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Practicing Critic Conversations: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

In lieu of a normal review of Marvel Studios’ latest blockbuster, we’re excited to feature this conversation about the film between two of our Practicing Critics – Kevin Nye and Chris Lopez. Enjoy! – editor

Kevin Nye: Alright! Here we go! Let’s talk Guardians!

First impressions: I thoroughly enjoyed Vol. 2. It’s everything Guardians was the first time around, and just a little bit more. I was riveted the whole time, and actually relieved it didn’t include much interconnection to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It had action, it had comedy, it had heart, and it wasn’t self-serious. What were your first impressions?

Chris Lopez: I one-hundred percent agree: Guardians Vol. 2 was just as much fun and compelling as its predecessor while surpassing it in all the right ways. Not many blockbusters can make seamless transitions from humor to drama to grief and back to humor like we see in this film. Aesthetically speaking, I think Marvel Studios made the right decision to switch from the Arri Alexa to the Red Weapon 8K camera. With more depth in the picture and darker shadows, it’s the first Marvel film that looked more like a comic book. The color grading in Vol. 2 matches the dynamic tone of the film and the eccentricity of its characters.

I didn’t know all of that about the cameras, but I certainly noticed the result. The colors were amazing, and to me connected to the music as much as the tone and characters.

Why were you relieved to not have any interconnection with the MCU?

I say that I felt relieved to not be so connected to the MCU because to me, as a big fan of the MCU, I’ve felt that since Marvel did the big reveal of all their “Phase 3” plams, there’s been an increased sense of where all of this is headed. Ultron was especially bloated in this regard, and Civil War to a lesser extent. There could’ve been a lot of Inifinity War setup here, but they chose to do an almost completely independent storyline or adventure; sometimes it’s nice to just read one comic book and enjoy it instead of having to buy a series and worry about crossover issues.

Your comic book analogy helpfully demonstrates the challenge of translating the comic book universe into a cinematic one. Despite their aesthetic overlaps, the “crossover” event in comics just can’t be replicated by their cinematic adaptations. I find television a much better medium to make that translation. But maybe that’s why I find Guardians refreshing. As fun as it is connecting the narrative dots and interacting with the storytelling to an extent, it can get cumbersome or flat out confusing. Having a stand alone film every once in a while keeps things fresh for me. Comparing it to its Marvel Cinematic Universe counterparts, what is it about this film that makes it so refreshing and compelling for you?

I don’t know that I would call it particularly refreshing or compelling for the MCU. I rank this somewhere near the middle of MCU entries. It was more of everything that the first Guardians was, including its flaws. Every recurring joke seems to be hit just one too many times, the romance really undermines Gamora as a character, and the death toll is just a little too high to really think of these as “the good guys.” (Though it was funny to me how much they went out of their way to make sure the Sovereigns’ ships are actually drones… but it was undercut by Rocket’s line right before, a gleeful, “Let’s kill a bunch of people!”)

I was also uncomfortable with the way killing was flippantly handled. There’s absolutely no consequence to killing for the most part. As Gamora says to Peter regarding Ego, “Don’t worry. Let’s just go and see what he’s like. And if he tries anything funny, we’ll shoot him.” And as much of an audio-visual spectacle Rocket and Yondu’s prison break was, I couldn’t enjoy the scenes playful portrayal of violence. The roles given to all the main female actors undermine their characters. This is a blatant flaw in most comic book adaptations, I think.

Is there a theme, however, in Guardians that you appreciate?

There were quite a lot of co-occurring themes in the movie, some of which I appreciated more than others. I think this movie makes a mistake in splitting the team up both physically and emotionally, because we have to spend a lot of time getting them back together, a feat that I thought was accomplished in the last movie. I hope that Guardians doesn’t fall into the cycle that the Star Trek movies have, where every character has to overcome their primary character flaw again and again to beat the villain, only to revert back at the beginning of the next sequel.

I think Marvel Studios struggles with resisting that cycle, especially with the Ironman franchise, and we see a little of that in this film. However, instead of presenting a set of characters who revert back to their original relational and emotional hang ups, the film (eventually) takes us deeper into these struggles and provides a more holistic resolution than before.

The themes of reconciliation and forgiveness are compelling in this one when it goes outside of the original team, particularly to characters who were villains the first time around. Two (blue) characters who were adversaries in Guardians are given a much more nuanced treatment, and there’s something rare and beautiful about that in a genre that tends to dispose of villains like soiiled tissues. Of course, it’s not done perfectly, since some of these villains were responsible for some pretty awful atrocities in this franchise, but that again goes to show its inconsistent value on life. Relationships are reconciled, even if some sins aren’t quite atoned.

Before we get into spoilers, which is where the richest thematic material lies for me, what did you think about the relationships between the Guardians amongst themselves and toward the returning villains?

I appreciate the movements from individualism and self-assertion to community and interdependence in Vol. 2, and I think they go hand-in-hand with the themes you mentioned. The fractured relationships between the Guardians and other characters is created by their unwillingness to admit their need for acceptance from others and by their attempt to compensate for that lack of connection by asserting themselves as competent and strong. This is best demonstrated in the conversation Rocket and Yondu have right before they rendezvous with the other characters. Vulnerability and mending relational ties are celebrated as feats of heroism as much as saving the galaxy is. The Guardians are at their best when they understand that “We are Groot.” It’s all the more compelling that this turn toward community occurs not only between the Guardians, but also between some(!) of their antagonists.

I think that’s fair; the splintering of the team does allow for some deeper cuts in individual character arcs, particularly Rocket. You’re definitely right to say the team (and this franchise) is at its best when it’s working together.

Before we finish up, I would be remiss if I didn’t read a bit into the theological questions in this movie, but it will require me to go into SPOILERS. Readers, if you haven’t seen it yet, and want a few narrative stones to be left unturned before you do, now is the time to bail.

We find out that Kurt Russell’s character Ego is actually a living planet (something comic readers already knew from his name.) The big twist/reveal that sets up the final third-act conflict, though, is that his goal is to take over the entire universe himself, expanding himself until everything in the universe is him. He needs Star Lord, his son, to do it with him though, and has been waiting for him to come along. Peter rejects the offer, and has to stop it from happening, even if it means he gives up his own immortality, losing his newly discovered power.

It’s not a stretch to say that what we’re seeing here is a son of god, who is human and also divine, who relinquishes his own claim to the divine and takes on full humanity in order to save everyone else. I don’t tend to look under every rock for a Christ-figure in movies, but sometimes the sandal fits. I think this movie can actually help us think about incarnation, and even creation.

Jürgen Moltmann has a wonderful theory about creation called “zimsum,” which suggests that in order for God to create something that was not God, God actually has to withdraw into Godself to create space for a new creation. Therefore, we see God from the beginning practicing self-sacrifice and limitation in order to create space for something new – relationship and community. You can see this as the opposite of what Ego is doing, who wants to expand and consume until everything is himself. If he succeeds, there will no room left for what God and the Guardians value – relationship, community, love. If that is what life is truly about, it takes a god willing to sacrifice.

Of course, the philosophical weight of this is lost in the film by how quickly this reveal happens and is deflated by a David Hasselhoff joke, but an M.Div can dream, can’t he? Overall, I think this was a really fun Marvel movie that bit off a lot and ultimately had to spit some of it back out. But it spit with flair. Final thoughts?

Indeed, the sandal fits, and I’m not surprised. The ancient myths of the Epic Savior and Messianic figure overlap with the superhero narratives in more ways than we think.

Moltmann’s “zimsum” came to my mind as well, but I guess it isn’t that serendipitous since we’ve both gone through the same seminary! However, I came across it through the feminist theologian, Elizabeth Johnson. As you mentioned, Ego’s agenda is completely antithetical to the agenda of the Creator and Redeemer God. Ego represents divine stinginess and the stories of creation and incarnation portray God as cosmic generosity.

Ego is the personified and intensified version of what the Guardians struggle against within themselves, namely self-assertion. Ego wants to divinize himself to fullest extent by cosmic self-assertion, but if Peter’s self-sacrifice (and the sacrifices all the Guardians make) is more akin to that of the incarnating God, the notion of divinity needs to be reimagined.

However, Guardians Vol. 2 isn’t interested in doing the reimagining for us, but at least it provides the means for us to do it. I really enjoyed the film, and having this conversation has helped me appreciate it more deeply and critically. Thanks for chatting, Kevin.

This was fun! I’d gladly do it again for any of the thousand superhero movies coming up this year. Peace!