This post contains mild spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
The best scene in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which earned $145 million at the U.S. box office this weekend, is about tape. It’s in the middle of the movie’s climactic space battle, with explosions rocking the screen and laser beams slicing through the air, that Rocket the space raccoon (Bradley Cooper) realizes that the Guardians’ plan to save the universe is missing one crucial element: a piece of Scotch tape. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the group’s leader, is annoyed but respects Rocket’s assessment—unfortunately, he doesn’t have any tape. So with the fate of life as we know it hanging in the balance, Peter zooms off to ask each of the other Guardians, in turn, if they happen to have any tape. And with each increasingly absurd exchange, the movie reveals details about the characters’ relationships—not big important things but subtle shades, making those relationships more dimensional, more like life.
The best scene in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is not when Gamora (Zoe Saldana) consoles Peter about his missing father, or when Yondu (Michael Rooker) talks to Rocket about their mutual fear of anyone getting close to them, or when Nebula (Karen Gillan) tells Gamora that she just wishes she had a sister who loved her. It’s not when Yondu and Peter have a heart-to-heart about what kind of surrogate father Yondu was. It’s definitely not the scene where Sylvester Stallone (?!) sort of monotone-yells at Yondu about how betrayed he feels for some reason. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is full of scenes in which characters talk at length about their feelings, and as loath as I am to complain about such sensitivity, I did wish that sometimes these characters would demonstrate a little good old-fashioned stoic repression. Or at least that writer-director James Gunn would find more ways to show, not tell, us all about his characters’—sing it with me, since this movie’s so devoted to its ’70s soft-rock soundtrack—“Feeeeelings.”
Superhero stories have always been soapy; characters monologuing about the betrayal or misery or sorrow or rage they feel are as common in some titles as the POW! of fist meeting face. And in a genre built, to some extent, on ever-shifting alliances and targeted toward children who need help picking up details, you sometimes need characters to talk about their feelings in order to explain what the hell’s going on. (As my 12-year-old said after hearing me complain about GotG2, “But if Gamora and Nebula didn’t talk about their feelings, we wouldn’t know why they ended up on the same side.”) The new waves of superhero movies haven’t been exempt; how much time have the Avengers spent telling each other that they’re a team and they need to stick together?
But GotG2 takes superheroic feelings expulsion to a new absurd peak. The movie’s honorable desire to make sure each of its many characters gets his or her own emotional showcase makes the film’s second half feel at times like a group therapy session interspersed with laser battles. What I want from the Guardians of the Galaxy is not for them to explain that they love each other but to show that they love each other by supporting each other in battle, by backing each other up, by cracking wise or busting chops.
In its devotion to straight-faced hearts-to-heart, GotG2 seems indebted to the Fast and the Furious movies, which as the franchise has aged have found more and more occasions, in between the Lamborghinis racing submarines, for its characters to gas on about how much they mean to one another. (Yet another feelings-talk in Guardians, between Gamora and Peter, ends with a kicker about family that could have been cribbed right from The Fate of the Furious.) It’s a winning formula, I suppose, but one that feels out of place in a movie from a writer-director who really knows how to write a scene that underlines relationships through action rather than dialogue.
Take Guardians’ very funny opening credits sequence, right out of the classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Zeppo,” in which we follow hapless Baby Groot on his own little adventure while, in the blurry background, the rest of the Guardians are fighting some kind of giant tentacled space beast. At one point Baby Groot grabs a bug and eats it, and Rocket, midbattle, rushes to his side, yelling, “Spit it out!” That’s how we know how fatherly Rocket feels about Groot, and it only took an instant to show us. In a movie that’s already punishingly overlong at two hours and 15 minutes, every moment counts!
Look, in many ways, it’s quite admirable that this superhero movie set in space, with an audience substantially composed of teenage boys, is so devoted to the free and clear expression of feelings. I feel certain that if all movies primarily driven by quips and killing spent more of their time and energy on emotions, the world would be a better place. The movies would be more tolerable, at least: Better a misty-eyed space raccoon dealing with his abandonment issues than the comically clenched jaws and pseudo-profundities of, say, Batman v Superman.
Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Vol. 2’s newest addition to the Guardians team, serves as a synecdoche for the movie’s focus on emotional revelation; she’s an “empath” who can feel and affect the emotions of others simply by touching them. That’s a great superpower. It’s used best in a scene where Drax, a scaly loudmouth who rarely expresses any emotion more complex than wanting to smash things to bits, mentions his slaughtered family; Mantis touches his shoulder and then cries fat tears from her Margaret Keane–painting eyes. She doesn’t need to say another word, and blessedly, just this once, the movie trusts the audience enough not to make her.
At movie’s end, Mantis seems to be joining the Guardians for their further adventures. I’m glad that this emblem of empathy is in the series for the long haul. May she help the Guardians’ emotions remain unspoken for many movies to come.