A few weeks back on Facebook, I posted that Thor: Ragnarok, the latest Marvel blockbuster, might be the first MCU film since Iron Man Three to feature actual character development. A strange thing to say, I know, at a time when the House That Kevin Feige Built has cornered the market on all things cinematic universes. Over time, though, Marvel’s “magic formula” has become problematic at best – high on charm and splash page comic book visuals, but also plenty of narrative wheel-spinning to bide time between Avengers films. So it was actually refreshing to see Ragnarok favor characters who are different at the end than they were at the beginning.
That was before I caught up with Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2.
I wasn’t the biggest fan of Vol. 1. Don’t get me wrong – I liked it, just not enough to carry most of it out of the theater with me. (It’s one of the all-time great “Just Because” movies, where stuff just happens for no discernable reason – i.e., Peter’s Walkman survives 28 years without batteries BECAUSE, the Guardians inexplicably withstand the power of the Infinity Stone by holding hands BECAUSE, Groot is suddenly able to produce glowing spores and a protective cocoon to surround his friends BECAUSE, etc. etc.) So when the sequel came out last May it didn’t rank high on my list of films to see in a theater. Then came its DVD/Blu-ray release in August, and on Netflix last week, and I realized I’d run out of excuses.
The formula is pretty much the same for Vol. 2 – same loosey-goosey storytelling, same over-abundance of jokes and pop culture references (last time it was Kevin Bacon and Footloose, this time it’s David Hasselhoff and Knight Rider), same 70s pop song-flavored soundtrack. But the thing that surprised me this time was its heart, its witty use of special effects, and, yes, the way it deepens the characters and makes them more than simple caricatures. Also this guy:
There’s an art to special effects – namely, using them as an adjunct to your story rather than the other way around. In GOTG2, James Gunn finds the sweet spot in between, doing some wonderfully wacky things with his FX in the foreground while the perfunctory story stuff goes on in the background. Take the already-iconic opening titles, for example, with Baby Groot grooving to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” as his buddies battle a giant octopus-thingy behind him, or a jailbreak scene with Yondu’s magic arrow zip-zipping its way through bad guys as he makes his escape. Then there are scenes that have nothing to do with plot and exist only to charm the pants off us instead; the bit where Rocket, Yondu, and Groot plan said jailbreak got me laughing so hard (“Tell me you guys have a refrigerator somewhere with a bunch of severed human toes”) it barely registered that only one character is played by an actual human being – one covered in candy blue-colored makeup at that.
That’s because Gunn knows how to instill his characters with just enough quirks to make them feel like living, breathing beings, CG or otherwise. Only here he takes them to a whole new emotional level. Here, they’re humanized: united by the bonds of friendship and family. Nothing in the movie made me cackle more than Peter’s game of “catch” with his father; and nothing made my eyes water more than a scene at the end, where a character’s sacrifice teaches Peter what his parentage actually means. (If you sense I might have a soft spot for stories about fathers and sons, you’re probably right.) That the movie is able to veer so effectively between moments of pure zaniness and heartfelt sentimentality might be its most special effect.