(2017—Director: James Gunn)
★★★ 1/2 (out of 5 stars)
The first Guardians of the Galaxy came out in August of 2014. It surprised many with its playful tone and the charisma of its ensemble. With James Gunn returning to write and direct, the sequel (subtitled Vol. 2) delivers the same characters and amps up the colorful fun for the most part. In doing so, it neglects devoting love to its more serious, family centered elements.
Three months have passed since the events of the first film. The titular quintet—human-celestial hybrid Peter “Starlord” Quill (Chris Pratt), trained alien assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the musclebound Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), the bioengineered Rocket Raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper), and the tiny, adorable Groot (voice of Vin Diesel)—now work as guns for hire in as noble a way as they can. Peter and the team soon run into Ego (Kurt Russell), Peter’s god-like celestial father. Ego, along with his pet empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff), invites his son to his planet to learn his ways.
From there, Vol. 2 turns into a father-son rekindling drama of sorts—full of awkwardness, uncertainty, and of world views set at odds with one another. That drama should become the emotional focus of the film. Instead, Vol. 2 splinters itself. It attempts, like most blockbusters, to devote equal love to all its segments. As a result, it ends up spreading itself thin, uplifted for much of its runtime by its joyous attitude. (For the Marvel Cinematic Universe, such an attitude is a rare beast and at least guarantees Vol. 2’s watchability.)
That attitude plants itself from Vol. 2’s memorable opening title sequence, set to Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” (an excellent choice). After this, the fun becomes less effective in hiding the story’s disorganized focus. Ego and Peter’s father-son bonding requires screen time to have an emotional impact. In Gunn and co.’s mind, so do Drax and Mantis’ filler exchanges. Gamora’s quarrel with adoptive sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), on the other hand, would work better as a subplot if the plot weren’t so overstuffed already.
Meanwhile, Rocket’s journey hogs the narrative momentum. He and Groot get kidnapped by the blue-skinned space pirate Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) and his crew. Yondu’s past surrogate-father ties with Peter lead his crew to mutiny against him. This forces Yondu to team up with Rocket and Groot to escape. Compared to Peter, Drax, and Gamora on Ego’s planet for much of the Vol. 2’s middle, Rocket and Yondu’s journey moves and excites like the first film did. Yondu’s emotional arc even carries over from the first film better than the Guardians.
Doubling down on the laid-back tone of its predecessor, Vol. 2 also carries more mature elements. In one scene, Drax and Ego delight in their open discussion about the male sex organ. A character dresses up while glancing at the used robot pleasure doll at a nearby bed in another scene. Later, a prolonged scene of space “walking the plank” precedes a disturbing shot of floating corpses in space. The first film merely suggested moments like these in short bits of dialogue or off-screen. In Vol. 2, they linger on the pain, bordering more on discomfort than amusement. They feel more at home next to A Clockwork Orange’s “Singin’ in the Rain” scene or all 108 minutes of Deadpool than Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The first of three MCU entries in 2017, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 already feels like Marvel’s peak for the year. Vol. 2 is a delayed extension of one of the MCU’s better films. It retains the first film’s grounded heart and then drenches it in sweet, computer-generated fizz, which is both good and bad (depending on the viewer). Next, another one-off villain in Thor: Ragnarok, then another basic origin tale in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Rinse and repeat.
Such is the way of cinematic universes.
(P.S. To not have Chris Pratt make a single Goldfinger reference regarding Vol. 2’s Sovereign race is a lost opportunity of the highest order.)