Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Time for some thrilling heroics–and great ’80s music!

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
Writer and Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Pom Klementieff, etc., etc…
Released: May 5, 2017
Rated PG-13

Fair warning: The following review assumes that you have seen the first Guardians movie. If you haven’t, go and do so immediately.

After a brief flashback to show Peter Quill’s parents together back on Earth, this sequel begins a few months after the first movie left off. Our heroes are now famous for saving the galaxy, so of course they’re using their reputation to make money. They succeed in their latest mission–killing a tentacled space monster that was eating a precious resource on a planet called The Sovereign–but thanks to Rocket’s kleptomaniac tendencies, they still find themselves being pursued by a horde of angry starships. They’re saved in the nick of time by a mysterious figure…who turns out to be Peter’s long-lost father. Space dad says he’s been searching the galaxy for his son, but he’s not the only one on the group’s tail. Nebula’s still out for revenge on Gamora after the events of the last movie. The Sovereign, good at holding grudges, hire Star-Lord’s old band of Ravagers to hunt down the Guardians. Yondu, captain of said Ravagers, has his hands full with mutinous crew members and his own mixed feelings about the Terran kid he raised. And in the midst of the ensuing hijinks, it becomes clear that the galaxy needs saving again.

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Who you gonna call?

 

Guardians of the Galaxy is one of my favourite parts of the MCU, which is saying something. The first movie took an obscure comic that featured a talking tree, and turned it into the rebellious love child of Star Wars and Firefly, with a soundtrack truly deserving of the name “Awesome Mix Vol. 1.” It made me smile a lot. And most of the other Marvel movies that have been released between 2014 and now haven’t been half bad, either. So this sequel had a lot to live up to.

It did not disappoint.

This movie has everything that made me love the original: humour, memorable characters, crazy action, and dancing. But it also ups the ante in a lot of ways, raising the emotional stakes for all the heroes and giving many of them some much-appreciated character development. Baby Groot is adorable, which is no surprise to anyone who saw the trailers. There are lots of laughs, some truly epic action scenes, and a surprisingly emotional climax. Everything feels bigger and brighter than the last time around.

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Except for Groot. He’s smaller.

But before I get into what I really loved about the movie, let me get my few complaints out of the way. As is the nature of sequels, this one doesn’t feel quite as fresh and original as, well, the original. Yes, we have reached a point in pop culture where the sheer novelty of seeing a raccoon and a talking tree save the galaxy in a big summer blockbuster has worn off a bit. What a time to be alive. I also didn’t find this movie quite as funny as the first one–not because there were fewer jokes, but because more of the jokes were a little on the raunchy side, and to me, raunch is not especially funny. Drax would probably say I have “hang-ups,” but whatever. Even if you like that sort of thing, a few of the earlier jokes seem to be reaching a bit. Finally, this movie has FIVE stingers in the end credits, which seems excessive, even by Marvel standards. And some of them didn’t make a lot of sense to me because I know nothing about the original Guardians of the Galaxy comics.

But Vol. 2 has one very important thing that its predecessor, and most of the other Marvel movies so far, lacked: a good villain. Marvel finally did it! They created a villain whose motive makes sense, who poses a genuine threat to our heroes and their universe, who the audience comes to hate for very good reasons, but who is also kind of fun to watch. And I think it’s largely because of the villain that I found this movie even more emotionally satisfying than its predecessor. It felt like something was really at stake when the Guardians teamed up to fight this new threat, and it brought out their heroic sides beautifully.

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“And if you don’t love me now/You will never love me again…”

But I can’t give all the credit to the villain. Like I said, everyone goes through a lot of character development in this story, even some semi-villainous people from the first movie, like Yondu and Nebula. We get to see more of the screwed-up sisterly relationship between Gamora and Nebula, which is something I really wanted in this movie. We get to see Rocket, and the rest of the team to some extent, trying to figure out how to parent Groot, who does indeed act like a particularly troublesome baby for most of the movie. And we get a lot more of Star-Lord’s backstory, including more glimpses of what it was like to be raised by space pirates, and several big revelations about his extra-terrestrial heritage. Family is a major theme throughout the movie. Everyone’s problems seem to be caused by their families in some way, but familial love is also what gets them through most of those problems. And of course, the Guardians themselves are basically a big dysfunctional family, as they openly acknowledge in this movie. They may argue a lot, but when push comes to shove, they’ll do anything for each other. Which leads to some heartwarming moments and some misting of the ol’ eyeballs.

All this does give Vol. 2 a more serious tone than its predecessor, but it doesn’t get rid of the fun. Even in the most emotional, epic moments, we’ve still got Rocket and Star-Lord arguing about tape, Baby Groot being a troll, a big monologue about David Hasselhoff, and a Pac-Man reference. These are still the funny, oddball characters we know and love from the first movie, but now they have just a little more depth to them than before. And personally, I think that’s a good thing.

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“I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!”

We also get a few new characters this time around. Peter’s alien father, Ego, has a layered personality and a complicated relationship with his offspring that adds a lot to the story. But my favourite addition to the cast is Mantis, an empathic alien who can feel what another person is feeling as soon as she touches them, but still manages to be socially awkward. She’s cute and funny, and she strikes up an amazing friendship with Drax that leads to some of the movie’s funniest scenes.

Of course, the movie does indulge in a few of Marvel’s staple cliches, but even they come across as less annoying than usual. Sure, there’s some gratuitous Dairy Queen product placement, but how can I get mad at a movie for promoting the Zune, of all things? Our heroes do face an army of faceless goons a couple times, but at least this time they’re starship drones instead of living things, and the people controlling them are played for laughs. Even the Stan Lee cameo didn’t annoy me this time around–maybe just because he seems to fit in better in the Guardians’ crazy galaxy.

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‘Nuff said.

I might have to watch the movies again once or twice to decide which Guardians movie is my favourite, but I know it’s a close call. They’re both a ton of fun, and this one has a more uplifting message: Appreciate your family, even if they’re not perfect. And listen to more Fleetwood Mac.

Seriously, I forgot how awesome “The Chain” is.

Grade: A

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Hidden Figures

Here’s a movie that combines two of my favourite things: smart female characters and SPACE.

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Hidden Figures is based on the real-life stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson, three African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1960s. When the movie begins, they’re all working in the “colored computers” section of NASA, where they actually do the math that electronic computers do for astronauts nowadays. But as the U.S. struggles to keep up with Russia in the space race, they each get assigned to different tasks, where their genius and vital contributions to the project eventually convince their superiors to…treat them like human beings. Once they help put John Glenn in orbit, they end up doing for the rights of female and minority scientists what he did for space exploration.

Overall, this is a pretty by-the-numbers “inspirational” movie–which, to be honest, is not my favourite kind of movie. It’s pretty predictable. It’s got inspiring speeches in all the usual places, it has the usual sexist/racist villains who get their usual comeuppance, and it has the usual tidied-up happy ending with the text appearing on-screen to tell us how our heroines’ lives turned out. I don’t know that much about the real-life events the story was based on, but I’d be willing to bet the heroines’ problems weren’t all completely solved within the time frame of this movie. And that’s the problem I have with most inspirational movies based on real life–real life is a lot more complicated than they make it seem, and simplifying it doesn’t make it more inspiring.

But this movie’s main purpose isn’t to be a surprising, suspenseful story with lots of twists. Its purpose is to bring to light some important women whose achievements never got the recognition they deserved. And it achieves that goal. I had never heard of any of these women before the movie came out, and it made me want to learn more about them. So in that sense, it does what it set out to do.

Let’s play a game called “find the main character.”

Considering the constraints of an “inspirational” movie based on historic events, it’s very well made, too. Octavia Spencer, Taraji Henson, and Janelle Monae all turn in fantastic performances. Henson has the most to do, since her character gets the most developed story arc, and she makes Katherine’s intelligence and determination totally believable. But she’s very down-to-earth and sympathetic, too. Everybody gets a big speech about racism in this movie, because that’s just the kind of movie it is, but Katherine pulls off hers the best. I think it’s because, while some of the other speeches come more or less out of nowhere, hers comes after a good hour of built-up frustration and is about something we can all relate to–the need to use the bathroom. The irony of a top-level NASA scientist being able to calculate the trajectory of the first manned orbit, but not being allowed to use the same restroom as her peers, is not lost on either the character or the audience. And of course, the cinematography, the 60s-era costumes, the music, the shots of the rocket taking off spliced with the original news footage–it’s all very well done.

Also, I find it really hard not to love any movie that has to do with NASA’s first few missions. Just the idea that we sent people to space in a time when a basic computer filled half a room boggles my mind. It’s one of the very few things that can make me feel proud to be an American. And knowing that black women helped make that possible, even back when most colleges wouldn’t let them get degrees, just makes it all the more impressive.

“We shall crush the white patriarchy under our high heels!”

So there’s nothing wrong with this movie, per se, and it probably deserves its Best Picture nomination as much as any other movie on the list. But I wish that, just once, we could have a movie about historical figures overcoming racism and injustice that didn’t beat us over the head with speeches all the time, didn’t wrap up everything so tidily at the end, and wasn’t so darn predictable.

But I highly recommend going to see this movie–in the theatre if you can. Not just because it’s a decent film in its own right that will get you thinking about an oft-ignored bit of history–but also because the more successful movies we get with black female leads, the closer we come to getting a movie about my favourite real-life black woman: Harriet Tubman. If done right, her movie wouldn’t just be inspirational and uplifting–it’d be cool. Harriet Tubman was a spy! She rescued hundreds of slaves! She led troops against the Confederates! She was like Indiana Jones and Batman in the body of a five-foot woman! Why haven’t we made a movie about her yet???

Hidden Figures is a good movie with a good message. But it’s a little too safe. It follows the “inspirational movie formula” a little too closely for me. I wanted a little more complexity and a couple fewer speeches.

Oh, well. At least now I have three more awesome scientists to read about. Any day I find out about brilliant women making a difference in space technology is a good day.

Grade: B+

Seriously, though, Hollywood: make that Harriet Tubman movie. We’ve waited long enough.