Bright Lights Film Journal

Hooked on a Feeling: <em>Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Adventure Time,</em> and the Bonds of Imagination

Photo courtesy of Disney/Marvel

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has infinitely more in common with the psychic quest for one’s identity, the yearning for belonging and friendship, and the no-rules imagination – sometimes absurd, most often incisive – of the transcendent cartoon series Adventure Time.

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It’s an unassailable notion, really, that among the innumerable films of the Marvel Universe – some of them containing powerfully kinetic performances, genuinely dramatic beats, and an undeniable craftsmanship – the Guardians of the Galaxy series stands apart. The first film, released in 2014, was driven by an eagerness to affect and dazzle, and by the time the massive, gentle tangle of branch utters “We are Groot,” right before he wills himself into a protective shell, therefore saving his misfit friends from a fiery death, its enchantment had burrowed inside me like whatever mystical electricity the Infinity Stone endowed Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) with in its ensuing finale. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, buoyed by the understanding that if we’re here, we’re going with this bunch anywhere, ups the emotional quotient to a fever pitch; in doing so, writer-director James Gunn and company have burned a cadre of characters – a batch of fresh archetypes in the era of 21st-century superheroing – onto the cinematic retina of American pop culture. It’s as confident as Yondu’s new head fin: heightened, bolder, and more in tune with what it nakedly, triumphantly is.

While for many, the thread that could tether the Guardians of the Galaxy to an equitably blockbusting franchise like, say, The Fast and the Furious, is that of the themes of “family” with a Ye Olde English capital letter F. Sure, both Guardians films, at their core, revolve around a Furious-style, makeshift family of cast-offs (literally – you think Marvel anticipated the mainstream explosion of this quirky-even-by-comic book-standards property when someone pitched “talking tree, kind of”?) assembled against their nature to make a stand against an encompassing evil, but the comparison feels wan. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has infinitely more in common with the psychic quest for one’s identity, the yearning for belonging and friendship, and the no-rules imagination – sometimes absurd, most often incisive – of the transcendent cartoon series Adventure Time.

Firstly, Vol. 2 has shadings of The Empire Strikes Back, a more emotionally layered, more richly textured adventure than its predecessor; where Empire expanded on the visual and aural design of Star Wars, not to mention mining the characters’ lineage for plot points, Vol. 2 follows suit. Its creature, set, and sound design all outdo the original’s prismatic palette and funky clunkiness, and the second soundtrack mix of soft-’70s rock articulates emotional beats in a sharper, more thematically connective way than before (more on the music later). It’s also a heavier film, dramatically, with heaps of sentimentality. Where that candid emotional underpinning would surely bury most movies, here it feels earned, tethering the audience to the experience of these characters whose personalities vibrate with pride, pain, empathy, and sarcasm (or not, in the case of Drax). Pratt’s Peter Quill, ostensibly the center of the plot that finds the crew linking up with his long-lost father, the Kurt Russell-shaped planet Ego, is just off-center from the film’s emotional heart this time. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora and Karen Gillian’s Nebula (fierce and surprisingly funny, and most probably the GotG’s link to the rest of the Avengers and Marvel Universe); Rocket Raccoon (voiced by a bearded Bradley Cooper) and Yondu (a complex, ebullient performance by Michael Rooker); and Dave Bautista’s Drax (with a role in the upcoming Blade Runner sequel, Bautista’s the most interesting athlete-actor in cinema today) and fresh character Mantis (Pom Klementieff, just try not to fall in love with her) form the story’s backbone, a miasma of near-Sisyphean digging-out from under callouses of familial strife and existential loneliness.

Vol. 2 also takes cues from disparate sources: the strained, volatile bonds of S. E. Hinton and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders; the cartoon surreality of Tex Avery and even Spongebob Squarepants (just watch the eye-bulging portal jump sequence from the third act); Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (sharing in that film’s expert employment of solidarity-signaling slow-motion shots, not to mention general smart-assery along multiple storylines); and W. D. Richter’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (an odd, giddy triangulation of Jeff Goldblum appearances, if you count his near-invisible Easter egg cameo in GotG2, a signal to his role in the next Thor film). However, in Adventure Time, which debuted on the Cartoon Network in 2010, Guardians has found a kindred soul.

“People get built different. We don’t need to figure it out, we just need to respect it.” – Princess Bonnibel Bubblegum

Creator Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time was born in the midst of a semi-renaissance of Ren & Stimpy-like weirdness in contemporary television animation, a wave starting in the 2000s that included Invader Zim, CatDog, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force and an endless stream of awesomely nightmarish Adult Swim cartoon series not to be confused with anything resembling kids’ programming. Like a lot of these shows, each Adventure Time episode clocks at eleven minutes; in just over 250 of them, Ward and company have conjured an epic mythology, woven with characters who are every bit as vivid, tactile, and complicated as the ones found in Middle Earth, the Simpsons Universe, or the stories of Damon Runyon.

Both Vol.2 and AT are creativity on absolute fire; they share a flair for the crash of surreal environments against neo-realistic dialogue and genuine feeling. It’s contextually satisfying to watch Rocket and Yondu attempt to explain to Baby Groot – who, apropos to his name, is just beginning to recomprehend the world(s) around him – what and where Yondu’s fin is, only to have Groot return with everything but (and including a finger and an eye, reveling in both series’ affinity for errant limbs and body parts). Likewise, in AT’s season eight miniseries, Islands – in many ways, it’s a peak summation of the show’s mystical silliness and heartfelt, often dark, forays into the nature of self-discovery; it’s through this prism that we can examine many parallels with Vol. 2. – Finn the Human (voiced, and only ever voiced, by Jeremy Shada) can’t take another second of a long-winded sea serpent’s stilted stories, mumbling under his breath, “Whipple, you suck so much.”

Adventure Time

In fact, the true subversive nature of the two series oftentimes comes from its characters deconstructing and undermining traditional notions of heroism or pomposity. In any given Guardians scene, that probably involves Rocket. Quill has a response to Drax’s statement that only a great pilot could get them through an asteroid field: it begins with his “Good thing I–” and completed by Rocket’s “–I am.” Some of Vol. 2’s best comedic moments are at the expense of the wannabe-Ravager leader called Taserface (Chris Sullivan); Rocket, even as he’s on the verge of walking the galactic plank, howls with laughter at the moniker’s non-intimidating, sci-fi ridiculousness, sending Taserface into the third act with mounting insecurity. And while Finn and Jake the Dog (the ornery, brilliant John DiMaggio) are true and loyal warriors, forever battling ghosts, demons, thieves, and scoundrels in the name of the Candy Kingdom, Finn has had to overcome a debilitating fear of the water and Jake is deathly afraid of vampires, who do exist in the post-apocalyptic land of Ooo. They cry, they hurt, and they make mistakes; neither series is afraid to call bullshit on the tropes they sometimes inhabit.

Director Gunn, as auteur-ish as any director has managed to be under the Marvel banner, and the Adventure Time creators revel in anthropomorphism. Gunn, don’t forget, wrote the screenplays for the two Scooby-Doo theatrical releases and once directed a public service announcement for hamsters – entitled Hamster PSA, oddly enough – under the off-the-wall, Lloyd Kaufman-led Troma Team banner at the dawn of his career. Rocket and Groot represent the light-year evolution of Gunn’s affection for animals, not to mention the creative gravitas to bring them to emotional life. AT, though, takes it to the outer rim, injecting sentience into bananas, lemons, flora, cupcakes, worms, cinnamon rolls, handheld video game consoles, peppermint candy, and bodily organs (Ricardio, anyone?). It’s part of AT’s inclusionary manifesto – everything has feelings, everything matters.

Rocket and Groot

Another common element of both series, astounding in their ability to elicit goosebumps, is the synchronous exhilaration of diegetic and non-diegetic soundtrack music. Some of the most satisfying visual beats in Guardians float over visceral, punctuating songs from the likes of Glen Campbell, Parliament, George Harrison, and Cheap Trick, while a few help to actually propel the story along, just as they did in the first film. Part of Rocket’s plan to escape a mutineering faction of Yondu’s Ravagers is to crank Jay & the Americans’ “Come a Little Bit Closer” over the PA system, a distraction easy to identify with if you’ve ever been witness to a parent warbling it from the front seat of the family Oldsmobile. While the Ravagers get diced up by Yondu’s whistle-powered arrow, the song consumes the rest of the film’s sound design, washing over the action and sonically passing from diegetic to non-diegetic. Russell’s Ego quotes the lyrics to Looking Glass’s “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” to his son Peter, equating them both to the song’s sailors dipping in and out of seaports. And that’s to say nothing of “Mr. Blue Sky,” the Electric Light Orchestra number that Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, danced by Gunn) turns up to “11” and shimmies to over the opening credits, while the rest of the Guardians fight off a multi-tentacled space beast in the frame’s background. Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” shows up in key, non-diegetic spots, only as an emotional underscore. That’s fine, though, because Gunn and music supervisor Dave Jordan nail it anyway: the Rumors cut rumbles and roils in dramatic fashion, reverberating forth like a bat out of Quill’s psyche as he grapples with where it is he truly belongs.

In Adventure Time, characters often break into song to narratively convey an emotional state and carry the storyline to its next beat. Susan Strong – another of Ooo’s handful of humans who, in Islands, searches for her true origins on Founder’s Island – recalls a memory of listening to her schoolteacher sing of the history of their homeland, a song, in this case, as vital exposition. In another of AT’s miniseries, Stakes, which explores Marceline the Vampire’s splintered childhood, the young vampire and her mother sing in harmony to quell a fear of nightmares. Later, Marceline (voiced by Olivia Olson) launches into a Maya Angelou-inflected, electro-rap incantation in which she tells the story of her loneliness in the face of the abrupt departure of her adopted father figure, the tortured Simon Petrikov/Ice King (voiced by Spongebob himself, Tom Kenny). AT relishes staccato, video game-like melodies, too, and part of the musical fun and charm of the show is the offbeat devotion to songs and tunes that feel as if they’re coming from … well, a middle school sense of harmony, pitch, and lyric writing. They’re irresistible pieces, bricks in a wall of sound that frames AT’s atmosphere as both a relic from a recent industrial past and a glimpse of something technological yet to come, but always full of wide-eyed – and wide-eared – wonderment.

Marceline

And, of course, Vol. 2 and Adventure Time are also about sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. Heritage, if we’re to believe, is meant to be empowering, but in these universes, it’s not that simple: humans and other creatures are set adrift from their origins and biological lineage. Both Quill and Finn (in Islands again) are shuttled away in gleaming starships under the guise of being brought “home.” And getting home for these characters, finding family – on a conscious journey or under an unconscious gravitational pull – is paramount to their identity, even as they pass through states of reluctance or confusion. Ego succeeds in drawing Peter’s spirit toward him, at least momentarily, with the prospect of establishing a relationship; Finn contemplates staying on Founder’s Island, where he discovers his long-lost mother, Minerva, resides. In both instances, the characters closest to them – Gamora and Jake, respectively – question their desire to locate a family when they have one, a place of belonging, right under their nose. Ego (and Russell the performer makes it difficult to not wanna follow him just about anywhere) turns out to be a manipulative, self-absorbed lout, paralleling the true nature of Finn’s own opportunistic deadbeat dad, Martin Mertens. Another stunning similarity: mom Minerva (Sharon Horgan) has uploaded her consciousness so that she can inhabit her robots and various monitors across Founder’s Island, thus being everywhere at once; the planet/celestial being Ego is actually everything at once (the name should’ve tipped them off). But, whereas Ego will stop at nothing to encompass the universe, everyone else be damned and dead, Minerva ultimately sees the beauty and genuine freedom of her son’s true, not inherited, persona.

Peter and Ego

The ties that bind these series run deep: Yondu, the film is magnificently clear on, is Peter’s real father, the one who saved the boy from Ego’s gregarious nefariousness, raised him and cared for him, just as Jake’s parents adopted and raised Finn as their own after discovering him atop a forested mountain. The sibling conflict between Gamora and Nebula, a vicious seed planted by their asshole father Thanos (Avengers: Infinity War’s big baddie is coming, y’all), is reminiscent of the fluctuating tension between Marceline and her childhood friend Bonnie, otherwise known as Princess Bubblegum. And although it’s Jake that utters jazzy lines like “Uh, oh – someone’s gonna do a quest for a frog,” it could just as well be coming from Rocket Raccoon’s caustic maw.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 finishes (numerous end credits sequences notwithstanding) with perhaps the most boldly emotional final shot in any recent blockbuster, a moment too many of the Marvel movies seem content to eschew in favor of getting swiftly to the twists and turns of their post-credit reveals. Rocket, who has been shown to curdle from physical touch and wage war with his or anyone else’s vulnerability, cries for Yondu, the camera lingering for a moment as tears lurch and hang from his fur before fading to black. In the final shot of Islands, Finn says goodbye to his mother via a virtual reality headset, a tear escaping down his cheek. In the defining chapters of these series, so full of joyous moments of derring-do, dancing, and discovery – inwardly and out in the cosmos – it seems oddly fitting and perfectly touching they would both end in tears.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the film or series.