Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Most of the time, we’ll settle for a solid, satisfying sequel, even if we’re naturally going to be rooting for a superlative one. Filmmakers are currently so used to invoking the impossible standard of The Empire Strikes Back/The Wrath of Khan, of advancing character and situation, going darker and encountering sacrifice, that expectations are inevitably tempered. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is indebted to at least some of those sequel tropes, although it’s arguably no darker than its predecessor, if more invested in character development. Indeed, for a series far more rooted (grooted?) in gags than any other in the Marvel wheelhouse, it’s ironic that its characterisations thus far have been consistently more satisfyingly realised than in any of their other properties.
Perhaps the most significant aspect writer-director James Gunn is clearly struggling with here is how to keep things fresh, knowing he’s developed an instantly satisfying, hugely winning formula. What he arrives at, rather than simply giving his characters another galaxy-saving adventure against impossibly powerful supervillains (although both come up tangentially), is to dive into another staple: the origins story.
Amusingly, and perhaps antithetically to the standard action formula, this is by way of something resembling a talky TOS Star Trek plot: crew land on a planet ruled by a godlike being offering rewards/powers that seems too good to be true, which is because, inevitably, they are too good to be true. There’s nothing very wrong with this, and Chris Pratt and Kurt Russell establish a convincing rapport, but neither is it something that feels essential or, so early in a general audience’s introduction to the character(s), truly earned.
Gunn’s keen visual palette for Ego the living planet is as wild and whacky as ever, and very much the better for it, but for all the coup of casting Kurt – and, as per usual, there’s de-aging tech, although why Ego would need to age is anyone’s guess; ’80s Kurt looks pretty spot-on, at least – there’s no point where he’s really enabled to have that much fun with the part. Because it isn’t that much of a fun part (his Fast & Furious role is more so); Ego isn’t a fun villain the way Rooker’s rehabilitated Yondu is. For that matter, Stallone’s glorified cameo is a starchy as it gets; neither is allowed to have Tango and Cash repartee or japery, and they don’t even share a scene.
Maybe that’s for the best; it can’t all be fun, and the rest of the cast are having enough of it. The through line here, though, as with Vin Diesel’s other franchise hit, is another “f”: family. The saving grace of this is that Gunn, for all that he indulges sentiment, is too self-aware to get mawkish in a detracting way. Besides Quill, there are family issues for Gamora and Nebula and ruminations on loneliness and loss for Rocket and Yondu, and most of them stay the right side of indulgent. Even if they occasionally tip over, Gunn has too much else going on to linger to the point of distraction.
If the god planet feels OST Trek, Yondu’s sacrifice is Wrath of Khan Trek. Albeit again, it isn’t something that necessarily feels earned (especially so in respect of the funeral trappings of the end – I kept expecting it to be revealed as another gag). Certainly not in such a compressed space of time: the bad dad being revealed as a good dad and vice versa.
Rooker absolutely rules with the role, but his – and the movie’s – best plot strand come in his pairing with Rocket and the more action-packed, split-the-crew decision as Rocket, Groot and Nebula first get caught by Yondu and his Ravagers, leading to various betrayals at the instigation of Nebula and Taserface (a running gag the stupidity of the latter’s name is possibly carried a little bit beyond the point where it can sustain itself. That, and almost any gag is better when delivered by Rocket).
This firing-on-all-cylinders subplot exposes the issue with the main thread, that of momentum. Gunn as a director has only improved since the first movie, and when he hits his stride he maintains a perfect synthesis of elements, but the flipside is that you notice the lulls all the more. The structure of Vol. 2 is slightly awkward, in that it moves from prologue to a kind of medley of first and second acts that only really settles when Ego’s motivations are revealed. And the third act itself, while a significant improvement on the first movie’s, which stuck to the standard Marvel template and so reduced to sameyness at the final hurdle, is still a little too reliant on bigger-bigger-bigger CGI spectacle.
There’s even a world-destroying menace depicted by gloop/Ego seedlings oozing across (destroying) whole cities. Fortunately, Gunn also knows how to mix these things up, so notable distractions such as Groot and the bomb are there to sustain what might otherwise have become mindless pixels (and even where it does, Quill using his god powers to conjure a Pacman is very funny, given he says he’ll do exactly that earlier… along with Skeletor, which he doesn’t).
As ever, Gunn’s choice of soundtrack is eclectic and attuned to the eccentric demands of a scene. Mr Blue Sky has been horribly overused in TV and movies since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind reinvigorated it, but it fits like a glove here, with Groot dancing along while a massive inter-dimensional beast is fought in the background over the opening credits. Nevertheless, as with Hooked on a Feeling in the first film having previously been iconic to Reservoir Dogs, there’s a feeling that Gunn should be pulling out surprising vinyl choices; the use of Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain works perfectly, for example.
It’s in the humour that Gunn really excels, of course, particularly in idiot humour. Especially for characters who can be cool and clever one moment and moronic or clueless the next, which particularly applies to Quill and Rocket. He fires off more gags per minute than most out-and-out comedies, and a dizzyingly high number hit their target. Occasionally, he’s in danger of getting a little too meta for his own good (Quill comparing his relationship with Gamora to a TV show where resolving the sexual tension kills what was so good about it – I’m guessing Moonlighting is the ’80s reference, rather than the later The X-Files), but you can’t beat the actual appearance of the Hoff, or Yondu being compared to Mary Poppins.
As per the original, Dave Bautista walks off with all the best lines thanks to Drax’s entirely deadpan lack of self-awareness, be it deciding to fight a beast from the inside out, telling Mantis how hideous she is (“But that’s a good thing”), acknowledging his famously large turds, shouting warnings after the fact, “Die, spaceship!”, making reference to Scotch Tape he doesn’t have, or finding it hilarious how Peter’s inner feelings for Gamora have just been outed (“You must be so embarrassed!”)
Indeed, the biggest downside to the more “serious” Peter storyline is that he isn’t the butt of as many “idiot” jokes as he might be, which is really Pratt in his comedic element. Everyone’s given good material, but Bautista and the truly hideous Pom Klementieff are probably the most consistently serviced.
The Nebula-Gamora friction veers a little too close to rote sibling rivalry, perhaps, but Baby Groot, who I had my qualms about given how relentlessly cute he is, is actually made a genuinely funny hit. The references to his adorability (the Ravagers won’t kill him for that very reason), complete with a suction cup plush toy allusion, is made the most of as a comedic element, as is his penchant for misunderstanding (particularly during a protracted prison breakout). He also has easily the best of the end-credits scenes, as a surly teenager unimpressed with Peter bossing him about.
Rocket’s as effortlessly genius a character as ever – the Jack Sparrow of the franchise, really – and Bradley Cooper’s perfect delivery is something else. The “trash panda” is given something of an arc (wilfully getting them into trouble as a defence mechanism), but he’s most effective at his most unfiltered, not dwelling on the pathos of his plight, be it laying multiple traps for Yondu’s men or pushing through a succession of space-hopping feats that was surely inspired by Ren and Stimpy’s worst nightmares.
Elizabeth Debicki’s golden and glorious as plot B villain Ayesha, and there are cameos from Tommy Flanagan, Michelle Yeoh and Ving Rhames. And from Stan Lee (one of his better ones, although the longer he’s allowed on screen the more transparent his absence of acting chops are). You can even spot Jeff Goldblum in there.
I’d hesitate to suggest Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is superior to the first. Conceptually more developed, certainly. Not as fresh, for sure. Still enormous fun, undoubtedly. What might potentially be the series undoing is that Gunn has upped the wrong ante. Focussing on character/family makes the sequel seem more similar, not more different. What he ought, maybe, to have concentrated on was upping the anarchy. Maybe he’ll get to that in Vol. 3.