Warning: the following contains spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
When Michael Rooker was cast as Yondu Udonta in Guardians of the Galaxy it felt like little more than one big in-joke. The actor’s a close friend of director James Gunn, so his involvement in the film (along with Gunn’s brother Sean as both Ravager sidekick Kraglin and Rocket’s live-action body double) looked to be a way to have palatable nepotism. While the specific character choice was a deliberate nod to the comics; Yondu’s a founding member of the original year 3000 Guardians in print, so him being there accounted for the more modern team makeup.
Even though Rooker definitely left an impact initially, it’s really in the sequel where he’s earned his place as part of the cosmic Marvel universe. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is conspicuous for – despite being a character-focused piece – not really having much in the way of actual character development, but the one place this isn’t true is with Yondu. We learn about the anti-hero’s past, have his very foundation shook and, crucially, his arc is fatefully brought to an end when he sacrifices himself to save his adoptive son, Star-Lord.
That latter point is important as it sees Vol. 2 do that rare thing of actively ending a Marvel character’s run, making the development of Yondu in Guardians 2 is his MCU epitaph. Of course, despite his 48 years of existence, he’s not an A-List hero where a mishandling would cause the ire of fans for decades a la Batman or Spidey, but that shouldn’t get in the way of us asking the whether what they do with him works.
Retconning Yondu From The First Film
Although Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 doesn’t have an overly complex narrative, it does still do a fair bit of heavy lifting in how it reframes the original. Ostensibly this is to explain Star-Lord’s backstory, with the nature of his birth, mother’s death and departure from Earth altered, but due to Yondu’s proximity to everything he undergoes a big change too.
In the first film he’s the pirate with a heart; quick to anger, definitely someone you wouldn’t want to cross and possessing an alien outlook on eating other people, yet ultimately compassionate and understanding of Peter. From his introduction in Vol. 2 this has shifted, with a sad loneliness underpinning his antics at space brothel Contraxia, and it just goes from there. He’s not just a pirate with a heart, but one with a heart that is simultaneously made of gold and incredibly soft.
As we go on, everything he’s done previously is subtly reframed. It turns out he was Ego’s patsy, used to collect the Celestial’s many children as part of his plot for galactic domination, but when it came to Peter, he’d had enough and eloped. He and Quill both cite the excuse of the half-Terran being small and thus good for thieving as the why, which reveals much of his gruffness from the original – such as stopping the Ravagers from eating Star-Lord – as an act. This is hammered home by his excommunication from the main pack by Starhawk; his history with Sylvester Stallone’s character (which we’ll look at in more detail in a bit) shows he’s an altruistic hero who’s lost his way.
There is a slight issue in that it has to rewind the development in the second half of the 2014 film – Yondu teaming up with the Guardians, being proud of Quill’s defeat of Ronan and laughing at being literally trolled out of an Infinity Stone – but it’s an interesting step all the same, one that makes him one of Vol. 2‘s more interesting players.
Relationships With The Guardians
However, while all this strengthens Yondu when you really break it down, it’s less well-handled in the film as presented. The script splutters its character development and leaves threads undernourished until their payoff, which is incredibly prominent with Yondu.
Being an outside Guardian, much of his development is done in reaction to core members, something that is regrettably paid off primarily in two blunt scenes. The first is the out-of-the-blue comparison to Rocket, with the pair of angry brutes discovering they’re both not that different, essentially rounding off Yondu slowly coming to terms with what he’s done and realizing he’s not beyond redemption. The second is more problematic – despite having no direct exploration of the concept previously, the climax of the finale suddenly introduces a surrogate father thread for Star-Lord. It’s a nice idea and one that leaves Peter alone in the universe, but has only really been lightly touched upon up to that point and, considering how brash Yondu’s been to Peter in the past, is a rather positive framing of an abusive relationship.
When the film lets Rooker just be the character, though, things are so much better presented. “I’m Mary Poppins, y’all” is already a meme (which no doubt pleases Disney considering a belated sequel is on the way) but much of his lone moments are ones that stand out – from his introspective introduction to the incredulity at Baby Groot’s inept breakout. Even his enlarged fin – a reference to the comics – serves as a subtle visual representation of him embracing his true self.