“If I chance to talk a little wild, forgive me; I had it from my father.” – William Shakespeare, Henry VIII
With a killer playlist, psychedelic visuals, unique humor, and an infectious sense of pure fun, James Gunn’s first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was just the right blast of fresh air that was lacking in their diminishing canon three years ago. A surprise hit, the original GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and its titular ragtag crew of space miscreants charmed its way into the hearts of mass audiences, and so a sequel was beyond inevitable. Yet grasping the same energy in a follow up has never been a particular strength of the (abbreviated) “MCU”, and even Gunn’s attempts to recapture the magic fall short. The first film was far from perfect, but it was scrappy, bold, and the right amount of self-aware, and VOL. 2 proves that it was pretty much lightning in a bottle. In the second go-around, they’ve doubled down on a lot of elements that were at the core of what made its predecessor special, but an equal number have been scrapped, giving it a feeling of incompleteness and, ultimately, a lack of a real journey. It wants to have its darker moments and emotional punches, but it doesn’t truly set them up well enough for them to feel earned. That’s not to say it isn’t a good time, because there’s plenty to enjoy, and while the humor swings and occasionally misses, what actually connects is pretty hilarious. It’s a shadow of the previous film, one that reminds you of all the things you loved, whether they appear onscreen or not. The escapism is definitely entertaining and trippy, but it won’t quite live up to that first delightful trip.
Gunn kicks things off once again with a tuneful flashback to 1980 for more information on the origins of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). Then, after a visual effect that calls to mind FIGHT CLUB and other imitators, we’re back with the gang once more. Having saved the galaxy previously, the Guardians, including Quill AKA Star Lord, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and a baby form of Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), are now out on hire for odd jobs across the galaxy for various planetary communities. They’ve been assigned the mission of protecting some valuable batteries, of a nature that Drax obliviously cannot pronounce, from a giant octopus-like space monster. It’s a welcome re-introduction to the group’s playful dynamic and friendly competitiveness, and the focus Gunn chooses in this scene harkens back to the frivolity that grabbed us the first time. Upon slaying the beast, they return to their employer, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), leader of the Sovereign: a race of lithe, model-esque beings who appear as if completely covered in gold spray paint. For their services, they receive Gamora’s sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), as payment. But they don’t get far before they’re pursued by the Sovereign due to a tactless choice by Rocket. In their escape, they’re saved by a mysterious figure who is eventually revealed to be Peter’s father (Kurt Russell), and he in turn transports them to his own planet to show Peter his history and place in the universe.
So much of the winning quality of the first feature was due to its wonderfully assembled cast and colorful, cheeky performances, and everyone is back in fine form, yet underutilized. Chris Pratt’s star persona is once again delightful, and he hasn’t lost any touch of Star Lord’s charisma, roguish demeanor, lovable foolishness, and vulnerability. With the story giving primary focus to the father and son dynamic between himself and Russell, one would assume that Pratt’s performance is at the center of the film, but it gets a tad lost amidst myriad threads only to resurface at the end. He still has his moments to shine, though, and makes the most of them, providing a wealth of the film’s humor and heart. Russell is a welcome addition to the franchise, and feels right at home, though his strange skinny jeans feel a little less so. It’s easy to see the shared qualities between the two, and it’s nice to see Russell having fun once more in the genre that made him a movie star. The rest of the crew are pretty underserved by the proceedings, particularly Saldana, who falls into similar territory as her work in last summer’s STAR TREK BEYOND, in which she was also minimally featured. Michael Rooker’s Yondu is given much more to do in this installment, though Rooker’s delivery is intermittently great, to be honest. The voice work by Cooper and Diesel is equally good, but one wishes they had more opportunities to interact. And my favorite performer, Bautista, is still uproariously funny as an alien being of simple understanding and total, literal honesty, his large and hearty laughs enough to induce chuckles, but he too falls victim to the screenplays shortcomings and shifting narratives. Even new additions Debicki and Pom Klementieff can’t help but feel like their potential is untapped.
Gunn’s spunky and daring imagination is palpable, but somewhat muted, feeling almost pushed inorganically in a specific direction by those who have plans for how the series ties into the larger trajectory. There are blips of brilliance and undercutting jokes that match or surpass what he achieved before, in particular one that pokes direct fun at rage-filled video gamers, but they’re so spread out and isolated that the film sags between them. Rather than choosing to continue expanding and world building, it gets bogged down in one primary location and a conflict that doesn’t rear its glowing CGI rendered head until the last third of the runtime. Gunn also chooses to split up the crew, which would work well with more established and well-rounded characters, but, as the opening shows, it’s far more enjoyable when they’re playing off of each other. There are scenes that seek to allow us further insight and emotional connection to each individual, but they feel unnaturally shoehorned in with very minimal build up to a point where they fall flat and don’t quite resonate. And the soundtrack is finely assembled, but each track’s placement feels a little too on the nose and occasionally a bit forced, plus it doesn’t help that Russell’s character has a monologue unnecessarily spelling out how relevant Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” is to their circumstances. Visually, it’s definitely quite wonderful, and many shot compositions are aesthetically pleasing despite being mostly assembled with a computer. Still, there’s something frustrating about the specific sheen all of the MCU films have, perhaps due to an over-reliance on digitally created environments and images, and even the special effects are hit and miss. And though part of their appeal as protagonists, at least to myself, was their non-superhero quality, it all devolves into a massive climactic flying slugfest that’s occasionally amusing but mostly disappointingly generic and rote.
The final verdict is that it frequently reaches for greatness, but grabs hold of it only a handful of times in the span of two hours. The original walked a similar path, but slipped far less often, maintaining a high of peaks and small valleys. There’s an interesting story here, to be sure, but it ends up feeling like an engrossing narrative for a forty-five to fifty minute episode of a television series blown up to feature length with excess bloat and confused focus. The comparison to television is perhaps astute and fitting too when considering the film’s pitfalls, primarily those associated with character journeys and choices. A series has the benefit of building our understanding of individuals and establishes a long-term connection with them so that when they eventually reveal their faults and haunted pasts, or make sacrifices, they register with us deeply because we’ve taken the journey with them so far. In a sequel jam-packed with multiple characters having these moments every other scene when we’ve just barely begun to know them, they don’t touch us in the same way. It becomes too much and too little all at the same time in a way that has me wondering if this would have felt more rounded as the third or fourth film rather than the second, and yet it still doesn’t have the strength to stand on its own. All the pieces are there for something great, all the sights and sounds, but assembled in such a way that doesn’t feel complete or satisfying. It’s like a puzzle you did with your friends that you enjoyed putting together, but that is missing countless pieces, and, as a result, ends up feeling inevitably unfinished when compared to the whole image on the cover of the box.
Be on the lookout for more posts on new releases from 2017, and feel free to explore other series on the blog as well. As always, thanks for reading!