The frickin’ Guardians of the Galaxy return to the big-screen, continuing the ever-populated (too much so?) movie universe inspired by the pages of Marvel Comics. James Gunn, director and co-writer of the original 2014 blockbuster, returns as well (he has sole credit on the screenplay this go-around) offering another sprightly, Top 40-peppered, quip-spewing space opera. And it’s just fine. Nothing more and nothing less.
The original Guardians of the Galaxy reaped plaudits, a tad overdone but nonetheless earned, for re-juicing the Marvel Cinematic Universe during a mini-stretch when it felt like superhero fatigue may have been starting to seep into the pop cultural lexicon; it arrived on the scene just a year after Superman glowered back the big screen in Man of Steel, after all. With its catchy soundtrack, inventive visual palette and its jokey, good times vibe while orientating a misfit – and somewhat obscure – team of pranksters to mainstream movie audiences, Guardians felt fresh, engaging, even agreeably weird. More so, Marvel ably expanded their mega-film franchise while successfully delivering a mostly on-point standalone feature. (Sure it included infinity stones and other MCU whatits and thingamajigs, but an advanced degree on Iron Man lore and the like wasn’t required.) What worked so successfully the first time out is mostly intact with Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, yet some of the magical intergalactic merriment has dissipated – some of the jokes read just a little too forced, some of the plot lines meander ever so much. Marvel and team still bring the fun, but this time more of the effort shows.
As we return to a galaxy far, far away (oops, wrong franchise, but a clear influence), we reacquaint with our rag-tag team of reformed bandits: cut-up leader Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the irony-challenged tattooed muscleman Drax (Dave Bautista), caustic, genetically-engineered raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot, now Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), the twig offshoot of the giant tree that met a near-death fate in the first Guardians chapter. We begin, cheekily, with the Guardians fending off against a gooey space monster as the opening credits roll. The sequence is staged, appropriately and sublimely, with the battle in the background while Baby Groot grooves to the Electric Light Company’s “Mr. Blue Sky” in the foreground. While it may seem slightly unkind to suggest this “Awesome Mixtape #2″ peaks during its opening credits number, in fairness, it’s a uniquely buoyant and joyous opening credits number.
What becomes evident early on is Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 ultimately settles as a second origin tale, specifically one centered on Peter’s familial roots; nods to The Empire Strikes Back abound. The plot mechanics propel with the arrival (one seemingly of happenstance, at first) of Ego (Kurt Russell), an enigmatic figure who claims to be Peter’s father. Ego is no ordinary abandoning dad, but a god, one who resides on a planet of his own creation – the visual motif of which comes across as the most decadent land in a Disneyland theme park – and travels in toe with a mysterious antenna-toting mystic named Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Signs that all is not quite what they seem spark fairly early on.
While thematically, daddy issues may rule as its overarching emotional tenet, the movie – in expected Marvel fashion – is a bit jumbled and too overstuffed to fully connect its dots. As derivative on the surface as the relationship may lay out between Peter and Ego, there is an unexpected warmth and underlying sense of gravity in the scenes shared between Pratt and Russell. Russell, in particular, with his tousled hair and casual demeanor complements the free-associative, candy-colored, “hooked on a feeling” Guardians mood and Pratt, with his unfussy Han Solo-ian vibe, continues to shine as one of Marvel’s strongest casting choices. However, throughout its two-and-a-quarter hour length, Vol. 2 undercuts itself time and time again by dithering about (like when Sylvester Stallone pops in for some reason) in places not nearly as absorbing or with subplots that feels scarce and largely underserved.
For instance, Vol. 2 also introduces Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the gold-tinted High Priestess of the Sovereign who marks somewhat petty vengeance on the Guardians after an early run in; Rocket should really quit it with the attention-seeking small-time thievery. Ayesha’s motivations are fairly skin deep and don’t really present too much on terms of consequence (though, one supposes, they might in future installments), but pad the film at any rate, sometimes to the loss of narrative momentum. To her credit, expository character faults don’t waver Debicki’s splendidly icy line readings – a quality that also served her well in Guy Ritchie’s under-appreciated The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
What does register fully, and did so expertly in the first go, is the generosity in which Gunn extends to his characters. Outside of his talent for staging spectacle and creating largely coherent action sequences, Gunn – in ways similar to that of writer-director Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron) – clearly has great fondness to his weird, colorful Guardians. Many of the strongest, most refreshingly escapist moments from both Guardians films exist in the spaces between the visual bombast and consist solely in the nurtured interplay of its characters. From Peter and Gomora’s tenderly teased affection for one another (Peter compares their relationship to that of Sam and Diane from Cheers) to Rocket and Peter’s cutting barb of insults that mask a fond friendship to Drax’s adorkably (chaste) growing fondness to Mantis to Baby Groot’s general cuteness (which admittedly, gets a little overplayed this time out), Gunn has a knack for banter and, even greater, a firm grasp of the psychology of his characters.
This extends further down the call sheet too for more ambiguously aligned characters like Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), who both add dimension in Vol. 2. As bestowed by Gunn, Yondu, the Ravager who abducted Peter as a child, is granted unexpectedly moving grace notes and Nebula, the warring, machine-built sister of Gamora, adds grey flashes of nuance to her palette.
The galaxy may continue to need saving in future installments, but a two-hour group hang may make a far more compelling Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 delivers the fun, no question. The tenets that made the first film an unexpected pleasure – nifty characters, imaginative visual set pieces, groovy soundtrack – continue to mine substantial dividends. What’s a tad frustrating is the movie’s slack cohesion, its tendency to meander and stray in less compelling directions and a load of jokes that either fall flat (David Hasselhoff gets multiple shout-outs for but one example) or make for easy marks. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 aims hard to please and in long stretches, unfortunately, the seams show.