Growing up as a movie lover on the Autism spectrum, it’s rare to find movies that match your own experiences as an Autistic person. Usually, Autistic characters have no agency, no say in cinema, they’re not allowed to express complex emotions or perspective. But sometimes, those experiences do come through, even through characters who aren’t Autistic, like Rocket Racoon. In the original Guardians of the Galaxy, Rocket Raccoon has a tavern breakdown where he remarks to the other characters, “You just wanna laugh at me like everyone else!” and “I didn’t ask to get made!”. A character who had no say on what he is now shouts into the void to be understood.
Throughout my life, I have said and felt similar things in regards to my Autism, specifically in the lowest points of my life where I felt as lonely as…well, Rocket or Drax before they found the Guardians. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 takes the raw authenticity that defined that Rocket sequence and sprinkles it across a whole array of characters confronting their own personal turmoil. All the while, writer/director James Gunn also revels in an even greater array of cosmic weirdness.
“For every laugh, there should be a tear,” Walt Disney once said. I’d imagine Gunn would say, “For every vivid depiction of the long-lasting effects of trauma, there should be a joke about Kurt Russell’s penis.”
Gunn has always smashed together disparate tones for his feature films. Graphic body horror and dark comedy commingled in Slither, while Super was all about tossing a disturbed human being behind the mask of a traditional superhero get-up. Even the original Guardians saw Gunn creating dissonance through the use of retro-needle drops in a cosmic setting.
This trend continues on with Gunn’s script for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. While many blockbuster sequels go bigger with spectacle, James Gunn chose to go bigger on Guardians Vol. 2 with his trademark style of juxtaposition. This audacious trait is clear as early as Guardians Vol. 2’s opening sequence. This scene sees four of its lead characters, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Drax (Dave Bautista), taking down an enormous space monster.
At least, that’s what’s happening in the background. As the opening credits roll, the camera remains focused on Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) dancing along with ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”. We see only bits and pieces of the other four characters fighting their monstrous foe. Through this scene, Gunn establishes how the Guardians just hanging out will be the primary focus of the feature rather than hollow spectacle.
“For every vivid depiction of the long-lasting effects of trauma, there should be a joke about Kurt Russell’s penis.”James Gunn, probably
This character-centric focus is reflected in how Guardians Vol. 2 splits up its cast across a quartet of individual and personal plotlines. Such storylines involve Star-Lord reuniting with his father, Ego (Kurt Russell), who turns out to be an ancient deity known as a Celestial. We also have Gamora being hunted down by her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Drax befriending Ego’s right-hand woman Mantis (Pom Klementieff).
Finally, in the storyline that seems to garner Gunn’s greatest interest, Rocket becomes entangled in a mutiny, led by Taserface (Chris Sullivan), against space pirate Yondu (Michael Rooker). There’s a whole lot to juggle in here and even Gunn’s endearing sense of ambition can’t cover up some of the cracks in the proceedings. The biggest drawback to Gunn’s love of dissonance is that it ends up creating jokes that undercut the drama of certain sequences.
A farewell between Nebula and Kraglin (Sean Gunn) should be a moment of reflection on Nebula’s motivations but gets tripped up by an overlong joke. There’s also a recurring gag with Drax insulting the physical appearance of Mantis that ends up overstaying its welcome. For the most part, though, Gunn’s barrage of gags do end up succeeding in providing humor, particularly anything involving Baby Groot. An extended sequence where a captured Yondu and Rocket try to get the tyke to retrieve the former’s head-piece creates a series of gags that range from adorable misunderstandings to the delightfully grotesque.
Playing opposite the steady stream of jokes is the best part of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: deeply raw character work that isn’t afraid to lay bare the vulnerabilities of its superhero protagonist. Vol. 2 expands upon that Rocket Raccoon tavern breakdown scene from its predecessor by digging into the nitty-gritty of what makes each of its central characters, not just Rocket, tick.
This is especially noticeable in the character of Nebula, who goes from being Ronan’s henchwoman to being a tormented survivor of an abusive father. At the height of her film-long obsession with Gamora, in the flaming wreckage of their latest battle, the thing she cries out for isn’t revenge, but “I just wanted a sister!” Gillan channels so much pent-up frustration, anger and sorrow through just that piece of dialogue; everything Nebula has lived with for so many years is immediately communicated.
Gunn’s focus on the traumas and familial bonds of his characters practically defines Vol. 2, and it’s at Yondu’s funeral that it all comes full circle. Here, everyone gets a chance to reflect on who they are and where they’re going. In the two times I saw Vol. 2 in the theater, this closing sequence brought tears to my eyes: it’s just so well-crafted in terms of delivering just the right payoff for each member of its ensemble cast.
When my own non-blood-related-father-figure abruptly passed away two months after this movie’s release, the ending took on a whole new level of personal meaning. Much like with the Rocket breakdown scene from the first Guardians, I frequently turned to both this ending and its accompanying song (Cat Stevens’ “Father & Son”) to help me process that grief. Whenever I felt alone, I could once again remember something from a Guardians movie and be reminded how far from the truth those feelings of permanent loneliness were.
There’s no cure-all for the grief Peter Quill and company have at Yondu’s funeral. They’ll be living with the pain of his loss, likely forever. But just like that pain, some parts of Yondu will always be around. There’s the Zune he’s gifted to Peter, which he now shares with Baby Groot. It’s a frank but hopeful approach to the death of a loved one that I’ve found to be as personally reassuring as Rocket’s outburst from the first Guardians. It’s also another way James Gunn roots the over-the-top characters of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in something so deeply, recognizably human.