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.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Written by Anna Harrison

75/100

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, as Marvel’s first introductory story since Avengers: Endgame, has a lot riding on it. The Avengers we know and love are slowly fading out, and now Marvel has to fill the rosters with newcomers and hope audiences latch onto them the same way they did Iron Man and Captain America; plus, as Marvel’s first Asian-led film, the heavy baggage of representation also rests on Shang-Chi’s shoulders. The film neatly emerges from Marvel’s sleek assembly line, yet this time, under director Destin Daniel Cretton’s sure hands (and helped by a beautiful score by Joel P. West, who bucks the tradition of forgettable Marvel melodies in favor of more memorable motifs), it feels a little fresher, a little bolder, and shows that Marvel might be slowly eking towards something a little bit braver as it begins (somewhat) afresh in Phase Four.

It helps, of course, if you have one of the world’s greatest living actors in your movie. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens with Tony Leung’s Wenwu single-handedly decimating an army with no weapon other than the ten rings that adorn his arms. Wenwu is the MCU’s new Mandarin (old, technically, since he’s been around for a thousand years) as Marvel handwaves away Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian in Iron Man 3 and gives the power behind the Ten Rings a new name in the process—and a good thing, too, considering the original Mandarin from the comics was steeped in racist caricatures and preyed on yellow peril, something that Iron Man 3 tried to lampshade with varying degrees of success. (“He didn’t know my actual name. He invented a new one,” Wenwu says of Killian. “He gave me the name of a chicken dish. It worked. America was afraid of an orange.”)

An expository voiceover reveals that Wenwu had used the power of the Ten Rings to gather power for more than a thousand years until the day he met his match, Ying Li (Fala Chen). Through the sensual power of Tony Leung’s eyes and wuxia-inspired fight scenes, Wenwu and Ying Li fall in love, and both of them abandon their old lives to start a family. While this beginning is certainly exposition-heavy, the lushness of the scenery and grace of the choreography pave the way for what’s to come, and Leung radiates an intense, quiet charisma (though Chen ably holds her own as well).

Read Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series

While Tony Leung’s name may not be ubiquitous in the West, his legendary status in Asia is most decidedly well-earned, and his presence as villain Wenwu elevates every scene he appears in; as Simu Liu, the titular Shang-Chi, told GQ, “[Leung is] Leonardo DiCaprio, Marlon Brando, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, all rolled up into one.” Marvel has a talent for racking up, well, talent, but even among peers such as Sir Anthony Hopkins and Glenn Close, Leung stands out, and not just because I’ve nursed a massive crush on him since I first saw In the Mood for Love in my intro to film class, though that certainly has made me biased.

So it stands to reason that the children of these two powerful warriors would be poised for greatness, right? Well, maybe not. After the death of Jiang Li, Wenwu slipped back into his terrorist ways, driving away son Shang-Chi and daughter Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) in the process; when we first lay eyes on adult Shang-Chi, he’s working as a valet in San Francisco and going by the Anglicized “Shaun,” and he and his friend Katy (Awkwafina) spend their free time getting wasted in karaoke bars. Soon enough, though, his father has roped Shang-Chi and Xialing back into the world of the Ten Rings.

Shang-Chi is at its best when exploring the fractured family dynamics whose effects have continued to ripple out even years after Jiang Li’s death: Shang-Chi ran away, preferring to bury the pain of his past, and Wenwu relapsed into his life of crime and murder, but both abandoned Xialing, whose icy exterior developed as a way of protecting herself from further abandonment. The moments where they come face-to-face with each other and are forced to grapple with their own failings are among the film’s strongest, and again Leung excels in a role that could have easily been one-note in the hands of a lesser performer. Though Wenwu sends assassins after his children and locks them in prison, and Leung delivers his lines with a cool cruelty, at his core, Wenwu is a tragic, heartbroken romantic, the only peace in his life having shattered with Jiang Li’s death. There is perhaps no one better at forlorn love than Leung, and though his younger co-stars are all capable and admirable performers, Leung acts circles around them (which is more a testament to his skills than a dig at the others; Zhang in particular is a standout).

The movie stutters as it enters its exposition-laden third act and introduces an entirely new threat which fails to completely mesh with the earlier portions of the film. Still, even as the typical Marvel CGI finale ensues, said finale stands apart from its brethren, as do the rest of Shang-Chi’s fight sequences, due to its stellar fight choreography (and, uh, the fact that there’s a dragon…). The late Brad Allan, a member of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team and stunt choreographer here, puts in the work, and the results are eye-popping fights whose use of martial arts gives them a kinetic energy that Marvel fights often lack.

Even with its stumbles, Shang-Chi ultimately finds its balance and opens up an entirely new side of the Marvel universe. Aside from a few fun but non-vital cameos, Shang-Chi largely exists within its own sphere, and so is not beholden to the larger mythos at play; instead, it crafts its own, and lets the MCU creep out a bit from its hyper-American roots. Its majority-Asian cast is both welcome and overdue (and especially relevant with the recent spike in anti-Asian hate crimes), and while Shang-Chi may not feel entirely like a breath of fresh air, it’s at least a nice breeze to cool you off.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Trailer

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is currently out in theaters.

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