Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2: A Dance Between The Head and the Heart
This week we’re going to be looking at Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2, written and directed by James Gunn.
If you listened to my podcast on Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 1, you know that I’m a huge fan of James Gunn’s writing. Not just for the brilliant execution of pretty much every moment of his scripts, but also for his overarching use of Theme to give real emotional resonance to these goofy action sci-fi comedies.
So, it’s interesting to watch Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 to see James Gunn both succeeding and struggling in the places he’s most strong.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 starts off with a scene that’s classic James Gunn — a scene that takes a very typical action sequence, and turns it on its head in order to breathe new life and new fun into it.
The Guardians have been charged with protecting some very precious batteries from the giant creature that keeps on draining them. This setup, of course, is a very typical action-movie-big knock-out action sequence beginning. We’ve seen this a million times in everything from The Avengers to Batman.
Except this time, rather than focusing on the epic battle sequence– you know, the thing that’s supposed to get the adrenaline of the audience pumping, the thing that action movies like Guardians of the Galaxy are supposed to be delivering– rather than focusing on that sequence, and those supposedly life-or-death stakes, James Gunn instead points the camera at Groot.
Which is to say, James Gunn points the camera at what actually matters to him, the thing that the scene is actually about: not the battle sequences which we’ve seen a million times before– but a scene about a bunch of Guardians who’ve come together as a family, to protect and raise this little baby Groot, the reincarnated version of their old friend.
And by not allowing himself to get distracted by the baloney of what the scene is supposed to be, he not only creates a hilarious sequence for the audience– where we get to watch little baby Groot jamming it out to some good old 70s rock music while the epic battle plays out barely visibly behind him– but also sets up a potentially powerful theme for the movie: a theme about family, a theme about connection, a theme about caring for others.
He takes a scene that we’ve seen a million times, and says, That’s not what’s interesting about this scene to me, what’s interesting about this scene to me is right here.
And this is the first tool that you should take from James Gunn.
Writing a movie is not about serving them it’s about serving you.
It’s about focusing in on the things that really matter to you. When you learn to do this, you not only discover the key to specificity, you also find the cure for cliché.
The truth is, these scenes are archetypal. Big action movies do start with big action movie sequences, at least most of them do. But your big action movie sequence does not have to play by the rules as other big action movie sequences.
In Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 1, James Gunn proved this point with the death of Peter Quill’s mom, by playing an emotionally-dramatic scene at the very beginning of a goofy ol’ action movie.
And here in Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2, James Gunn again controls that tone by keeping the camera strictly focused — not where it’s supposed to be — but where he wants it to be. By asking himself some important questions all writers need to ask when dealing with this kind of scene:
How is my opening action sequence different from all these other opening action sequences?
How does it grow directly from who these characters are and where we last left them?
As I let that action movie sequence play out, how am I going to make myself laugh? How am I going to entertain myself?
It’s moments like this that make Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 succeed.
And yet, at the same time, if you watched Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2, you probably felt that there was something missing. You probably felt that there was something from the previous version that just didn’t translate into this one. Something about the emotional content. Something about the structure.
As many critics have noted, in many ways Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 has a lot more plot than Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 1, and yet Volume 1 seemed to play out with a little more drive to it, a little bit more of a feeling of action.
Other critics have wondered if the problem with the Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 was too many characters speaking their emotions to each other.
But if you go back and look at Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 1, you’ll see that characters are speaking their emotions all over that movie. And, in fact, in both of those movies it’s the places where the characters are speaking from the heart, juxtaposed up against this total comic silliness, that is actually the engine of the piece, that’s actually what makes the movie succeed.
Now just a warning, there will be some spoilers ahead… But if we want to understand why this script, for all its wonderful specificity, humor and pathos is not delivering in the way the earlier script does, we need to look at the way it was actually built.
So why is it that we’re not crying at Yondu’s funeral in the way we cried at the end of the first Guardians of the Galaxy?
Why is it that Yondu’s funeral seems to drag, doesn’t seem emotionally-relevant at all?
Why is it that Peter Quill’s sojourn on his father’s planet, and that complicated emotional relationship between him and his father, Ego, seems like it’s dragging, doesn’t feel like it’s driving the story forward, even though for Peter Quill, the question of his father is probably the highest-stakes issue in his universe?
Why is that even with the introduction of another fabulous character, Mantis, the low self-esteem empath, and hilarious relationship with Drax, and Gamora’s complicated sisterly relationship with Nebula, and Rocket’s emotionally powerful relationship with Yondu, and all this fabulous character work that’s happening — why are we not feeling the emotional stakes of this movie in the way that we’ve felt the emotional stakes in the first one? Why are we laughing, but not crying? Why are we smiling, but not feeling the drive of the action?
Why is it that even though we are enjoying the hell out of this movie, apart of us knows there’s just something missing? The answer goes back to theme.
There’s a great line towards the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 — Yondu says about his magical Yaka Arrow: I don’t control it with my mind… I control it with my heart.
And while the second part of that line probably doesn’t actually need to be stated– the audience is probably smart enough to pick that up– the concept of that line is probably one of the most important things you can think about as a screenwriter, and one of the most important things you can learn by watching Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 and comparing it to the structure of Guardians Volume 1.
In fact there’s a great story about Joss Whedon talking to James Gunn after an early of draft of Guardians, Volume 1, which was met with a lot of love from studio executives. But Joss Whedon was tough on James Gunn, telling him “I want more of you in this script.”
So James Gunn goes back and rewrites this totally satisfying script to put more of himself into it. And that was the script that was so successful in Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 1.
In Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 you can almost feel the war between the mind and the heart of James Gunn.
The mind of James Gunn wants this to be a movie about ego.
Having written a movie about loss in Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 1, he now wants to turn the powerful might of his theme towards ego, and particularly towards the question of How does the ego destroy family?
And here we are, starting off just right, with this wonderful first scene that establishes the world of this family, where even during this epic battle, everyone’s main concern is nurturing this adorable little baby plant. Trying to raise it in the right way.
And down from the sky descends Kurt Russell in the form of a character named Ego — Peter Quill’s long lost father. Ego whisks Peter Quill off to his special Ego planet, where, of course, Ego turns out not to be exactly who Peter Quill expects him to be.
So from the very beginning, James Gunn is consciously trying to build something very, very specific — he’s trying to build a story about the the pressure between family and ego.
He’s trying to build up to a moment, when Peter Quill has to make a choice between ego and family — when he has to make a choice between his father and the promise of immortality, and the terrifying other side of the coin: that he might just be just like everybody else.
In the movie, that choice is boiled down to one line, when Peter Quill retorts to Ego, “What’s so wrong about that?”
But, structurally, despite the plot of the film, that question barely exists in the movie. Because Peter Quill doesn’t actually go on a journey in relation to ego; Peter Quill goes on a journey in relation to loss.
Because there’s that theme again, that’s in James Gunn’s heart, that drives the entire first volume of Guardians of the Galaxy. And as much as James Gunn’s intellect may want to escape it and tell an intellectual story about the challenge of ego and friendship, that’s not where his heart is taking him.
That doesn’t mean that an intellectual piece case can’t be made for the idea that yes, the problem of ego is related to the concept of loss, and that this is a movie about how ego causes loss. For example, as we see in the speech that Yondu makes to Rocket Racoon about how they’re exactly alike, about how their ego and their fear of being hurt causes them to force other people away.
But that conceptual theme never materializes into an emotional one.
As a result, we can see in the outline, in the plot, in the plan of this piece– in the mind of this piece — the desire to write a piece about ego. And then we can see in the heart of this piece, what this piece wants to be.
That theme that James Gunn can’t seem to escape, that theme of loss that just keeps on crawling into the movie that his mind keeps on saying has to be about ego.
If you think about the best scenes in this movie, you’ll see that it’s a movie about fathers and sons, about a boy who just wants a father, and isn’t going to get one, about a man who has lost the closest thing to a son that he’s ever had, because he’s unwilling to tell that son the truth about who his father really is. A movie about Rocket Raccoon, who’s willing to betray his friends to avoid losing another. A story about Nebula, who’s lost literally the pieces of her body, and her spirit as her father chose her sister over her again, and again, and again. About Gamora and her fear of losing, and the way it’s split her from her sister.
If you think about the most emotionally and powerfully written pieces in this film, they’re all about loss.
And so, what we have– and this happens to almost all of us as screenwriters– is this battle between the theme we want to write, and the theme that is actually coming out.
And when that happens we usually start to find lots of themes popping into our movies.
We start to lose the focus of that one theme that guides them all, and we start to be bounced around by all these different themes — maybe it’s about ego, maybe it’s about fathers and sons, maybe it’s about loss, maybe it’s about driving people away, maybe it’s about the heart versus the mind, maybe it’s about family, maybe it’s about nature versus nurture, maybe it’s about betrayal.
We end up with all these different themes, all vying for our attention.
And if we’re good enough at our moment-by-moment work, if we’re as specific as James Gunn is with the execution of our scenes, if our craft is that good, and our ability to create characters is that strong — our movies can survive it. We can still trick our audience into feeling they’re going on a journey.
But at the same time, there’s always going to be something missing. There’s going to be the feeling of something missing. The feeling that all these parts don’t add up to a greater whole.
And this is where most of us find ourselves in an early draft. This is where most of us find ourselves right before we find that key that pulls the whole story together, and makes the whole story matter.
If we want to really understand how to take our draft to the next level, we have to make some strong choices about Theme. You don’t make those choices with your head… you make those choices with your heart.
You start by looking for the things that you really felt, the places in your script that you really connected– not the plan that you had, not the outline that you had for the script.
You could so strongly feel the outline of this script forcing the characters forward in a way that we didn’t feel in Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 1.
You can feel the outline, the mind of the writer saying, This is what I want to do.
But revision is about a dance between those two parts of your body, about a dance between the heart and the mind — the part of you that feels your way through a script, and a part of you that knows what you want to build.
And the trick, if you want to fly that arrow properly, is allowing the mind to kind of drift to the very back of your head, and letting the heart lead you through your script — finding the places where you truly connected, even if they’re not the places you planned to connect. Asking not “What did I plan to build?” but “What did I actually build?” And then restructuring your film in order to allow that one theme to work, as strongly as possible.
Oftentimes this means sacrificing other fabulous elements, just like, in the very first scene we watched James Gunn sacrifice a cool battle sequence for keeping that camera on Groot.
But the result is to give a highly focused experience to your audience — to take your audience on a really powerful journey.
And this doesn’t always mean losing the wonderful things you’ve written — sometimes it just means refocusing them. But it does require us to look at the actual structure of the piece, both with our mind and with our heart.
If you watched Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2, you probably found that the stuff with Ego was the least interesting thing in the movie.
And that’s a real shame, because you’ve got Kurt Russell playing Ego, which is a fabulous casting choice, and you’ve got every special effect in the world, and you’ve got a really hot emotional trigger for Peter Quill.
But that theme about ego is never able to fully emerge in the movie, for a very clear reason: Peter Quill doesn’t have a problem with ego; Peter Quill has a problem with loss.
In order to get this to become a movie about ego, we would need to see Peter Quill seduced by his own ego. We would need to see Peter Quill drive his friends away over ego. We would need to see Peter Quill go on a journey, in relation not to an external character’s ego, but in relation to his own.
We would need to feel like deciding “it doesn’t matter to be like everybody else” was a hard choice for Peter Quill.
And while that may have been the journey that James Gunn planned, that’s not the journey that emerged for Peter Quill — because the thing driving Peter Quill is not his ego, it’s his desire for a dad that he thought was forever lost.
Similarly, early in the script we can see James Gunn’s intention to take the other characters on a journey in relation to ego. But that’s not actually where they end up going either.
Yes, we do have the antagonist of the Sovereigns, the most easily insulted people in the galaxy. And yes, we do have Rocket Raccoon’s impulsive stealing of the batteries when his ego gets insulted in the first scene.
But as the movie develops it stops being about ego.
When Yondu confronts Rocket about how they’re exactly the same, it may intellectually relate in some way to ego, but emotionally it’s not really about their ego at all — it’s about their fear of loss and how that causes them to drive away the friends they love.
And though, intellectually, the creation of the character, Mantis, this incredibly beautiful, incredibly low self-esteemed empath, who Drax is continually calling ugly– although the idea of her character and that game may have originated from this theme of ego, that’s not where it goes at all. Because Drax isn’t telling Mantis she’s ugly because of some kind of ego game, he’s telling her that as a compliment, because that’s what he truly believes.
Nebula and Gamora’s relationship, though originally intellectually rooted in sibling rivalry and ego, ends up becoming about loss — ends up becoming about a sister who just wanted a sister, about Nebula’s belief that Gamora’s need to win– her fear of losing– was both physically and emotionally destroying her.
And even Yondu’s journey isn’t about ego — it’s about how protecting the emotions of someone he loved has ended up costing not only his place among the Ravagers, but also the love of the child who was a son to him.
If you want Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 to be a movie about ego, you would need to find a way to take all these characters on a journey in relation to ego. You would need to find a way to seduce these characters with ego, to find the different nuances of ego.
But because ego isn’t the real problem of any of these characters, all of that ego stuff just falls flat.
So is that what James Gunn should have done? Should he simply have looked at the script and said, “Okay look, I’ve got a good draft, and now how do I make each of these character’s journeys about ego?”
Quite frankly, that would have been the hardest way to improve the structure of Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2. Because while the ego theme really only exists in the most superficial way in relation to the character of Ego, and in relation to the Sovereigns, the theme of loss and fear of loss is everywhere, and can so powerfully be built in this film.
We start with a family who finally have the one thing that they’ve always been looking for, and now every single person in that family is afraid of losing it.
And if we simply allow that fear of loss, that fear of doing it wrong, that fear of coming apart, that fear of the thing that’s so good being threatened — if we allow the emergence of Quill’s father to put pressure on these characters, to put pressure on their fear of losing each other– suddenly we could recreate this movie in way that did not require a huge rewrite, but that allowed the film to tie together thematically in order to deliver that thematic punch.
Here’s what’s interesting — no producer will ever ask you to improve your theme.
No audience member will ever leave your theater saying, “Wow, they really nailed the theme.”
In fact, most people will not even be able to state your theme back to you.
But when you really know the theme yourself– not the theme that’s in your head, but the theme that’s in your heart– it will allow you to write the scripts that move people, the scripts that grab people’s attention, and will not let them go.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 is going to make a lot of money, and entertain a lot of people, and quite frankly, I was entertained like crazy by that script. But Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 likely never has the success it’s having now if it’s not for Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 1.
There is one more structural change that would be necessary to pull the script together thematically. And this is another really important lesson: sometimes, when you need figure out where to build or rebuild your structure around a theme, you need to start by looking at where you end.
We can see the end of the movie is all about the relationship between Peter and Yondu.
If you don’t remember the backstory: back when he was a boy on earth, Yondu kidnapped Peter and basically used him like a slave. So they have a pretty complicated relationship. But what we discover in Guardians, Volume 2 is that the reason Yondu kept Peter and didn’t turn him over to his father is because he knew that Ego had been murdering all of his other children.
Really this was a protective urge, not to allow the child to be killed, and not to hurt the father, and not to hurt the child’s vision of his father.
Yondu has always told Peter that he kept him as a slave because he was small, and he was able to sneak into places the other people couldn’t get into. He’s never told him the truth.
And that lie has cost Yondu just about everything in this movie. He’s now been kicked out of his own family, The Ravagers, who believe that he’s guilty of child trafficking. He has has lost his relationship with Peter. He is totally alone in the world.
And at the end of the movie, in a structure very similar to the end of Guardians Volume 1, Yondu sacrifices his own life to save Peter Quill.
Yondu has a fabulous last line. He says about Ego, “He maybe your father, but I’m your daddy.”
And if you look at that line, it’s about the loss of that father that you’ve always been looking for, only to gain the daddy you didn’t know was there, only to lose that daddy all over again…
And the way that that ties into all the themes about loss, and pushing away, you can see that this is actually the line the whole movie needs to build up to. This should be the line that makes us cry.
And Yondu’s funeral, which right now just feels like an appended, beautifully shot curtain call — should feel like one of the most emotional moments of the film.
So why doesn’t it?
Partially it’s because of these thematic issues we’ve talked about. But for a thematic issue to work, it can’t just work intellectually — it also has to work structurally.
And that means it has to work in the relationships between the characters.
In this movie, the characters are split apart into two separate factions: you have Drax, Mantis, Gamora, and Peter, who all end up on Ego’s planet.
And then you have Yondu, Rocket, Groot, and Nebula, who end up staying behind on the spaceship until they finally come to save the day in the end.
And as a result the hot relationship that needs to develop, the relationship between Peter and Yondu, and Peter and Ego, and Ego and Yondu– that relationship can never fully develop. Because the characters literally are not in the same place.
The structure of a movie, just like the structure of a life, emerges from the hot relationships and the way they develop in the story. But in order for those relationships to develop, your characters have to actually spend time together!
Because Peter and Yondu are on different planets for most of the film, they have no opportunity to actually interact.
So we have a structure of a movie that’s supposed to be about a relationship between a father and son, who have lost each other, only to find each other, only to lose each other again in the end. About a child who chooses his father over his daddy. About a daddy who finally gets to be the father he wanted to be, even if it costs him his life…
But instead of getting to see that structure develop, that structure is lost when these three characters who need to be in the room together end up in separate rooms in the galaxy.
And this is why this stuff with Ego drags: not because it isn’t beautifully written, not because it’s not beautifully executed — but because for it to really to have resonance in relation to the ending that we’re driving towards, we need to feel those heartstrings pulled between Yondu and Peter. We need to find a way for that relationship to develop.
Your characters are going to go on big journeys in relation to the themes in their lives, and oftentimes we don’t know what theme we’re driving with.
And that’s because if we were completely aware of the complicated emotional struggles in our hearts when we first started writing, we wouldn’t need to write the script!
It’s the process the script that brings out those emotions that are inside of us, that forces us to deal with the real themes, sometimes not the ones we want to deal, sometimes the ones we think should be over by now.
It’s the process of writing the script, that takes us from the idea in our head, to the idea in our heart– that teaches us how to really fly that arrow, not in the way that we planned, but in the way that we feel.
And it’s by taking ourselves on these journeys of feelings that we create an emotional reaction in the audience. It’s by taking ourselves, not to the place that we planned, but to the place that touches us, that brings about that emotional catharsis.
In order to do that, you have to work on two different levels — the first level is the level of instinct, and the second level is the level of intellect.
And ultimately for a script to be successful it’s not just about the head, but it’s not just about the heart either — instead, it’s about a dance between the two.
It’s about a dance between the head and the heart that allows the arrow to fly.
For your theme to evolve, the characters must wrestle with that theme. For your theme to evolve, each character must go on a journey in relation to that theme. For your ending to pay off, you must build the relationship between the characters.
And it’s not enough to build it in Episode One, or Volume One, or Scene One. You’ve got to keep coming back to it, keep coming back to it, keep coming back to it…
You have to keep those relationships alive in relation to your theme.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 is a good script. It’s an entertaining joy-ride, and it’s having a ton of success, so this is not a podcast about how to make a bad movie good.
It’s a podcast about how to make a good movie great.
And that’s what you really need to do if you want to survive as a new writer.
Once you’re James Gunn– when you’re able to execute scenes with this kind of verve, and this kind of fun– even if there is something missing structurally, even if there is a bit of yourself that has not yet found its way into the script, sometimes your script can still succeed.
But when you’re a new writer just starting out, good enough isn’t good enough.
When you’re a new writer just starting out, you need that unity of theme to fly that arrow right through the heart of the producer — right through the heart of your A-list star, right through the star of your Kickstarter funders, and right through your own heart, to guide you through this very challenging process of bringing your script to the screen.