Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 brings back everything we loved about the first movie — along with a fascinating deconstruction of the most beloved of tropes.
It’s very difficult to make a sequel actually do better than the movie before it. Writers often either get lazy or try too hard, and end up making a second movie that’s a faint echo of the first. Thankfully, that isn’t the case with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. In between all the laughs, fighting, and dick jokes, there’s actually some pretty exceptional writing going on.
Peter Quill is very much your typical hero, as beloved as he is. He’s a white, heterosexual male human, who has lost both his parents and doesn’t have close friends when he starts out. He’s got questions about his past, and a crush on the female lead. Basically, if you ignore his penchant for 80’s music and the writers’ willingness to go nuts with comic relief, he’s exactly the same as 90% of the action or science fiction heroes you can think of.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing — but it was a serious risk going into Vol. 2, especially with the story closing in on Quill’s personal journey so much more than the first movie did. While Guardians of the Galaxy dealt with larger political struggles, Vol. 2 is a surprisingly personal story. It’s about Quill’s father, and about Quill’s aspirations. And as fun and lovable as the other Guardians are, that’s not quite enough to save a story that’s focused on the least remarkable (although just as lovable) member of the team.
So instead of trying to build up Quill with some epic backstory of just how unique and special he is, and making him have some weighty responsibility that only he can tackle, writers faced the issue head-on… and made a story that was both exactly that, and the complete opposite of that.
The reappearance of the long-lost father is a classic moment in film, and even fiction in general. Ego’s introduction, along with the fascinating possibilities he offers as we slowly come to understand the implications of his origins, place Quill in a special position — he’s special, he’s unique. He’s going to do great things.
That is, until we understand exactly what that implies. Ego’s belief that — as a celestial being, or a planet — his sole purpose is expansion, and therefore the extermination of everything else, is horrifying as Quill becomes aware of what Ego plans to do… and what he’s already done.
And yet, Ego’s discourse is one that is often given to the heroes of many stories. While Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker or the Pevensie siblings have much less sinister intent, the same message is given to them: there’s a higher purpose that they’re destined for, often passed down by an older generation, and they alone can make it happen. They are different.
Quill, on the other hand, stops and asks: what’s wrong with being like everybody else?
Beyond the movie’s main message, the script itself does an excellent job of elevating side-characters to fully fleshed-out individuals without losing any substance. Despite what Ego says, Gamora is not disposable. And for that matter, neither is Nebula. Everybody is redeemable, and the film makes sure to show us that.
Quill’s family problems are just as important as Gamora and Nebula’s fraught relationship, and Rocket’s understanding of who he is, paired with Yondu’s character development, never feel less important than Quill’s own struggles with identity. Gamora doesn’t exist solely for the purpose of being Quill’s love interest; and even Mantis has an identity that goes beyond being a plot device.
Somehow, even the final battle, Quill’s determination to end it, and the dramatic tension surrounding Rocket’s decision to leave without him or not, doesn’t feel like it would be any different if the story had revolved around Gamora, Drax, Baby Groot, or Rocket. We don’t get the sense that Quill would be missed more than anyone else on the team, or that he holds a more important position than them. Every character in the team is equal. The story is bigger than Quill — and Quill himself is aware of that.
Vol. 2 addresses the slightly disturbing savior complex that almost all main franchise heroes struggle with — the weighty responsibility that alienates friends and lifts the character above all others, sometimes even above accountability, but is ultimately justified because he is The Chosen One.
As much as we love that trope and the stories that use it, and as good as the hero-sacrifices-himself-for-the-greater-good storyline makes us feel, it’s ultimately not a constructive ideal. Sometimes it’s that act of separating ourselves from everybody else, of thinking that we alone are meant for something greater, of favoring individualism over unity, that keeps us from making the world a better place.
Marvel did something truly unique with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and turned the Chosen One trope on its head, addressing the most human of all struggles: leaving behind our own pride.
It’s about fighting Ego… literally.