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The Marvel Moment

At the end of this month, Avengers: Endgame will bring to a head Marvel’s decade-long experiment in shared-universe storytelling. To mark the occasion, The A.V. Club is revisiting all 21 movies in this mega-franchise through a single, significant scene in each: not the best or most memorable scene, necessarily, but the one that says something about the MCU as an ongoing blockbuster phenomenon. This is The Marvel Moment.

Like lots of superhero sequels, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 basically begins with a flurry of action. The Guardians, those mismatched intergalactic goofballs for hire, have gathered on a giant helipad to protect some giant glowing batteries from a giant, toothy monster that wants to feed off their energy. The banter, though, is light, and the stakes don’t feel particularly high—something Rocket (Bradley Cooper) seems to acknowledge with a literal wink, while expending the precious final seconds of battle prep time hooking up the sound system. When the beast does show up, writer-director James Gunn doesn’t play the ensuing fight for thrills, exactly. Hell, he barely gives us the fight at all. Instead, his focus locks onto sentient sapling Groot (Vin Diesel), button-cute after the events of the first Guardians Of The Galaxy, as he cuts an oblivious rug to the diegetic bounce of Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky”—a dance number that unfolds over a single, CGI-abetted take, as the rest of the Guardians dart in and out of frame behind him, playing warrior while he just plays.

It’s a good gag. Gunn, though, isn’t just goofing on—and subverting—the very idea of a spectacular opening set piece. He’s also announcing, right from the jump, where his priorities really lie. Guardians 2, like the space-opera mega-hit that came before it, immediately establishes itself as something outside the box: less a superhero movie than a surrogate-family sitcom posing as one, with a whole jukebox musical worth of classic-rock needle drops. The original Guardians came clean about that early, too, with the irresistible sight of Starlord (Chris Pratt) strutting and swaying through a space temple to the strains of “Come And Get Your Love.” But sticking the expensive CGI combat in the literal background, as baby Groot makes like the sashaying 3D infant of the world’s first viral video in the foreground, sends a clear message: Guardians 2 is going to be a party. Hope you brought your dancing shoes.

Maybe Marvel, too, was sending a message with this elaborately choreographed joke of an opening credits sequence. Fifteen films into its grand design, was the MCU finally becoming a place where directors could truly exert their authorial personality? “House style” is the mostly pejorative term critics started using to describe the visual, sonic, and narrative uniformity of these movies. It has, perhaps, been overstated—it’s not like Captain America: The First Avenger looks exactly like the other installments in Marvel’s Phase One, and there’s no denying that Joss Whedon brings some signature zing and snap to the dialogue in his Avengers films. All the same, when it becomes difficult to distinguish between a Jon Favreau film and a Kenneth Branagh one, it’s obvious that a certain template for success has been implemented. Guardians 2, perhaps more than any MCU entry before it, suggested that this template could be bent—that a filmmaker, especially a director working from their own script, could smuggle some distinctive style and preoccupations into these supposedly assembly-line entertainments.

This should not be overstated either. The second Guardians remains a Marvel movie, for better or worse—there’s an overlong fireworks-display of an action finale and everything! But its creator’s sensibilities are all over it: in the Looney Tunes slapstick, in the Tarantino-goes-to-space musical detours, in the weirdly sentimental climax. (For a guy who got his start at Troma, Gunn sure does have a soft side.) And in a sense, the film kicked off a whole year of admirably (if only marginally) off-model Marvel tentpoles, anticipating the John Hughes coming-of-age hijinks of Spider-Man: Homecoming, the dry Kiwi buddy comedy of Thor: Ragnarok, and the operatic, largely self-contained Afrofuturist spectacle of Black Panther. No one outside of the Disney offices knows exactly what the MCU is going to look like after Endgame brings this particular chapter of blockbuster movie history to a dramatic close. But with Gunn officially returning to the Galaxy, it seems safe to bet it will involve some boogieing.

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