Twenty-five miles outside Atlanta, down a nondescript rural road and past a security checkpoint where proper credentials, I assure you, are absolutely required, a spaceship has landed. The arches and flooring that make up the ship are pristinely white, like some sort of cosmic Apple store, and yellow-orange light glows from all directions, as if the whole thing had been dropped inside a lava lamp. Its passengers include a space outlaw wearing a shirt with a candy bar logo emblazoned on it, a blue-ish, tattooed alien meathead, a woman with green skin and another woman in skintight green spandex with antennae sprouting from her head, and Kurt Russell.
Russell affably welcomes three-fifths of the so-called Guardians of the Galaxy aboard his ship, a wide grin spreading across his scruffy face. The alien with the antennae, Mantis, looks on skeptically, however, as Peter Quill, Gamora and Drax survey the ship in wonder. Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" swells as Russell pats Quill on the back. And if you don't love me now / You will never love me again / I can still hear you saying / You would never break the chain...
"Chris, keep looking at your dad, even if it feels too long!" a deafening voice booms over the music. This voice of God belongs to director James Gunn, whose spiky head is hunched over a monitor, a microphone hovering near his mouth as he watches the scene unfold.
It's late in April and production is currently more than halfway complete on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 at Pinewood Studios, which Marvel has established as its home base for the foreseeable future. Today, one behemoth soundstage has been transformed into the spaceship to film scene 113. Production moves on to shoot a close-up of Mantis (played by newcomer Pom Klementieff) as she announces in a loopy, slow drawl, "We are here." The orange lava turns blue. "They're taking a trip on Kurt Russell's spaceship. His freaky, creepy, '60s, pop-art spaceship," Gunn tells a group of reporters, ET included, on set. That's all Gunn will say about this scene, though he and his cast are happy to speak to how the next volume in their operatic space adventure will push the furthest edges of the Marvel universe.
"It's a different type of pressure that we're under now. Before the pressure was, 'No one knows you. What's it going to be like to be the first Marvel movie that fails?'" Chris Pratt, who plays Peter Quill, admits during a break from shooting. Pratt is tanner in person, his floppy hair a lighter shade of blond and tight, gray shirt accenting his muscles. He laughs that good-natured Chris Pratt laugh as he recalls, "I can't even tell you how many times I answered that question. I was like, 'Oh, god! This is not looking good!'"
That pressure, at least, has lifted. As Pratt puts it, "People really liked it!" which undersells exactly how much people liked it. Guardians of the Galaxy was liked by critics to the tune of a 91 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the movie-going public made it the third-highest grossing film of 2014. (And Marvel's third highest-grossing film ever, after Avengers and Iron Man 3.)
"I think the pressure we're feeling now is, How do we do the same thing in terms of wowing an audience?" Pratt, who has only become a bigger movie star himself due to the success of Jurassic World, explains. "Getting people to come in thinking they know what they want but leave having got what they want, but it wasn't what they wanted to begin with."
That message is clear and Gunn echoes it wholly. "I think there's a trap a lot of sequels fall in, where they say, 'OK, we had that beat where there was a dance-off, so what is our dance-off in this movie? And we had that 'We are Groot' moment, so what is our 'We are Groot' moment?'" he says, his forehead setting. "I'm like, 'Screw all of that! This is its own thing.'"
Which doesn't mean that Vol. 2 is throwing out what audiences loved about the first movie. The entire rag tag team, from Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Bradley Cooper's voice as Rocket, down to Glenn Close's Nova Prime Irani Rael, will return. Instead, the movie is doubling down on everything that worked and wagering that good will to take even bigger risks.
"I think this is perhaps even more unique and more daring than the first film," Marvel Studios president, Kevin Feige, boldly proclaimed earlier in the day, seated in the studio's "war room," a conference room decked out in concept art for the film. "In terms of there's maybe an easy way and a hard way, but the hard way maybe could be more interesting."
The easy way might have included re-growing fan-favorite Groot, the sentient tree voiced by Vin Diesel, back to his adult size before the events of Vol. 2. And Gunn discloses that he "totally, one hundred percent" almost did that, before asking himself, Why not Baby Groot?
"He can kick some a**. He's also an idiot. He's a baby! He's not very smart," Gunn teases of a "very different" Groot. "He's a unique little fella. And he's pretty great in the movie, even though he's not even there! We got the guy on a stick and people are laughing." (Though Baby Groot was not filming during our visit, prop master Russell Bobbitt held court by a protective case from which he pulled out the 10-inch Baby Groot figure used on set. As Bobbitt passed around Baby Groot to a chorus of cooing, he said even the crew members "just die" when he brings Groot out. All of which is to brag: yes, I have held the real Baby Groot.)
Gunn can't help but laugh. "All the time Chris is like, 'Godd**mit. He's going to steal the f**king movie!'"
Then there is the extensive roster of new characters joining the Guardians, characters who might just be stranger and more alien than even the talking tree and gun-wielding raccoon -- like Klementieff's Mantis, an actual alien. The Mantis found within the pages of Marvel comics has often been painted Gamora green and is a master martial artist who can communicate with plants and has special empathic abilities. The latter, it seems, may be the only part that holds true for Gunn's adaptation, as his Mantis is also able to manipulate and change others' emotions.
"You're going to think that I'm crazy, but I haven't read the comic books," Klementieff says sheepishly, revealing Gunn instructed her not to. On set, wires protrude from the actress's forehead where her antennae will later be CGI'd in and special effects markers dot her face. "I knew James' version was so different from the pictures and drawings that I saw, that, you know, it would kind of f**k up the [result]...I didn't want the character to be, like, sexual and usually they're always like that. I think we are creating something different."
"I can tell you that Pom is somebody who will be on your radar for the rest of your life after this," Pratt predicts, though neither he nor Klementieff is willing to give away details about how their characters interact. "Like Dave was born to play Drax, I feel like Pom was totally born to play Mantis."
It's not completely coincidental that Pratt should mention Dave Bautista, the former WWE wrester-turned-actor, as Feige hinted that Drax develops a special bond with Mantis over the course of the movie. "At the very core of Drax, he's really just heartbroken," Bautista, taking a break in full Drax makeup with an Under Armor hoodie casually draped around him, reiterates. "There's a real innocence about Drax and I think Mantis has that as well. There's just a very child-like innocence with both characters."
Mantis' introduction comes hand-in-hand with Kurt Russell's, playing Peter Quill's father. The character was teased in the first movie as "something very ancient we've never seen here before" and, in comic lore, Quill's father is the Spartoi alien J'son. Ahead of the press day, Gunn had announced that he was diverging from the source material and that Quill's biological father would not be J'son. Yet in the war room, artwork for a spaceship was labeled as "J'son's Ship" and a planet in another was branded J'son, giving the impression that J'son might not be a person in the movie, but a location. On set, Russell sat in a chair with J'son sewn into the back.
So, what does Gunn have to say for it? "I say the same thing. There is no J'son in the MCU," he coyly protests. "He isn't J'son. He isn't named J'son in the movie. That's just flat out the case. But here's the thing. We'll probably all know who the father is by the time this movie comes out, because the movie really isn't about that."
Three short months later, Gunn was ready to let that mystery go. J'son being a planet and not a person might have been a better clue than anyone could have guessed at the time, as Gunn revealed at Comic-Con that Russell plays Ego the Living Planet. (Gunn also admitted to taking extra precautions to keep us in the dark, writing on Facebook, "When our online press day happened on set, Kurt Russell sat in a chair that read 'J'son,' and all of our script pages and artwork featuring him used the same name.") With that knowledge in place, the movie will deal with Quill being pulled between his biological father (yes, a living planet) and his adopted father, the Ravager, Yondu (Michael Rooker).
"You get to find out who he hopes his father is and who he wishes his father is, and you get to find out whether or not that is the reality," Pratt weighs in. Revealing any further details would surely enter spoiler territory, so Pratt turns the conversation to what he can safely confirm: Kurt Russell is very cool.
"There are actors that I loved growing up, there’s a handful of them, and he is absolutely right at the top of that list and has not once done anything to disappoint the inner child in me," Pratt, who was later spotted laughing with Russell at craft services, gushes. "We're really kindred spirits, I think. Me and Anna [Faris] and Kurt and Goldie [Hawn], I feel like we are the same in some parallel universe. Anna's oftentimes been compared to Goldie Hawn. I guess some people have made that comparison with me and Kurt, kind of like a blue-collar type of dude. He loves to hunt and be outdoors and he's-- I don’t know. I just really, really love him." Pratt chuckles and leans in. "I'm in love with Kurt Russell!"
Perhaps it is the only all-out proclamation of love heard on the Guardians of the Galaxy set, but quite frankly, the thesis of the movie seems to be all about it. With Marvel continuing to test the limits of superhero fatigue -- 2017 marks the first year the studio will release three movies, with Spider-Man: Homecoming in July and Thor: Ragnarok in November -- the Guardians team is focused on making a movie that is as personal as it is action packed.
"For as fun as it is, for outrageous as it is, with characters named Taserface and with Baby Groot killing people and throwing them around, it is very, very emotional and not cynical in the least. It is very, very truthful and sort of unabashedly so, in its emotions," Feige reveals, leaning back in his chair. "It's a very special combination. That's sort of the crux of this whole movie."
Saldana puts it another way. "[Other movies] are all about jokes and punch lines and lubricated muscles and good shots and bigger muscles and other sequels and great f**king hairdos that never come undone," she laments. "And nobody cries. Nobody bleeds. Nobody feels a tremendous loss or void. And these guys are aching all the time. They're just trying to not be so f**ked up. Every day, they're trying to do one less bad thing. And they're trying, because they are a**holes by nature."