Warning: This post contains spoilers.
My favorite character in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (currently the number one movie in America) is Ego, the ancient space god played by Kurt Russell. Here’s a character with an interesting backstory—Ego has lived for millions of years and has spent much of this time trying to find meaning to his existence. He’s ameliorated this crisis through the use of his superpowers, creating his own planet where he can bask in his omnipotence. His planet—an extension of himself, another character notes—is perhaps the most striking setting yet to appear in a Marvel Studios production. In its vibrantly colored imaginary flora and sweeping landscapes, one gets a sense of how Ego has made use of his immortality. The world is beautifully realized, filled with detail that showcases the god’s limitless imagination. It’s an impressive use of special effects, deepening viewers’ understanding of character in addition to providing a sense of spectacle.
Ego finds the title characters after their spaceship is wrecked in a skirmish and invites them to his home planet. It’s at this point that he develops a relationship with one of the guardians, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), an earthling whom he fathered during one of his trips across the universe and then abandoned. (This is one of the ways Ego has tried to give meaning to his life, fathering children on various life-bearing planets.) The filmmakers indulge in a bit of sentimentality here, playing up Quill’s longing to know his parentage and Ego’s desire to connect with his offspring. I didn’t mind the sentimentality, however, as there aren’t too many films concerned with god-to-mortal interaction outside of a mythological context (Christophe Honoré’s recent Metamorphoses being a notable exception). In fact I appreciated the emotion, which stands in contrast to the effects-driven spectacle that defines so much else in the film.
This longing for familial connection may be the overriding theme of the Guardians films. In the first, Quill, previously a lone wolf in the universe, discovers a sense of belonging when he forms his team of intergalactic good guys. Here he discovers his true parentage and briefly finds a sense of peace with his origins. Writer-director James Gunn mines the familial connections between the characters for genial humor; the guardians’ frequent, interpersonal bickering suggests nothing less than a family on a strained vacation. Yet beneath the comic banter lies an interest in character that distinguishes these films from other comic-book adaptations. One comes to appreciate the dynamics between the guardians and their allies outside of their relevance to the plot. In a sense, the films are intimate character-study comedies blown up to blockbuster proportions.
But back to Ego. As played by Russell, the god seems comfortable with his immortality, his strident mannerisms and loquacious line readings suggesting confidence and jovial bemusement. (His performance is easily the most entertaining supporting turn in a Marvel movie since Michael Douglas walked away with Ant-Man.) Russell makes good by Gunn’s comic dialogue, bringing a relaxed assurance to the material; he’s also good at hiding Ego’s melancholy, his aura of confidence belying how it must feel to be alone in the universe. Yet one detects feelings of gratitude toward his visitors, who add personality to his home planet. Watching his interactions with the guardians, I imagined how sad it might feel to live forever, to watch as every being you come to appreciate perishes, and to regard the infinity of space and time as cold consolation.
There’s a sweet moment in the second half of Vol. 2 when Ego, who’s been teaching Quill to transform his thoughts into matter, has his son create a ball of light, then use it to play catch with him on a multicolored lea. In an earlier scene Quill had expressed regret at never having played catch with his father as a boy; now he finally has his chance. The two grown men look a little silly playing such a simple game (and using such magnificent powers to play it), yet one recognizes the psychological need it feeds. In a film filled with large-scale action and effects, this little breakthrough stands out, providing Vol. 2 with a sense of emotional proportion.
I was disappointed when Ego turned out to be the villain. Apparently his solution to finding meaning in the universe is to remake every planet in his own image, eradicating all life-forms and replacing them with versions of himself. Of course this revelation is meant to register as a betrayal (and as a setup for a spectacular climax, in which the guardians will defeat his dastardly plan). Yet after all the hard work that Gunn and Russell have put into making Ego a likable and complicated god, the character’s pursuit of all-encompassing power seems beneath him. The subtle sense of melancholy engendered by the film had been for naught.