag bunch get sent to the Kyln, a galactic prison, where they encounter Drax. Drax is hell-bent on destroying Ronan, who killed Drax’s entire family; this means destroying Gamora, too, until she reveals that she intends to give the orb not to Ronan, who will use it to unleash destruction on Xandar, but to the Collector, Taneleer Tivan (Benicio del Toro), and wants to use the money she will get to flee from her father and the destruction he plans to sow. The five prisoners then stage a delightfully clever prison break, retrieve the orb, and set about getting the reward.

As it turns out, that orb is actually the Power Stones, one of six Infinity Stones (which, of course, have no plot relevance whatsoever), and after it blows up the Collector’s collection and ends up in Ronan’s hands, our heroes reluctantly go off to stop Ronan and save the galaxy. (“What has the galaxy ever done for you? Why would you want to save it?” Rocket demands, unwilling to go suicidal to defeat Ronan. “Because I’m one of the idiots who lives in it!” Quill retorts.)

The plot proceeds largely as expected. There’s a big bad guy, they have to defeat him, blah blah blah. Ronan himself is a fairly underwhelming villain, motivated only by vengeance and bloodshed, though Lee Pace clearly had a good time hamming it up in increasingly absurd ways (also, I believe his is the only nude butt we have seen in the MCU). Add Pace to the list of underutilized actors who play bland villains in Marvel films, I guess. 

Yet, despite the rote plot, Guardians soars. Its humor consistently lands, its characters exude charm. It, like Winter Soldier, is a breath of fresh air in the MCU, but it, unlike the very serious Winter Soldier, approaches its strange source material with a sense of glee. Its heroes are reluctant, they’re selfish, and they are definitely, definitely weirder than any of the other Marvel heroes we’ve seen before (even the guy who flies around with a hammer), and James Gunn uses these oddballs to wring out some of the best comedy of the MCU. (If this sounds eerily similar to James Gunn’s 2021 The Suicide Squad, well, you’d be right. The guy likes his found families full of mean misfits.)

Of course, it’s hard to mention the success of Guardians without pointing to its soundtrack. From “Come and Get Your Love” to “Cherry Bomb” to “O-o-h Child” (especially to “O-o-h Child” and the corresponding dance-off), each song injects Guardians with a healthy dose of joy or sentimentality. Not only are the songs perfectly timed, they have plot relevance, too—while not always quite diegetic, each needle drop comes from a mixtape Quill’s mother had given to him, giving them an extra emotional resonance. Awesome Mix Vol. 1 is full of so many earworms that it reached the top of the Billboard 200 chart, the first time a soundtrack consisting only of previously released songs had secured the number one spot, and it even became certified platinum. Baby Groot dancing to “I Want You Back” took the Internet by storm, and suddenly decades-old songs were back in the collective consciousness; the soundtrack indelibly shaped the movie, and while moviegoers fondly think back on AC/DC in the Iron Man films, or recall the excellent use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” in Thor: Ragnarok, Awesome Mix Vol. 1 was a runaway success on an entirely different level, and it helped Guardians be one, too.

Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t a perfect film: its villain is nothing to write home about, and some performers (namely Zoe Saldana as Gamora and especially Karen Gillan as Nebula) take until Vol. 2 to settle into their (prosthetic, colorful) skin, but it’s so fun to watch that these criticisms become mere quibbles. It’s not just fun and games though—Guardians also sticks the landing on the more emotional beats, such as Groot’s tear-jerking (at least for this writer) sacrifice, and the moment when Peter finally takes his mother’s hand. 

Gunn has a knack for finding the heart under the rough surface; when he was (stupidly) fired for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 for decades old (but admittedly tasteless) joke tweets about rape and pedophilia (unearthed only after Pizzagate conspiracist Mike Cernovich sicced his followers on Gunn after Gunn took a dig at him), Gunn’s brother Sean (who plays Kraglin and provides the motion capture for Rocket) took to Instagram and said, “I’ve heard my brother say many times that when Quill rallies the team with ‘this is our chance to give a shit’—to care—that it’s the pep talk he himself needed to hear. It’s part of what made working on the Guardians movies such a rewarding experience for the cast. We managed to find ourselves involved in a big-budget superhero movie that was, at its core, deeply personal. That’s a gift. And that’s why it’s good… So I guess my hope is that fans continue to watch and appreciate the Guardians movies, not despite the fact that the filmmaker used to be kind of a jackass, but because of it. They are, after all, movies about discovering your best self. Working on those movies made my brother a better person, and they made me one too.”

Gunn was eventually rehired after he apologized and the cast rallied around him (though not before he was scooped up by DC to helm The Suicide Squad), but his brother’s post exhibits why Guardians was so successful. It’s superheroes flying around in space and blowing stuff up, sure, but there’s more to it than that: it’s a self-admitted “bunch of jackasses,” fallible and frustrating, finding family and above all working towards redemption, as Gunn did—and as we all do at some point or another. 

It’s really too bad that Marvel follows up these two back-to-back triumphs with… well. You know. (Or if you don’t, you’ll find out.)

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • This is probably the biggest info dump we get about Infinity Stones (and the longest appearance of Thanos!) until Avengers: Infinity War.
  • Yondu was right: Quill’s father is a jackass, as we will find out in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
  • When Rocket is being processed at the Kyln, “Lylla” is listed as one of his two associates (the other being Groot). In the comics, Lylla is Rocket’s otter soulmate, and seeing as Vol. 3 will have a heavy focus on Rocket, there have been rumors flying about her presence in the film.
  • Ronan and Korath both appear in Captain Marvel, which was a fun way to bring back two talented actors who didn’t get enough to do in this film. They don’t get enough to do in Captain Marvel, either, but it was a nice try.
  • There are a bunch of things in the Collector’s collection, including Howard the Duck (Seth Green), Cosmo the Spacedog, a Chitauri (one of the aliens from The Avengers), and a Dark Elf (from Thor: The Dark World).
  • Hey, you know, those Kree guys show up in Agents of S.H.I.E.LD.! Bet you thought I couldn’t find a way to connect it this time around, but I did.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: I mean, it’s gotta be “We are Groot,” right? That or the exquisite opening ten or so minutes. (Drax calling Gamora “this green whore” gets third place.)

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Guardians of the Galaxy, 3. The Avengers, 4. Captain America: The First Avenger, 5. Iron Man 3, 6. Iron Man, 7. Thor, 8. Thor: The Dark World, 9. Iron Man 2, 10. The Incredible Hulk

Guardians of the Galaxy Trailer

Guardians of the Galaxy is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.