Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Along for the ride
The new Guardians of the Galaxy movie is a delight to watch — a remarkable fact given how boring its main character is.
I don’t mean that Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill/Star-Lord isn’t entertaining. Quill is quippy and portrayed with abundant charm by Pratt. But as the ostensible protagonist of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Quill doesn’t do very much.
(Spoilers follow for both Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and its 2014 predecessor, Guardians of the Galaxy.)
What does that mean? To better understand Star-Lord’s passivity as a film character, there’s no better source than that green mass of rage and cinematic analysis, Film Crit Hulk.
In his book “Screenwriting 101”, Film Crit Hulk says movies’ structures are defined by one thing above all others: characters making choices.
THE END OF AN ACT IS A POINT IN THE STORY WHERE A CHARACTER(S) MAKES A CHOICE AND CAN NO LONGER “GO BACK.”
Or as Syd Field writes in Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting:
If… your characters are not as sharp or defined as you think they should be… the first thing you must determine is whether they’re an active force in the screenplay — whether they cause things to happen, or whether things happen to them.1
At no point in the entire run of Vol. 2 does Peter Quill make a tough decision. For most of the movie, he’s swept along by events, and on the rare occasions where he does make choices, they’re what analyst Michael Tucker calls “a non-choice choice”. Quill decides to go meet his long-lost father as opposed to sitting around for a few days waiting for his ship to be fixed — hardly a choice. He decides to fight his father Ego — only after discovering that not only is his father a supervillain bent on galactic domination, but Ego killed his beloved mother. It’s an emotional moment of Quill, but the character as defined through a movie and a half could hardly have chosen otherwise.
In fact, most of the core members of the Guardians of the Galaxy don’t make very many choices. Gamora decides to trust her sister. Rocket decides to be a little bit less of a dick. Groot… decides to focus a little bit? We’re already stretching.
Compare that to the first movie, where Quill explicitly risked his life to protect Gamora, and chose to stay and fight to defend a planet he had little connection to. Drax decided to summon Ronan to a fight instead of keeping the Infinity Stone hidden. Gamora betrayed her father. Groot sacrificed himself to save the group. The whole movie was driven by characters making consequential choices.
Vol. 2 wasn’t bereft of choices. It’s just that they were made by secondary or tertiary characters. Even though Peter Quill was the protagonist of the movie, do you know who was a more dynamic character? Taserface. That character had maybe a few minutes of total screentime, but in them went through an entire arc: the long-suffering lieutenant who seizes the moment to overthrow his captain, then finds himself in over his head and suffers the consequences. You could make a whole film about this. (People have.)
The new Guardian Mantis also makes a crucial decision to betray Ego and join the Guardians to save the galaxy. But the beating heart of Vol. 2 wasn’t any of the Guardians. Rather, it was Yondu.
The Ravager captain takes a job to recapture his old ward Quill, then decides not to follow through on the job and is overthrown as a result. He makes a new ally to recapture his ship, rides to the rescue of his virtual son, then sacrifices himself to save him. Yondu is involved in every key beat of the movie, and accordingly the movie’s climax and epilogue are dominated by Yondu’s actions and their consequences.
The passivity of Peter Quill and the rest of the Guardians as characters doesn’t make the film bad. It’s highly enjoyable, thanks to witty banter, sharp directing and brilliant comedic acting by Chris Pratt and the rest of the cast. But the movie ends up feeling sort of hollow, especially compared to its predecessor, because the screenplay has its main characters just along for the ride.
Syd Field, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, quoted in Lessons from the Screenplay. “Rogue One vs. The Force Awakens — The Fault in Our Star Wars.” YouTube video, 13:42. Published on April 30, 2017. https://youtu.be/gsIQa7sH5_Y ↩