Remember what a breath of fresh air “Guardians of the Galaxy” was? In a world of countless superhero movies that are structurally identical, Marvel’s brightly colored universe of ragtag raccoons and talking trees was a blast of originality.
Or so Marvel Studios and writer/director James Gunn wanted you to think. In reality, 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” was the same worn out Marvel blueprint with a thin layer of zaniness slapped onto it. It was a fine and fun adventure, but squint past the hues of purple: you’d seen less weird versions of it a hundred times before. Gunn’s vision laid out a stronger groundwork than other first films in the MCU though — and now “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is here to expand the universe.
But in the same way that the original’s structure became mundane at closer inspection, the sequel’s lack thereof is hard to ignore. Gunn has traded the familiar for the forgettable, though the shiny silliness is still worth a smile.
“Guardians Vol. 2” picks up promisingly. The team is still in world-saving business, evidently with far more experience under their variously sized belts. Gunn wastes no time using the opening to set the gleefully irreverent tone: immediately we’re treated to a blend of humor and action, baby Groot (Vin Diesel), and the classic soundtrack. “Are you not entertained?” the film shouts happily through laser blasts and one-liners.
After Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) angers a race of perfect people that hired the Guardians, a lucky break (the first of way too many) saves the team from certain destruction and reunites Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) with his father (Kurt Russell). Some of the team accompanies Peter on a trip with his father; others stay behind to repair their ship. Then the movie’s stakes die.
One of the biggest flaws of the original “Guardians” was contrived conflict: a nondescript blue villain wants a magical McGuffin that does vaguely evil things to the galaxy, so the good guys chase down the orb and stop him. Typical Marvel — but I found myself missing it. The half of the plot that follows Rocket and Yondu (Michael Rooker) boils down to a series of convenient escapes and unbelievable coincidences, eliminating any sense of danger. It’s hard to have a high-stakes adventure if the heroes have little to no trouble accomplishing their goals.
Meanwhile, the other half of the plot suffers from passive protagonists. While Peter and friends explore the mystery of Peter’s father, a small number of things happen to them, but they don’t actively pursue much. It’s all lackluster setup for the third act. Until then, the narrative bounces between these two unexciting subplots: it turns out artificial stakes are better than next to none.
The character development isn’t any more compelling. It’s not easy to balance a large ensemble cast — so don’t feel too bad, James Gunn. The film’s version of personal growth is giving each major character their ‘important’, on the nose speech about how they’re feeling. Character arcs are announced rather than naturally built up. Once the third act finally rolls around, these arcs at least have great payoffs: one in particular is an enormously powerful culmination of the movie’s focus on family (though that theme is handled with about as much subtlety as the “Fast and Furious” franchise gives it).
As with the first “Guardians”, the sights of “Vol. 2” are palettes of eye candy that don’t cease to satisfy. Intentional production design benefits the visual splendor: the decision to avoid purple, for example, provides a nice differentiation from the first movie. It’s a shame that Gunn’s screenplay can’t match his eye: he’s good at writing jokes, but he’s not a good comedy writer. That’s a vital distinction. Comedy saturates narrative; comedy is long-term setup and payoff; comedy is situational irony. “Guardians Vol. 2” instead strings together one-off gags that work sometimes. Intermittent laughs do not amount to comedy.
The performances and soundtrack entertain again. Watching Sylvester Stallone spout space jargon is splendid; Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” enjoys flawless utilization. The lookout for cameos and five (!) credits scenes should keep you busy enough.