The Impact of Character Transformation in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
In a world saturated with superhero movies, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 writer/director James Gunn demonstrates how a story with heart that tells a tale of transformation never fails to enchant an audience.
The second film successfully continues the Guardians’ story, but instead of making things bigger, Gunn gives us a story that is smaller in scope and more intimate. In doing so, he crafts a wonderful sequel that is truly about transformation at its core. What’s especially impressive is that Gunn achieves this with multiple character arcs, weaving crucial elements into the fabric of the narrative in a way that is not forced, but rather organic. Having a smaller story enables the characters to grow naturally and embrace the theme.
This starts during the Theme Stated beat. While Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who goes by Star-Lord, stands before the Sovereign high priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), he is asked about his parentage. He can only answer about his mother, having never known his father. Ayesha questions what his father must have been like, wondering where Peter’s recklessness comes from. At first, the comparison unnerves Peter. Is he destined to be like a man he’s never known? How can he be a reflection of a family he has never had? The thematic premise is one about fathers and family: where do we find our identity? How do those whom we choose to be with shape who we are and who we become?
In the Set-Up, we learn the things that need fixing on the team. Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) doesn’t get along with anyone, especially Peter. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) has captured her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), who wants to kill her. Peter wants a romantic relationship with Gamora, yet yearns to know who his father is. Even Yondu (Michael Rooker), the Ravager who raised Peter, is in a state of stasis=death. Accused of breaking the Ravager code, he faces rejection from his mentor, and his crew begins to accuse him of growing soft.
The Catalyst sets the A Story in motion, a MacGuffin that allows us to get to the heart of the real story. Rocket steals some valuable batteries from the Sovereign, and the Guardians are pursued until a mysterious individual saves them. Upon landing on a nearby planet, they learn that the man is Ego (Kurt Russell), who claims to be Peter Quill’s father. The relationship with Ego will serve as a B Story for Peter, but there is a deeper subplot for him, one that encompasses all of the Guardians.
During the Debate beat, Peter reveals his sense of hope to Gamora that he finally might have found his father and his sense of a family will be complete. He wants to have a father that he can have a relationship with and discover his identity through, but what he needs is to realize that who he is cannot be defined through one individual.
Traveling to Ego’s planet, Peter, Gamora, and Drax (Dave Bautista) are accompanied by Mantis (Pom Kelmentieff), an empathic alien. It is at this point that we begin to watch Gunn masterfully develop his characters through their relationships. Drax finds a new friend in Mantis, something significant for his emotional state. Drax’s entire family was murdered, forcing him to seek revenge. He buries his pain deep beneath a tough exterior, but he cannot hide it from Mantis. Using her empathic abilities, she is able to experience his heartbreak and feel with him; Drax has finally found someone who can feel the same suffering he has. Mantis can also imbue someone with different emotions, and she uses these powers to help Drax find rest and momentary respite from his heartbreak. His friendship with Mantis allows him to grow emotionally and to find a semblance of happiness, prompting him to open up to others.
When Rocket and Yondu are held captive by mutinous Ravagers, they must team up to escape. As they spend time in their prison cell, the two are forced to converse, opening themselves up in vulnerability, temporarily letting down their guard. Yondu demonstrates that he has a soft side, and Rocket begins to trust him, finding a new ally. Later, the two will help each other transform.
Meanwhile, Peter has passed from his thesis world of seeking his father and has entered his antithesis world of discovering what it is like to have that relationship. As Ego bonds with Peter, teaching him about his new powers during the Fun and Games, Peter can’t help but feel overjoyed. Much like a child, he plays a game of catch with his father, an experience that almost seems too good to be true.
Of course, it is too good to be true. During the Midpoint, in which Peter thinks he has everything he wants, Gamora questions Ego’s motives, causing Peter to lash out at her. He’s happy to have finally found his place in a family, but Gamora tells him that he’s already been a part of one. The Bad Guys Close In on their relationship as doubt and dissent creep in.
Gamora leaves Peter, and Nebula tracks her down on Ego’s planet. After failing to kill Gamora, Nebula finally gives in and admits that all she has ever wanted was a relationship with a sister. Their adoptive father, Thanos, forced them to fight each other, but Nebula felt weak and powerless, leading to her role as an antagonist. Gamora begins to understand how their identities have formed each other’s, and she finds the seeds of forgiveness for her sister.
Rocket is also forced to confront his own inner bad guys through Yondu. Yondu tells Rocket that the reason the raccoon is mean to everyone is because he’s afraid, pointing out the similarities in their life circumstances. While Yondu was sold into slavery by his parents, Rocket was experimented on and mistreated by scientists; it’s nearly impossible for either of them to believe that anyone cares for them, let alone that they can do anything of value. When Yondu declares to Rocket that the two are the same, Rocket must deal with his demons. Just as with the other members of the Guardians, he must examine himself in light of the thematic premise.
Peter is slowly taken in by Ego, who states that the two have a shared purpose, one that involves them being together and reforming the galaxy. But All Is Lost for Peter when Ego reveals that he had created the brain tumor that killed Peter’s mother. It is during this Dark Night of the Soul that Peter realizes he doesn’t want his identity to be based on Ego, and he soon realizes that Gamora was right. He doesn’t need a father to be complete; his true family and the ones who define him are his friends in the Guardians of the Galaxy.
As Peter enters his synthesis world, a man who has found his true family and no longer needs to search, he relies on this bond with the team to stop Ego. Each of the characters have learned from their B Story experience: Nebula and Gamora work together as sisters, Rocket feels a sense of unity with the others, and Yondu seeks redemption for his past deeds. He ultimately sacrifices himself to save Peter, his “son.”
As a Ravager funeral is held for Yondu, the team is brought closer together, having found their identities in each other. Yondu’s friends mourn, and Rocket watches with a tearful gaze, realizing that he will never push away his family, that he has found acceptance.
In the end, each of the characters have passed through The Transformation Machine, whether hero or antihero. Each character worked to define and shape the others in some form. James Gunn’s brilliance is in focusing on the B Stories of the individual characters, pairing each with a counterpart they most needed to learn from or confront in order to grow. Their resulting character arcs are memorable, outshining any special effects a normal sequel might rely on to sell tickets.
Of course, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has its share of action sequences and special effects. It has life or death stakes. But in the end, it has something much more primal: personal stakes, ones that focus on family and identity, ones that lead to transformation.
And in the end, that’s what all good stories are about.