Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Form and Formula

Let’s talk about Guardians of the Galaxy 2. It has been getting generally good reviews, with the middling ones pointing out that it’s more of the same, and if that’s what you’re in the market for then good on ya. And this is generally true. It’s fun, quippy, bright, and does not disappoint with fish-out-of-water1 jokes, mostly revolving around video games.

But if I’m going to be honest, it has some terrible writing. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I did. It’s great fun, lovely to look at, and much of the cast is a delight to watch. But this is one of the most formulaic movies Marvel has ever produced. While Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2  doesn’t adhere to the formula you’d expect, it does stick to a formula; a sitcom. And not a very good one at that.

We’ll start with a close look at one joke. There’s a gag in which Nebula, after being captured by the Guardians, sees a piece of fruit. She says she’s hungry and demands it. Gamora moves it out of reach and tells her it isn’t rip. Later she tries to eat it again, and someone else takes it away from her (Drax, I believe). Finally, she escapes, ends a battle, and picks it up. She takes a bite. She spits it out. “It’s not ripe,” she says.

That is a terrible joke. The formula is classic sitcom, following the rule of three. That alone is not a problem, but in the context of the film it’s symptomatic of something bigger. The rule of three gets us invested in the fruit. The fruit has a mini-journey and we want to know where and when it will end. Will Nebula get it? Will it escape her hunger? Except that mainly works in a sitcom context because gags like that come A) faster in a TV setting and B) more dense in a TV setting. When something like that is in a movie there ought to be a bigger payoff. As soon as she asked for the fruit and Gamora removed it I was thinking what that would mean in this sci-fi setting. Under-ripe, is it explosive? Poisonous? Can the hard seeds be used to pick her lock? It’s none of these, the punchline being an intentional disappointment instead. Which again could be fine, except that there are more problems.

Why didn’t Gamora let her eat it, or give her something else instead? I know that she’s not trustworthy, and that the reversal comes up later as a character moment, but up until now Nebula is supposed to be the hateful one and Gamora the levelheaded sibling, and so the first setup goes against character. Then Drax takes it away. Why would Drax care? With his new-found sense of humor it actually makes more sense for him to hand it to her and laugh when she spits it out. Again, a joke set-up that goes against character. Finally, when she eats the fruit she spits the pulp out, not caring how she appears to the rest of the Ravagers. This is the one time that the joke’s action doesn’t work against character. That also means between the three beats of the joke, the punchline doesn’t fit with the two beats of the set-up. It is a terrible joke at the expense of character work, and only delivers a mediocre pay-off.

That joke didn’t ruin the movie, but it is a microcosm for this film’s writing. Like a sitcom, there are countless throwaway jokes and gags (the Taserface bit is another serial offender). Statistically there are bound to be a number of hits, but the odds are not ever in its favor. For the big comedic franchise in Marvel’s arsenal, it’s bizarre how poorly written the comedy is. The biggest victim of this ends up being the main plot and character arc between Starlord and his father, Ego. After the opening sequence/salvo, we have a bit where Peter sets up loose plans with an alien to have sex later, right in front of Gamora. While that’s his right, for the rest of the film he acts as if she’s dismissing him for no reason when she has seen that he has no investment in her whatsoever. What we’re getting are introductory Peter Quill jokes laid on top of sequel Peter Quill. Were he still the loner we saw at the start of Guardians Vol. 1 then this joke may have landed, but in the context of this sequel he comes off as an entitled asshole who doesn’t understand the difference between desire and entitlement. It may get a laugh, but it also turns the narrative against the protagonist.

By the time his story comes to Ego and that conflict, we don’t end up with a lovable loser who we’ve seen grow into a better man at turmoil with his father. Instead we see an entitled white guy who gains the powers of a god and bristles at the idea of a woman saying no to him after he treats her like crap. There’s a reason in the script that it’s not the idea of losing Gamora that brings his mind back to reality, it’s the untouchable idealized version of his mother. He shows hesitation at killing his friends, Gamora included, but outrage at the death of his mother. While I didn’t want Ego to win and destroy the universe, I also didn’t much care how Peter felt about anything because fuck that guy. Most of that could have been mitigated with character-appropriate jokes, as well as just a bit more thought put into his arc.

Delving back into the script, it’s notable that the strongest aspects are actually the drama. Family is at the core of the script, and Starlord and Pa aside, the subplots shine. Nebula and Gamora hashing it out over toxic family dynamics is engrossing, though fails the Bechdel Test since they were just fighting over Thanos. Yondu and Rocket’s journey into abandonment is touching, too, leading to a pretty great finale. The balance of the script leads me to believe that the early draft was a solid drama and that didn’t fit with what Marvel and/or James Gunn wanted from the final film. What’s funny (not haha) about this movie is that the Guardians franchise is known to be their weird, genre-bending property but the slavish devotion to sitcom tropes that hold it back. The movie is a great deal of fun, but as far as the writing goes it’s not just more of the same; it’s actually a bit of a regression.

Notes   [ + ]

1. There’s actually a term “anatopism“, that is the same thing as anachronism, but in regard to location rather than time. That word is essentially Peter Quill’s core trait. Use it and impress your friends.
Adam

About Adam

Adam is a Jewish American who's sick of the white Christian male being America's "default" setting. For money he works in a public library because free books and information access is wonderful things. For love he writes here for his pet project, The Chaotic Neutral, which is always looking for more writers. You can follow him on Instagram, Goodreads, and at his oft neglected Twitter where he will try to post more, and probably live-tweet the Eurovision Song Contest.

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