It’s great. It’s not as good as the first one.
If you don’t have a lot of time on your hands, that’s a pretty sufficient TL;DR review of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, the latest whiz-bang spectacle from Marvel Studios. James Gunn is back in the director’s chair for the follow-up to his 2014 surprise hit, Guardians of the Galaxy, a film that stars, in the words of its second trailer, “a thief, two thugs, an assassin, and a maniac.” There are other names you might know them by—or at least, I expect you would, considering that the first film grossed $94 million in its opening weekend and went on to make $750 million globally. With numbers like that, Star-Lord can rest assured that even your dog probably knows who he is.
In the new film, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), better known as Peter Quill, remains the nominal leader of the self-proclaimed Guardians of the Galaxy, whose membership also consists of Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a cybernetically enhanced former assassin; Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal knife-wielding maniac; Rocket (Bradley Cooper), the only one of his kind, his kind being a humanoid raccoon who is a prodigy with guns and strategy; and Groot (Vin Diesel), or in this case Baby Groot, an adorable plant homunculus that has undoubtedly cost you in merchandise whatever money you had left after seeing the first movie a few times.
If I sound cynical, please understand: I saw the first movie seven times on its release, in every format imaginable. I saw it in 2D, IMAX, 3D, 3D Dolby, 3D THX . . . there are plastic glasses somewhere with more of my DNA on them than in Quill’s Jackson Pollock ship. I even saw the film at a drive-in. The only formats I missed were one in a foreign language and an ASL-interpreted performance, and I’m kicking myself now because I can only imagine what the Pollock bit looks like in ASL.
So I feel like I have a sense of what the Guardians are like onscreen or, at least, what they possess that made the first film so great and such a departure from the now-typical superhero box-office fare. They aren’t heroes—or, more accurately, they have issues with heroism. Each one of them has a checkered past suffers from an insecurity that’s rare for individuals who can defeat Kree generals or blow up moons or wield an Infinity Stone (if only briefly). They’re weirdos and misfits, and it takes a lot for them to believe in themselves. While Tony Stark is proactively (though not always successfully) reshaping Earth to be better defended against threats from without, the Guardians struggle to attain the self-confidence and self-control that will enable them to defeat threats to the entire galaxy. But that’s what makes them endearing. That’s why the scene in the first film in which they tacitly agree to work together on Quill’s “12 percent of a plan” is so powerful; these five, who don’t trust anyone, are beginning to trust themselves and each other.
As Vol. 2 opens, the honeymoon—however uplifting and Jackson 5 it was—seems to be over. With their saving of Xandar several months in the past, the Guardians are now renting their services out for cash, and they apparently can’t stand each other again. As Baby Groot dances to the strains of “Mr. Blue Sky,” the rest of the team wrestles to protect the Sovereign’s Anulax batteries from an interdimensional tentacle monster called an Abilisk that barfs rainbows. That’s all in the first five minutes of the film, by the way. If there’s one thing Guardians has done, it’s made mainstream cinema safe for weirdness right now. In a world of Transformers sequels and “car go fast” movies, its encouraging that people are willing to spend $425 million for a film in which a talking raccoon tries to keep a tree baby from eating a bug while his space friends use jet packs to fight Cthulhu.
— James Gunn (@JamesGunn) August 22, 2016
(Hey, there is a picture of that. Thanks, Internet!)
Side note: can we all pitch in and buy Jeff Lynne a nice card that says thanks for everything but we don’t need to hear “Mr. Blue Sky,” say, ever again? It’s like Hollywood wants to use it 10 times a year for “happy” scenes—that is, scenes with a forced or ironic sense of enjoyment when something terrible is occurring. It fits here, as Groot blissfully boogies down as our heroes are getting trounced and Drax ends up literally in the belly of the beast, but just try a new song going forward, like “Knock on Wood” or something, okay?
Back to the opening, the crew defeats the monster and returns to the Sovereign leader, Ayesha, for their reward: custody of the imprisoned Nebula (Karen Gillan), who’s still alive, still wants to kill Gamora, and has a hefty bounty on her head for trying to destroy Xandar. After a tense exchange with the Sovereign—who are creepily gold-skinned and profess even creepier ideas about racial superiority—the Guardians fly off to claim Nebula’s bounty from Nova Corps. Rocket, however, has already helped himself to a few of the powerful batteries that team was hired to defend, and in retaliation, the Sovereign attack Quill’s ship, causing the crew to crash-land on the planet Berhert. While trying to rebuild their ship, they are approached by a man claiming to be Peter’s long-lost father. He calls himself Ego, he’s played by Kurt Russell at his rumpled, wind-tousled best, and that’s as far as I can go with the plot in a spoiler-free review.
This is a movie that, from a distance of miles or maybe light-years, appears similar to the first Guardians of the Galaxy, but the opposite is actually true. Where the first film is about heroism and growing up, this one is about the bonds of family, whether we’re born with them or they’re thrust upon us. In the first film, we’re introduced to a sprawling galaxy with its own problems that not even Glenn Close can solve; in the sequel, the story is necessarily smaller, focusing almost chiefly on our heroes, and the sense of scale and world-building feels sadly neutered as a result. Exploring the theme of family seems like a no-brainer for this series, especially considering the hard-won trust between our motley crew, the extant familial connections between some of the characters, and the presence of Vin Diesel. The first film ends with a tease towards Peter’s strange parentage, and as I left the theater (all seven times), I hoped they wouldn’t rush to deliver on that promise. Hollywood movies, and superhero movies in particular, are packed solid with characters who never knew their parents or have to reconcile with and/or defeat them in some way, and this film falls into the same trap. Peter learning the truth about his father is perhaps a necessary story development for the franchise, but as the plot of the highly anticipated second movie, it has surprisingly little impact.
For most of the film’s running time, the majority of the cast is trapped on Ego’s surface (oh yeah, Peter’s dad is also a planet with a face, BTW) while they bicker, kill time, and wonder whether they can trust him. Elsewhere, Rocket and Groot are forced to team up with Yondu (Michael Rooker) against his mutinous crew of Ravagers, led by the villainous Taserface. And yes, the film gets a long-haul trucker’s amount of mileage out of that stupid name. Sorry, Jim Valentino.
So we’ve got our characters pursued by a vengeful empire, they’re split up for most of the film, there’s a shocking revelation of parentage, it wraps up with a downer but hopeful ending in which characters are looking out of a window—they’re doing Empire Strikes Back, and they’re not hiding it very well. We’re one “I have a bad feeling about this” away from outright theft (read: homage), but you can understand Gunn’s motivations. When Lucas created the groundbreaking franchise that is Star Wars, he handed his creation off to other writers and directors (though he stayed closely involved) to let them find new horizons for his characters. Topping the blockbuster success and imagination of Star Wars may have been impossible, and so Lucasfilm opted to change the tune. Perhaps Gunn should have done the same, as much of this film feels like more of the same from the first movie, wedged into an Empire Strikes Back structure, with a daddy-issues theme thrown in for good measure. Gunn may have reinvented the genre with the first Guardians film, but he’s so far been unable to update it.
Does this mean it’s a bad movie? No, it really doesn’t. As I appear to be personally trying to prove, it’s nearly impossible to talk about this film without the first one being part of that conversation. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a hilarious, weird, bad-ass good time. It’s too long (almost 15 minutes longer than the first one) and most of the first half is a bit of a slog, but once you reach the top of the mountain, the slide to the bottom is exhilarating. It doesn’t feel as new as the first film, and the characters don’t feel changed much from their earlier experiences, but they’re still the ragtag rogues we remember and love.
There are a few more rogues to love in this film, too, as Nebula, Yondu, and Kraglin (Sean Gunn) all have expanded roles. As you can probably guess, these former bad guys develop a more antiheroic streak in the movie, which fits great into its exploration of the families we choose and the ones we don’t. However, Marvel has so few good villains that they should think twice before turning any more from antagonists to protagonists. Kurt Russell is . . . well, he’s Kurt Russell, which means he’s great and could do this in his sleep. He doesn’t get to do quite as much as you might expect for such a major player in Quill’s life, but he’s a solid presence in the film. And he’s Kurt freakin’ Russell. There’s a bit in the movie where it’s revealed Peter was embarrassed he didn’t have a father as a kid and would tell his friends that his dad was David Hasselhoff. Telling them his dad was Kurt Russell would have been a major upgrade, and one can easily see that Quill has more than a little Jack Burton in him. On that note, it’s got to be some kind of movie crime that both Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone are in this film and we get no Tango and Cash reference.
On the subject of casting, race and representation have always been a problem in Marvel films—and mainstream films in general—and neither Guardians 1 nor 2 is a marked exception. Sure, they star Zoe Saldana (a biracial black woman), Dave Baustista (a Greek/Filipino man), and Vin Diesel (who’s . . . Vin Diesel), but it’s the white savior hero who gets the most screen time. We may need a main character to follow, but the rest of the team is so likable and well-drawn that it’s a shame their subplots are relatively minor. Plus, the nonwhite actors are relegated to playing aliens of varying greens, grays, and blues. We do get Pom Klementieff, a French-Korean actress, as Mantis, Ego’s aide-de-camp, but again, she plays a nonhuman alien with a fairly pinkish look. The task of increasing representation in casting doesn’t fall solely to the Guardians films, but it’d be nice to see nonwhite actors playing actual nonwhite characters instead of “colored” people.
The “Awesome Mix” soundtrack that was so central to the first Guardians film returns here with a vengeance. Surprisingly, Meredith Quill’s second tape for her son doesn’t introduce any ’80s New Wave or metal acts but remains firmly planted in ’70s pop and easy listening. I have to say I’d never expect to hear a superhero get excited about “Lake Shore Drive” or “Southern Nights,” but here we are. Awesome Mix Vol. 2 certainly has a low-key vibe as compared to the first mix (with the exception of maybe “Fox on the Run” or “Surrender”), and it fits well with the more introspective bent of the second movie. Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” plays for part of the film’s finale, and it’s one of the best uses of soundtrack I’ve ever seen in a Marvel film. On the other hand, Kurt Russell’s Ego literally name-checks “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” and recites some of the lyrics as his personal philosophy. Too far. We all love the way that Gunn has integrated some of the forgotten hits of yesteryear into these films (and has cursed us with countless tone-deaf imitators in competing movies), but when you let Looking Glass write your script for you, it’s time to turn the radio off.
So, I’ll reiterate if you’ve made it this far, though I told you at the top: it’s great, but it doesn’t quite capture the feel of the first one. Maybe that would be impossible, now that your grandma knows what a “Groot” is, but the movie feels more like a Marvel sequel than something new from James Gunn’s inventive brain. The self-aware use of the music, the extra-hammy comedy bits, and the even more marketable Baby Groot all point to a pall of commercialism that was perhaps inevitable. This series used to be about misfits, and that might be getting lost in an avalanche of MP3-player-equipped Doritos bags. That shouldn’t stop you from seeing it, however—though I don’t think I’m going to see this one seven times. I’ll be listening to my Awesome Mix Vol. 2 soundtrack (fast-forwarding through “Mr. Blue Sky,” naturally), dreaming about a third film, and hoping things get really weird.