The universe’s most colorful pack of scoundrels return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a sequel that sees director James Gunn and Marvel loosen the shackles and tell a shaggy story that is of little importance to the Marvel Universe, but of emotional importance to the characters. Vol. 1 (arguably Marvel’s best film not titled The Avengers) was a well structured, breezy and energetic space opera that told the story of orphaned outlaw, Peter Quill, and how he unintentionally found a surrogate family. It was a surprisingly moving film that stemmed from a mother’s love for his son, and how letting go of her allowed him to find another family.
It was titled Guardians of the Galaxy (referred to as Vol. 1 from now on), but it just as easily could’ve been titled Guardians of the Galaxy: Mommy Issues. The logical step for Vol. 2 was to explore Peter Quill’s father. So, now we have Guardians of the Galaxy: Daddy Issues — featuring Kurt Russell as the titular Daddy.
Vol. 2 is less plotted than it is tied through sketches of stories that connect to the film’s theme: family. Shortly after the Guardians steal an artifact and are chased off a planet, a man named Ego (Kurt Russell, complete with luscious hair) meets his now galaxy famous son, Peter Quill AKA Star Lord, and he invites the gang back to his planet. Rocket Raccoon and Baby Groot are left behind to babysit Gamora’s villainous sister, Nebula, but there’s a bounty on the Guardians and when Yondu and his gang find the three of them, things get messy.
The surrogate family of characters blast off in different directions, each forced to individually explore their familial past. This is all threaded by Gunn’s love for 80’s B-movie kitsch. There’s another prison escape, a planet straight out of Flash Gordon, costumes with a capital C, wisecracks, and lots of laser shooting. The structure provides a loose storytelling device for Gunn that trades a lack of urgent threat and narrative momentum for a laid back vibe where we just chill with these characters.
Vol. 2 takes the sequel outline of splitting up characters and fills it in with subplots and comedy sketches that work to varying degrees. Last summer, Star Trek Beyond did a similar low scale story with aliens, a mysterious villain, and multiple subplots to better effect — and it only needed ONE pop song.
Vol. 1 had a risky element of “this might not work” that gave the film an off kilter edge even when it traveled a familiar road map of plot. This sequel knows that the first time worked and it’s mostly content staying in Vol. 1’s lane, save for its structure and color book aesthetic. The problem is that it’s forgetting the first film’s excitement came from being new and risky; a choice that made it one of the few Marvel films that felt like a collectible comic book rather than a disposable issue.
This “staying in Vol. 1’s lane” is fine for the tap-your-feet pop soundtrack, but it exhausts the characterizations and comedy. Bradley Cooper’s fast talking rodent is now louder and more obnoxious. He’s an amusing SNL skit that you keep waiting to have another level but after a few minutes you realize that this is it; they’re just gonna commit to this. Similarly, Baby Groot is cute, and Drax has his thing, but when these characters split up and can’t play off each other, their lack of dimension shows. The multiple subplots and exposition in this film constantly undercut the emotional family bonds and chill vibe that it’s trying to build. By the time the central conflict arrives, it’s too late and feels contrived.
This cast is talented enough to create a warm energy (goddamn Kurt Russell is cool) but I found myself awkwardly reacting to jokes instead of laughing. Mid-film there’s a tone deaf action scene of casual and gleeful mass murder that is… uhh.. misguided. Vol. 2 turns everything from Vol. 1 up to 11. This strengthens the character’s emotional journeys and familial bond, but the jokes are “try too hard” annoying and the action sequences with CGI creatures and colorful backgrounds are aesthetically busy and without any physicality. I admire his appreciation for these types of cinema, but I would love to see a version of this with a smaller budget so it could really recreate such styles rather than imitate them. Flash Gordon it is not.
Vol. 1’s action was built through simple, engaging situations — but were shoddily staged — whereas here they’re executed with a spotlight but the sequences are just bigger and busier, not better. It helps that Gunn isn’t as concerned with action as he was in the first. The opening scene focuses on Baby Groot dancing while we see the group fight in the background. The film unfortunately doesn’t commit to this peripheral style of action, but Gunn occasionally lets his action breathe in the back while focusing on a character who’s experiencing an emotion or doing a task outside of the main action.
The jukebox of music and pop culture references are fun — and there’s a level to this film that wants to be lovably geeky and a punk rock outcast — but the music is a retread of Vol. 1 while the pop culture references feel unintentionally disingenuous. The 80s homages, cameos and catchy-as-hell retro soundtrack inside of a $200 million film make it a commodification of geek culture rather than a new addition or re-contextualization.
The pop culture carousel of references are pleasurable but do little beyond send a Pavlovian signal to the audience so they go “ahhhh haha I know that reference!” or “oooh it’s that 80s guy!” The soundtrack is fun, but it does little to enhance scenes. The music doesn’t create a rhythm or contrast and elevate situations; it’s there so people will go buy the soundtrack. But credit where credit is due: two songs, especially “Brandy, You’re a Fine Girl,” have thematic purpose and rise above the gimmick. The use of Cat Stevens greatly enhances a scene and got me to get all watery eyed. It’s a superficial tactic to use nostalgia to create emotion in situations where it isn’t earned (the finale), but it does create emotion, so I suppose there’s something to be said for the marriage of song/moment here.
Since 2015, Marvel’s universe has become bigger but the lack of threat and death for characters has become non-existent. We know there’s a film where everyone meets so we know no one of importance can die. An action film without the threat of death is like beer without alcohol. Gunn attempts to sidestep this by issue by crafting a loosely plotted film (let’s call this film soda instead of beer) that’s intentionally without high stakes — but when it jumps into a CGI video game filled third act, it’s hard to be involved or care.
I recognize some of these creative restraints are outside of Gunn’s reach. On his end I’m disappointed by the handling of story threads, comedic timing, and exhausting stop’n’go rhythm, but again, credit where credit is due: Gunn, even more than in the first, energizes scenes with a fuel that’s not usually in Disney’s Marvel films. This is best felt in the backbone of the film — Star Lord and his father — a subplot not of action or plot, but fueled with a lived-in emotion. This thematic core extrapolates off to the other character’s familial issues and brings the film to life in its closing moments. The methods and roads it takes to get to this point are messy and sluggish, but I like the intent and could still feel an emotionally gooey center.
The first Guardians benefited from introducing unknown characters and being able to tell a story that was detached from The Avengers universe. Vol. 2 is like eating the same candy again, but it now costs more and has extra sugar. This time it tastes like comfort instead of excitement, but at the end of both candy coated stories is a surprising amount of emotional nutrition. Guardians’ second outing is sloppier, not as dynamic as its predecessor, and certainly not a collectible issue, but it cements this franchise as the one Disney Marvel franchise with a heart.
Grade: C+ Lacks the surprise and comedic rapport of the first — while coasting on what worked in that film — but it’s got emotion and is superficially entertaining. See it if you liked the first.
For reference: Guardians of the Galaxy (B)