Sisters Nebula and Gamora both want to murder their abusive father, who was too horny for Infinity Stones to be a strong male presence in his daughters’ lives. Drax is still quietly bereft over the loss of his wife and children, Quill is looking for one dad and about to lose two… even the humanoid raccoon who talks like a pre-teen boy is frustrated with the people who made him. Absentee parental figures are even more reliable endemic to the MCU than they are the rest of Western fiction (Thor’s issues are practically Shakespearian), but Gunn kicks things up a notch by orbiting a half-dozen characters around the group’s collective concern for Baby Groot.
That big-eyed sapling brings out the best of everyone around him, and he’s the adorable nucleus of their ragtag family. As we see in the film’s electric opening credits sequence, the Guardians function like a team of foster parents for that anarchic tree thing, channeling towards him all of the love and attention that they’ve been starved of themselves. Groot’s selflessness saved them at the end of the first installment, and now they’re returning the favor. They look out for him the way that nobody ever looked out for them — they look after him with the care they’ve typically reserved only for themselves. For the Avengers, working together was a means to defeating a common enemy. For the Guardians of the Galaxy, giving a shit about each other is the only path towards finding purpose in a cold and indifferent universe.
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And ego (both lowercase and uppercase) is the only thing that might prevent them from doing that. They’re constantly fighting the feeling that self-reliance is the only meaningful show of strength. The feeling that they have to insist upon their own value, because no one else ever will. You see it in the moment just before Ego shows up, as Rocket and Quill’s squabble over control of their ship almost gets everyone killed. You see it in the Ravagers, who are split apart because of a power vacuum at the top of the food chain. You see it in Ayesha and her Sovereign space race, who won’t suffer the slightest indignity without retaliating with the full might of her video game army.
Ego is such a perfect foil for these characters and the world that they inhabit because he’s the physical manifestation of the abstract concepts that threaten to destroy them. He’s the living embodiment of the self-reliant, self-obsessive, self-interested attitude that threatens to strand each of the Guardians alone in space. Not only does Ego only think of himself, he also wants to expand the very definition of himself to the point where there is literally nothing else to think about (the core of Russell’s performance, which cuts deeper than simple braggadocio, is that he simply can’t fathom why anyone would want to get in his way). He’s not a creature of hate, just of infinite narcissism. If he were any more vain he’d be Thor, if he were any more arrogant he’d be Tony Stark, if he were any more stubborn he’d be Steve Rogers. The qualities that make Ego the villain in this movie are the same qualities that make the Avengers the good guys in their own.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” solves the MCU’s villain problem by solving its hero problem. After nearly three full phases about how power breeds responsibility, James Gunn made a movie that argues the inverse. This is a film about our shared responsibilities to each other — not in the abstract, academic sense in which the point is argued between Iron Man and Captain America, but in an intimate sense, and on a human scale. The stakes have never been so high (the entire universe is on the line), but it all boils down to Quill’s decision to choose his surrogate family over the only thing he’s ever wanted for himself. It boils down to two sisters who are willing to temporarily bury the hatchet, and to a blue mercenary who realizes that being a Ravager is a waste of time if you’re not seeking the right rewards, and to a kewpie doll tree thing who is only able to plant the big bomb because his foster parents made sure to nurture his growth.
Like 99% of 21st Century blockbusters, “Vol 2” inevitably climaxes in a chaotic, CG-drunk third act, but the movie survives it because whatever the hell the Guardians are doing is never privileged above the fact that they’re doing it for each other. Ego has always been the biggest threat to the MCU, a franchise that spent nearly three full phases realizing how unpleasant it is to host pissing contests in full spandex. But here — by calling Ego out by name — Gunn shines some light on the powers required to defeat it. In other words, it’s really going to suck for Thanos when he shleps all the way to Earth only to discover that the real Infinity Stones are the friends we make along the way.