Spoiler alert: Major spoilers follow for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
In a lot of ways, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 feels like familiar territory. We’re back with the same old a-holes we met in the first film, listening to more classic rock tunes while they save the galaxy a second time.
But Vol. 2 differs from every other Marvel Cinematic Universe in one major way and in doing so, raises the emotional stakes of the franchise as a whole.
The third act of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 throws just about every character into the action, putting them all in danger as they battle Ego for the fate of the universe. While most of them ultimately come out clean, however, Yondu dies. Really dies, like gets-cremated-and-has-his-ashes-scattered-into-space dies.
It’s a devastating turn of events, and in the moment I held out hope it’d be a fakeout that Yondu would turn out to have been only injured, not killed, or that it’d all be revealed as part of some elaborate ploy. But as much as it hurts to see him go, it may must be the smartest move that the MCU could’ve made at this point in time.
Why big stakes feel so small
The odd paradox of the Marvel movies (and lots of others like it) is that its biggest narrative stakes often feel the smallest on an emotional level. The characters might be freaking out about the end of the world, but we’re not, because we know the world can’t really end and that our main heroes can’t actually die. Not when there are still five or ten or fifteen more years of sequels to get through.
So what really draws us in are the smaller, more personal stakes. Sure, it’s unlikely Bucky will really kill Captain America in The Winter Soldier. Still, we know how much it pains Cap to see his former friend like this, and what it means to him to fight someone he once loved. So we’re invested in his journey, even if we’re already fairly certain of the outcome.
Marvel has a fake-death habit
One of Marvel’s go-to tools for raising the emotional stakes is character deaths. Bucky, mentioned above, gave Cap something to angst over in the third act of The First Avenger, while Coulson’s demise brought the entire team together in The Avengers. Loki in Thor: The Dark World, Nick Fury in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy: superheroing is a dangerous job, and it’s no wonder so many people perish in the line of work.
Except they don’t, really. All of those mentioned above have come back, to diminishing returns. The first time a character miraculously returns from the dead, it’s a shocking plot twist. The fourth or fifth time, it starts to feel like a cheap trick.
There are some exceptions. Quicksilver hasn’t returned from his demise in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Ditto Erskine from Captain America: The First Avenger and Yinsen in the first Iron Man. Plus, bad guys get killed off for good all the time in the MCU. (Loki being the exception that proves the rule.)
Why Yondu’s death is different
But Yondu’s death in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is different. Unlike Quicksilver, Erskine, or Yinsen, Yondu is no mere supporting character, created to help the real heroes get where they’re going before dying tragically to spur them into action.
Yondu, in Vol. 2, is a co-lead. He’s someone we come to care about for his own sake, and not just because of what he means to the other characters. From the moment he appears onscreen, looking lonely and tired in a hedonistic pleasure town, it’s clear we’re going to go much deeper with Yondu in Vol. 2 than we did in Vol. 1. The more we learn about his history and his relationships with Star-Lord and the other Ravagers, the more we love him.
Then Yondu dies, sacrificing himself for the surrogate son he’s never quite been able to admit he loves. (Sob.) And unlike Groot in Vol. 1, or any of the other back-from-the-dead characters we mentioned above, he doesn’t come back. More significantly, there’s no reason to believe he’ll ever come back. His body has essentially been turned into space glitter by the end of the movie.
In short, Yondu is the rare major character to die and stay dead in an MCU movie.
How Yondu’s death changes the stakes
While there’s never been a specific, on-the-record rule that major characters can’t be killed in the MCU, the franchise’s track record speaks for itself. Yondu’s death means safety is no longer guaranteed for beloved characters.
That’s not to say we’re entering Game of Thrones-style “anyone can die” territory here. But the reminder that key characters can die comes not a moment too soon.
The MCU seems poised for a major shakeup in Avengers: Infinity War and its sequel, and not just in the way that every new movie promises to change the Marvel universe as we know it.
10 years and over a dozen movies in, the MCU finds itself in a point of transition. It’s unclear how many of its original flagship heroes (i.e., Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor) will stick around past the next two Avengers movies. Meanwhile, the MCU has been introducing characters like Doctor Strange and Black Panther who could become the new faces of the franchise.
Mind you, we’re not saying that Yondu dying in Vol. 2 definitely means heads will roll in Infinity War, or anything like that. Just that it’s raised the stakes for our heroes especially the older ones, who might be on their way out as we head into the next MCU movies.
Could Yondu return?
That is, assuming Marvel sticks to its guns. The MCU being what it is, it’s not hard to imagine how they could bring back Yondu if they really wanted to. We’ve already seen Zola return as a digital version of himself in The Winter Soldier, and Wong saved by the magic of time travel in Doctor Strange. (Plus, we’ll have Hela, goddess of death, running around as of Thor: Ragnarok who knows what she’s capable of?)
And that’s just in the movies. The Marvel comics are brimming with still other ways to bring back dead characters, including clones and alternate timelines and straight-up magic.
But now we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For now, let’s just salute Marvel for finally breaking one of their worst habits. Enjoy the Ravager funeral, Yondu, from heaven or wherever it is your soul resides nowadays. You’ve earned it.