There is a moment we've all seen in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 trailers in which Nebula chastises the team for their dysfunction. "All you do is yell at each other," she observes. "You are not friends."
"No," clarifies Drax. "We're family."
Most cinemagoers laughed at the line — it's a funny one, delivered with Dave Bautista's surprising deadpan style — but it turns out that line of dialogue is a perfect distillation of what the sequel is about. While most comic book movies are superhero films with some character development and relationship drama thrown in, GotG2 is a family drama that just happens to be about cosmic superheroes.
Until this point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, much of the focus has been on Joss Whedon and his character interactions. The round-robin style dialogue and rapid-fire quipping between characters is his trademark. He gets credit for building the relationships between the earthbound Avengers into what they've become.
But the cosmic end of Marvel is all James Gunn. With the sequel he establishes that it will be built upon a foundation of character, not spectacle. Oh sure, there are huge, showstopper sequences to delight the eyeballs in Guardians 2, but the film's beating heart is the characters' family dynamic.
It's a surprising dynamic for a superhero film; dare I say a remarkably bold one. The characters aren't always likable, and that's a rarity to see in a family-friendly tentpole, particularly from the House of Mouse. For as much of a monster as Natasha Romanoff believes herself to be, she's the compassionate glue that quietly holds the Avengers together. Tony Stark may be a bit of a dick, but he's so charming that it balances out and makes him strangely endearing.
There is nothing compassionate about Nebula's childhood resentment of her adopted sister Gamora, which has festered and curdled into something poisonous. There is nothing endearing about Rocket Raccoon's self-loathing, which runs so deep that he is compelled to be as nasty as possible to push everyone away. If Tony is a dick, then Rocket is an asshole. Believe me, there is a difference.
Guardians 2 revolves around a truth that is rarely explored outside of indie dramas: Before we can form a bond of unconditional love with someone else, we often have to wade through hell to get there. That hell usually involves confronting ourselves. But your family, the one you choose, whether blood or not, will be there for you every step of the way, even if you may not deserve it just yet.
The moments that mold the Guardians into not just a team of collective individuals but into family are uncomfortable to watch. There is a scene with Gamora and Nebula in which Nebula finally unloads on her sister, pours out all her pain and resentment about the horrors that Gamora passively inflicted upon her when they were children. It's a scene to make anyone wince who has ever had the sort of hard conversation with a sibling — the kind of hard that comes from putting some unpleasant but necessary truths on the table.
It's not easy to watch. Not Nebula speaking of her nightmarish childhood in such unflinching terms. Not Gamora's guilt and shame when the full weight of what she allowed to happen to her sister sinks in. It's raw and it's brutal, but it's also real. It resonates.
I have two sisters. Sisters I love very much, but with whom I've not always seen eye to eye. I know those conversations. I've lived those conversations. Of course, they didn't reach the same murderous extremes, but the shape and shadow were still the same. The resentment and anger and misunderstanding, but beneath it all, a deep and abiding love and a fundamental need for their love in return. They are my sisters, after all.
Equally as important is how Nebula and Gamora interact after the conversation. When the two part ways, Gamora makes a last plea for her sister to stay. She steps in to give Nebula a hug, one that Nebula does not return. It's the second home truth that Gunn drives home, that there is no magic bullet to fix a dysfunctional or fractured relationship, only time and effort. Some resentments run too deep. Not all relationship repair jobs are completed in the course of one difficult conversation, but with many conversations and with effort that spans years.
Yet there's something hopeful to be taken from that scene. Nebula may have stiffened and not returned Gamora's hug, but neither did she pull away. For the damaged mercenary, it was the olive branch she was capable of giving at that moment — not complete forgiveness, but a start. A start is good. They can work with a start.
Likewise, there is hope in Rocket's story and he finds it in the unlikeliest of allies: Yondu. Rocket spends the entire movie putting up walls, pushing those around him away, and in one exchange Yondu cuts right through his bullshit. Because it is bullshit — those walls, his defenses. Yondu called Rocket out, saw right through him and broke him down to his essence because he might as well have been talking about himself.
Third home truth. No one is ever so unique in their experiences that someone else can't empathize with their pain. Yondu understands everything Rocket does because it's a dance he himself had performed as a younger man. He anticipated Rocket's same tired old steps because they were ones he'd already memorized long ago.
As with Nebula, there was no magic fix. But simply the fact that someone had cared enough about him to call him out created the chink in Rocket's armor he so desperately needed. One poignant scene in particular has layers of meaning. As Rocket quietly speaks of Yondu's ultimate redemption to Peter Quill, halfway through Peter realizes Rocket is actually speaking of himself. Peter responds in kind, letting Rocket know he is accepted in a roundabout way, both still pretending to be speaking of Yondu. Their relationship hasn't healed enough to be that straightforward, but it's a first step in a different dance for Rocket.
That's the fourth and final truth about building a family. Growth doesn't happen in leaps, it happens in baby steps. Movies like to show us character evolution that happens in sweeping epiphanies, in grand moments of dramatic change. But real life is very rarely like that. Evolution in reality happens in small moments, incrementally. Baby steps are real, baby steps are what create actual unconditional love between two people, what creates a family. It's with those baby steps born from hard truths that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 gives us one of the most realistic on-screen families to date.