I didn’t really want to be the one to say it, but here goes: Marvel has a bit of a death problem. For all the massive stakes that its heroes engage in, in both cosmic worlds and more earth-bound ones, the stakes for our central heroes can occasionally seem comically low. Sure, disposable villains are dispatched at the end of nearly every MCU entry, and family remains an open target, often used to inspire its heroes (see the death of Black Panther’s father in Captain America: Civil War) rather than for its narrative weight. Then, there’s the good o’l Loki fake-out, a tried and true manipulation that allows the film to achieve all the emotional heft of a major character’s death without any of the narrative obligation. In fact, Doctor Strange was the first MCU movie to actually deliver on any major character’s permanent death – but even then, the Ancient One has max 30 minutes of screen time before she meets her untimely end, even then returning to Strange in ephemeral form to sooth his concerns about her ultimate fate. Enter Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
[Spoilers ahead for Guardians of the Galaxy 2:]
For those who need a refresher, here’s what happened at the end of James Gunn’s sequel: drawn into Ego’s (Kurt Russell’s) gorgeous self-made planet by the promise of real familial connection and untold power, Peter (Chris Pratt) soon finds himself under the control of his bio dad, who it seems isn’t so much his true father as just a man fond of spreading his seed. A kind of galactic eugenicist with the ultimate goal to remake the entire universe in his image (blue, squishy and generally devoid of life) who needs Peter’s powers to complete his mission, Ego is revealed as the true villain of the film, as Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and the rest re-team to bring Peter to safety. It turns out safety is easier said than achieved, as Peter realizes he must attack the heart of the planet – Ego’s mega-sized brain with the help of Rocket’s pilfered Sovereign batteries.
But Peter isn’t quite strong enough to best Ego without an additional power source. Channeling the power of the planet’s heart, Peter takes to battle with Ego (assuming his soul-destined cosmic shape as Pac-Man for one brilliant moment) while Baby Groot plants a bomb on the brain, setting a timer for five minutes to allow the Guardians to get to Yondu’s ship before the big boom. But unlike the pat “just in the nick of time” crushes to safety we’ve come to expect in the MCU, Gunn follows through on his hefty stakes, and when Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Peter are stranded on the fast dissolving planet with just one jet-pack, Yondu fulfills his role as Peter’s stand-in father by giving his life for Peter’s.
The camera lingers as the life is slowly choked from Yondu in the unforgiving vacuum of space, and the pair come to the final realization that they were the family one another was looking for all these years. It’s not just a tragic scene, it’s absolutely gutting, as Yondu is subjected to the same gruesome fate that some nameless Ravager was forced to endure during Taserface’s brief Ravager mutiny earlier in the film. But Gunn doesn’t just linger in space – he also takes his time to pay the character his due farewell on the ship, bearing witness to the Guardians’ meager but heartfelt funeral as well as the Ravager factions’ bombastic farewell, led by Sly Stallone’s Sakar. It’s all incredibly emotional, and it holds the beat for far longer than any MCU flick prior has dared.
It’s a brave move from Gunn, and one I imagine took some creative pitching to Marvel execs before it got the ultimate okay, but it’s also a minor stroke of genius, the ripple effect of which will spread to every corner of the Marvel Universe. Finally we know characters we love can die – even in their second outing, even after extensive character development – a hard reality that will help kick Marvel into high gear as Phase 3 begins in earnest. And while sure, Peter Quill isn’t likely to take one in the kisser in any future iteration of the Guardians, it’s certainly possible that characters like Mantis, Nebula, and other MCU characters outside of the Guardians could land on the chopping block going forward.