Walt Disney’s last words were “Kurt Russell.” So legend says, anyway. What the studio executive was trying to say about him, no one knows. Russell was a teenage actor for many of Disney’s live-action films at the time, perhaps equivalent to today’s status as a Disney Channel star. And while we may never know the full context of what Walt was trying to say when he uttered Russell’s name or what mysterious future he had in mind for the young actor that he was trying to convey in his hospital room, his name spoken by Uncle Walt was all that was needed to ensure a lifetime of employment. Russell continued roles in Disney features throughout the ’60s, voiced Copper for Disney Animation in 1982’s The Fox and the Hound, played the protagonist’s father in 2005’s Sky High, and more recently cemented his place in Disney’s juggernaut Marvel universe, playing Ego in 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2—the father of Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, god-like being responsible for the existence of all creation, and ultimate maniacal psychopath who gave his wife cancer and is determined to destroy humanity. Walt would be so proud.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 continues the distinctive tone beloved in its 2014 predecessor. Reliant on an “awesome mix tape” curated by Star-Lord/Peter Quill from when he was a child on Earth in the ’80s (hence the Vol. 2 title), the film jams to classic rock and allows music to drive its style in a seemingly dichotomous way. Despite a dramatic story when written out on paper, the narrative never takes itself completely seriously, thanks largely to the way director James Gunn sets a precedence for the music to set the tone. This intention is made clear from the opening moments of the film, when a huge action sequence sees the Guardians battling a vicious alien monster… but the camera is instead in focus on Groot in baby form, hilariously unaware and dancing happily while listening to “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra.
Baby Groot does steal the show for most of the feature (I mean, come on… he’s frickin’ adorable), but we get a substantial amount of character development from most of the other main players, too. When Ego shows up suddenly into Peter’s life, at first seemingly benevolent, our heroes are split, half of the Guardians visiting Ego’s planet and the other half staying behind to fix their wrecked ship. While this means we don’t get a ton of fun scenes with the entire cast together, we do have a lot of breathing room for reflection, exposition from the past, and growth in relationships. We learn more about the dynamic between sisters Gamora and Nebula. We delve into the intricacies of Peter’s regrets from his childhood. We get a surprising introspection about self-image from an extremely likable new character, Mantis, Ego’s assistant with the power to feel secondhand emotions. Sure, these philosophical moments are juxtaposed with jokes about Ego’s unmentionables and Drax’s turds. But, surprisingly, at no point does the movie feel disjointed or like it’s trying to juggle two sides of one coin. The world of this particular Marvel franchise has always been a bit aloof, and navigates its terrain well to cultivate stories in which all such different qualities somehow feel at home with each other, much like the Guardians themselves.
2017 was a powerhouse year for Marvel, and a time when crossovers among its different properties were long established, and perhaps even expected. 2017 was the year Tony Stark was prominent in a Spider-Man film while Hulk co-starred and Doctor Strange made a special appearance in a Thor movie. It’s interesting, then, that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 sticks strictly within its own franchise (save for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it inclusion of obscure Marvel character Howard the Duck). There aren’t any Marvel crossovers here, leaving more room for deeper development of the Guardians. While such frequent use of surprise cameos might train an audience to be disappointed with lack thereof, the Guardians are so appealing that at no point does the absence of any other Marvel hero feel like a letdown. And it makes the Guardians’ ultimate crossover with the rest of the MCU in 2018’s Infinity War all the more sweeter.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 solidifies these characters as an important part of the fabric of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It ensures that the success of the personalities in the first film wasn’t a fluke (even if baby Groot is actually Groot’s son and not really Groot… James Gunn, what the heck). With another appearance in the upcoming fourth Avengers and the confirmed Vol. 3 on the way after that, Vol. 2 could perhaps be looked back on as a chapter that allowed us deeper understanding of further events. Walt knew all along: Kurt Russell was the missing piece to the puzzle.
Come back next time as we continue our MCU Countdown with a hero who’s just about the total opposite from an intergalactic space soldier. You might say he’s just a friendly neighborhood kind of guy…