WARNING: This post contains SPOILERS for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Audiences seem to have responded strongly to the emotional conclusion of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but director James Gunn was hesitant to make it the film’s ending during development. One of the more praised elements of the movie is Michael Rooker’s performance as Yondu, as many felt the actor lent a great deal of heart and resonance to the final picture. What could have been a minor supporting character is given a substantial arc fueled by dramatic heft, one that ties directly into the main storyline of Vol. 2. The sequel is primarily about Peter Quill meeting his biological father, Ego the Living Planet, and becoming torn between living a life with the person he’s always wanted to know and staying with his makeshift family. That decision becomes easier when it’s revealed Ego is actually evil and yearns to destroy the universe.
Yondu, who took Peter from Earth in the original film and raised Quill as one of his own, is a surrogate father to Star-Lord and cares deeply about the half-human, as evidenced by his willingness to sacrifice himself so Peter can live. During the climactic battle, the Guardians escape the exploding planet as Peter holds Ego off. Yondu stays behind to save Quill’s life, giving him the one spacesuit he had left. It was a touching, heartbreaking moment between “daddy” and son, and it’s something Gunn had doubts about while crafting the screenplay.
In an interview with Uproxx, Gunn revealed he initially “refused” to make this the ending before realizing he had to give the story some real stakes:
“I didn’t want that to be the ending, and I kind of refused to put that in as the ending for a long time. It wasn’t how the movie ended… But, at the end of the day, I knew that’s where it needed to go. I knew that we need to have real stakes in these movies. We need to lose characters. And not everyone who sees Marvel movies loves that. They don’t love losing characters. But for the characters to really make a difference, to really make their lives mean something, you need to have these kinds of losses.”
As tragic as it is to lose Yondu – an entertaining player in the Guardians films – Gunn does make an excellent point about “real stakes.” A common criticism of the MCU is that many of the films feel weightless due to a reluctance to definitively kill the main characters. Even the ones who do perish on-screen (like Agent Coulson in The Avengers) are later revived. The “fake out death” has become a trope of Marvel’s, and there are those that would like to see it change at some point. Granted, there is a way to give a narrative stakes without ending somebody’s life, but nearly a decade into its existence, Marvel has played it a bit safe. As Gunn suggests, this is sometimes necessary in storytelling because of the impact it can have on the other characters as they continue to grow. Yondu’s selfless act played a sizable role in Peter’s arc.
Rooker, of course, was sad to say goodbye to his Marvel character, but understood its purpose and enjoyed Yondu’s sendoff. “The hero of the movie ends up being remembered,” the actor told Uproxx, finding the silver lining. Given the positive reaction to the death and Gunn’s careful handling of it, it will be interesting to see if future Marvel movies are more open to killing one of the main characters in the interest of raising the stakes. Nobody is expecting them to turn into a Quentin Tarantino-esque bloodbath, but Infinity War could be more impactful if we bid farewell to one of Earth’s Mightiest.