In 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy surprised almost everyone — hyping that movie well before release stands out as one of my finest “I told you so” moments to date. It came out during a period when Marvel was already sporting a mythical “too big to fail” aura, but it was an unknown property in the hands of a largely unknown director led by the guy most people knew as the lovable resident moron on Parks and Recreation. That it would catapult into the upper echelons of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (understandably) didn’t compute for most people. Three years later, the Guardians are deeply beloved, extraordinarily anticipated and being shoved closer to the rest of the universe in anticipation of Infinity War. The vacuum is gone. The element of surprise is gone. The expectations are untenable. It may come as a surprise to most people, but the odds are stacked against Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in a way they never were against its predecessor.
I can almost hear you, dear reader, saying “Okay, okay, thanks for the history lesson. Just tell me if it’s good.” We’ll get there. I promise. But context is extremely important here. Does Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 surpass the original? Of course not. It doesn’t come close. Is it still one of the best superhero movies you’ll see all year? Absolutely. It’s going to make all of the money. And it’s going to delight plenty of audiences. But as part of a deeply interconnected universe (which requires certain services of all its stories) that has achieved some dizzying heights, you’re automatically burdened with greater expectations. So, while there are some wonderful elements to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, its shortcomings feel magnified in the scope of what came before it AND what lies ahead — just as Guardians, with very little fanfare, swept in to rival The Avengers and Captain America: Winter Soldier as the best in the MCU, Thor: Ragnarok looks poised to be the surprise standout of the Marvel crop this year.
But, MCU theory is an article for another day. Let’s dissect how some of the first film’s closing lines “Something good? Something bad? A bit of both? … Bit of both!” became a bit of a prophecy for the peaks and valleys in the sequel. Light spoilers will follow, but nothing monumental, check back after you give Disney-Marvel your money if you wish to remain utterly in the dark.
There are three elements of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 that are genuinely surprising. The first is that the scenery is flat-out gorgeous. The space vistas and planets and stars hold over, and that’s all lovely, but the new locations we explore are beautiful, approaching the glistening vision of Asgard set out by Kenneth Branagh in Thor, albeit with a more tangible near-earth vibe.
And speaking of vibes, the tone of the picture also stands out here. If the original film was marked by humor and a sense of renegade fun, the sequel is defined by longing and the complex emotions that come with family. The play is there for the same sense of nostalgic fun, but what’s more present is the bittersweet, Cat’s In The Cradle brand of nostalgic ache. Though the family narrative is overplayed, it does afford some unexpected resonance and facilitate the stronger sub plots in the picture.
One of the biggest question marks around Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was to what extent it would push our ragtag bunch of heroes toward the rest of the MCU. It seemed a near certainty that Thanos would crop up at some point to noodge, or outright push, the Infinity War issue. As it turns out, he’s utterly absent. The Guardians are left largely to their own devices — for now.
To this point, I haven’t really addressed plot, and that’s because this outing is extremely light on narrative. It operates more as an interstitial one-shot between major arcs than as an epic adventure. We catch up with the gang working a job for a species of golden beauties who need some high-value batteries defended from a baddie. They do as they do, which means saving the day … and one of them promptly creating another issue. But before that happens the team cashes out and takes a newly captured Nebula as their bounty, aiming to turn her over for a heap of gold. Eventually, the beautiful people cotton on to what else has transpired, take offense and antics ensue — Peter’s father arrives to bail the crew out and the Golden Gal-in-Chief calls up Yondu to hunt down her one-time contractors and their reluctant cargo. The stage is set for a series of antics, and every single one of them ensues. The team is forced to splinter and separate, triggering a number of concurrent narratives. And the rest of the film is defined by scrapes and miscalculations, near misses and one major, not-at-all satisfying reveal.
Though this structure forces a number of the frustrating elements of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, it also creates some new, and completely wonderful team-ups. The best of these is between Rocket and Yondu. Their not an odd couple, they’re kindred spirits and the results is a bit akin to the chemistry between Arya Stark and The Hound — so yeah, it’s delightfully contentious.
And yes, Baby Groot gets to hang with these two a fair bit. He’s as adorable as you expect and once again snags some of the best moments in the picture. The manner he’s deployed occasionally feels more convenient than inspired, but it’s difficult to complain when he’s so damn cute.
And this note, though ultimately positive brings us to the points where the picture stumbles. And the vast majority of them come down to one source: script and story. James Gunn penned Vol. 2 without Nicole Perlman, his partner from the first picture. And it’s evident. It’s always been unfortunate that Perlman’s name has been lost in the reverence for the first picture, now it seems that her absence will demonstrate how influential her voice was. Now, I can’t definitively say that her contributions were what helped Gunn and team find the elusive spark that just doesn’t shine here, but it seems clear that some of the creative combustion was missing. The comedy isn’t as sharp and the story occasionally slips into something like self-reverential fan service. Whether that’s a studio note influence or a lack of inspiration, I can’t say, but it feels flat and indulgent.
It’s not only the story that falls into the followup trap. The soundtrack, which was such a highlight in Vol. 1, feels desperate and reaching here, rather than iconic. It’s not playful or deeply beloved, now it’s shoehorned into the plot as a near character vulnerability instead of an attribute that’s part of a dynamic whole. There are bright spots here and there, but mostly the soundscape is one that feels like it is trying too hard to strike a chord.
Finally, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 suffers from a problem that has often manifested itself in the MCU. The villain. I mentioned already that this picture’s big reveal is anything but a stunner. So it should come as no surprise that the villain is flat and unexciting. He’s an extremely literal metaphor meant to punctuate the theme of family in painful way. Unfortunately, an opportunity to do just that is entirely missed. Nebula plays a much larger role in this picture than in the previous one, but though she finds herself in the presence of the Ravagers, having completely cowed them, and yet, she doesn’t become their leader and turn the only family Peter ever knew against him. Nope, nope, nope. She runs off on her own sidebar to be a ballooned version of her role in the previous film, while a much less compelling character takes the role of main antagonist. What a waste of Karen Gillian.
A Bit of Both.
While the stand-out moments and the why-oh-why interludes stood out quite clearly, there are other elements of the picture that tow the line between the good and the bad. Let’s call them the confusing. For instance, I’m not sure if it is extremely absurd to include FIVE cutscenes in the credits, none of which actually holds out until the end of the credits and none of which actually means anything, or if it is a bit of meta self-awareness that pokes fun at the weight those moments have come to carry in the MCU. I do know that three of the five were throwaways, but two earned genuine laughs.
An element that irked me, but seemed to delight many other viewers, was the spike in cameos in this picture, and not one of them was subtle as Nathan Fillion’s voiceover work last time out. Not only does Kurt Russell take on a key role in this picture, Sylvester Stallone shows up in a bit part, Howard the Duck comes back in a clever callback, Rob Zombie flickers on-and-off screen as a Ravager, Ving Rhames shows up for a blink-and-you-missed-it power pose and Stan Lee claims two cameos. There were moments where this thing was starting to feel as bloated as an Expendables movie.
And this leads us right into the most devastatingly mixed of all the results. The comedy. There were moments of absolute comic delight to be had here, but there were also many moments that just smacked of desperation. Tired bits were overworked and the characters that were once so well realized became caricatures of themselves for a scene or two here and there. The effect was jarring. So while Drax drifts in-and-out of a one-note presence, Rocket and Groot get to evolve their greatest hits for a pretty fresh take, until that too gets pushed a bit too far. But, as the theme song to The Facts of Life once taught us, you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have … an imperfect movie that’s still vastly better than anything DC has turned out since 2008. Take heed Guardians fans, Vol. 2 isn’t brilliant, but there’s still plenty to love.