In what is one of the more anticipated sequels in recent memory, writer/director James Gunn and our favorite cosmic avengers return to the screen with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. With all the original Guardians returning plus a couple of new faces, the anticipation for this one has reached a fever pitch, and is all but assured to make a $1 billion plus at the box office.
This story, which takes place 3 months after the events on Xandar from the first film, gets a heavy treatment of character derivation with the emotional heavy being Peter Quill aka Star Lord, played of course by Chris Pratt, finding out the identity of his biological father (Ego), this time around played by Kurt Russell. The synopsis is…
“Set to the backdrop of Awesome Mixtape #2, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ continues the team’s adventures as they unravel the mystery of Peter Quill’s true parentage.”
With the same team on board in front of and behind the camera, it’s expected that the familiar itch will be scratched with some added exposition to help advance each characters story arc, while opening new avenues to explore eventually leading to not only a third installment but the expansive MCU as well.
Having said all that, did Gunn accomplish what he wanted to? Does the product live up to the hype and meet and/or raise the bar set by the first one? Press play on the ole’ SR2000 and let’s go deep…
Warning! Heavy spoilers ahead!
Meeting or exceeding expectations can be a tricky thing in all forms of art but none more so in film, and in particular comic book films as of late. While Tim Gunn manages some hits in this follow-up to the massively successful Vol. 1, I believe he fails to deliver on the goods overall. The expectation part has almost nothing to do with him, he can’t control it nor should he, but that added with the money this sequel is sure to make should’ve made him more bold, not less. This follow up fails to match the magic of the first as it entirely relies too much on nostalgia while punching emotional holes with the finesse of a sledgehammer.
The one exception where this works almost flawlessly is with the Ego/Quill/Yondu dynamic. While I cherished the volatility of the Quill/Yondu relationship in Vol. 1, this patrimonial augmentation in Vol. 2 concluding with a very emotional and heroic death by Yondu and his ensuing funeral caught me off guard and I liked it…I liked it a lot. These scenes in particular, between Yondu and Quill are far and away the strongest, so much that the other characters when given opportunities to grow fall way short of the mark.
Michael Rooker as Yondu is THE star of this film and delivers the goods, so much that by the time (even though it’s no real surprise) we find out Ego has sinister plans for his “son” and the fate of the universe, we’re already invested in Peter’s relationship with Yondu emotionally. Yondu is effectively the only player that sees a complete arc but I suspect has something to do with the fact that there’s more story to tell for the rest.
The insertion of Kurt Russell as celestial planet Ego/ Peter Quill’s father plays the only real tangible villain in the film playing the deadbeat dad to Yondu’s adoptive father with a soft spot. This dynamic not only keeps the film afloat, but also provides a wonderful juxtaposition to Vol. 1 tying up a few loose ends and providing an opportunity for Star Lord to gain some closure and move on. A restoration of the swashbuckling, clumsily heroic, quip machine would be a welcome return for Star Lord in my opinion and I’m hoping this resolve will do that for Infinity War and Volume 3.
As for the actual story, it goes like this: We join the team already “in-progress” still riffing on each other and ironing out the wrinkles, but unfortunately for them their employer Ayesha, the leader of The Sovereign, has zero patience for their buffoonery. And after Rocket insults them and steals some batteries (MacGuffin) they inevitably find themselves on the run with a bounty on their heads…again. This first 20 minutes is some of the strongest work of the film and really does a great job of putting you right back into that comfort zone.
So, while nearly getting wiped out by Ayesha’s army they get help from none other than Ego, a celestial being taking the form of a human, and Quill’s biological father. This is where they split into two groups, half following Ego to his home world, the other staying behind with newly captured Nebula. Trouble soon shows up in the form of Yondu and the rest of the Ravagers who are there to collect the bounty placed on them by Ayesha.
This is when the movie really starts to suffer as the two halves don’t work nearly as well apart as they do together making the middle section of the film muddled to some degree. It’s when they are reunited in the third act is when things start to feel unpretentious again. The “Empire Strikes Back” motif is tried and true but just doesn’t work well with this group whose whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. It’s their interplay with each other and the systematic approach to the magic they create as a team is what’s great about this group and Gunn abandons this in place of individual accomplishments.
It’s this dynamic that makes the first and final 30 minutes of the film really, really great stuff. And while I understand that splitting the group up allows them to stretch their legs a bit and allow for character development, the script just doesn’t allow that to happen in any real tangible way. In other words, Gunn just doesn’t quite stick the landing. And a unfortunate byproduct of this style of storytelling if not sharp and edited well, is that we go large chunks of the movie without seeing certain characters and sequential momentum is lost.
As for the rest of Guardians, they just don’t get enough to chew on from a script perspective and rely too much on the same shtick to get any traction. While the group antics felt fresh and rebellious in Vol. 1, these interactions, especially Rocket who is crushingly limp in this one, felt a little tired and repetitive. These two (Rocket/Groot) missed the most opportunities for me as Rocket’s origin, while lightly skimmed over doesn’t go deep enough to elicit an emotional acclamation or provide enough fodder for his anger management issues. Groot was wonderfully conceived and scripted in Volume 1 and emoted more with just three words than most anybody else, but this version of “baby” Groot I found to be an annoyance honestly. I much preferred his ascendancy in the first volume to be more avant-garde, although I can see how kids will eat this part of the movie up.
Drax, whose humour went from plot derivative (funny) to shtick (not funny), just isn’t given anything to do other than parent Mantis (somewhat disappointing) and be less physical than in the first one. In fact, he really does just sit around a lot pining. Instead of growing as a character in any profound way I found him to be just a laugh machine and his inability to use and understand sarcasm felt misplaced this time whereas in Vol. 1 it was a reliable source of humor. His physicality (or any of his comic book abilities for that matter) wasn’t in play here at all and they seem to have a difficult time finding a place for him in the gang.
A big, big let down for me personally was the Gamora and Nebula storylines. They had a real opportunity here with Nebula in particular but her “big” moments, while strategic and assembled, felt uninspired, which is too bad because I really love that character and think Karen Gillan does a fantastic job with her. Nebula like the others felt like their main purpose at times was to either just prop up the main storyline or to not distract from it. When we last see her at the end of the film, she has somewhat repaired her relationship with Gamora and has reassumed her quest of killing her father Thanos and I suspect we’ll see more of her next year at this time.
The only other villain, Ayesha and the Sovereign, could’ve been effective but was just a means to have Ego inserted into the film. Elizabeth Debicki, doing her best Tilda Swinton impersonation, just seems to out-of-place and it’s hard to tell if she’s there for comedy or camp.
At its core, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a story of family and loss disguised as a cosmic adventure with flashy diversions and no stake high enough to elicit fear or anxiety in the viewer. With a “save the galaxy from ruination” as the larger plot it doesn’t even try to be different, rather the focus this time is sacrificing scope in place of character. It’s a study on the concept of family interplay and feeling of triviality we get when at our depths we all long for love, kinship and a sense of belonging.
But in the end the script just isn’t quite as good, the players aren’t as sharp and the stakes aren’t as high. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then color Tim Gunn exalted because he basically just ripped himself off. Again, if it wasn’t for the first and last 30 minutes this film would be in trouble mostly due to the fact that it’s simply just too long and has a few too many grimacing scenes like the insertion of a father/son game of space catch and an appearance by David Hasselhoff (you’ll see).
I will say that Sylvester Stallone shows up in a great bit, but that’s one thing I won’t spoil, because it is very serviceable and fun. His bits are some of the many Easter eggs to be found in this sequel, too many to mention actually but suffice to say, it may be time to stop calling them “eggs” since they are now just plot mechanisms for branching out to sequels or other properties.
Aesthetically, its your usual green screen affair with no new ships or interesting aliens to speak of, minus the Sovereign immersion rig pod ships which for some reason sound like an 80s arcade and the Sovereign themselves who are humanoids just painted gold. One thing that remains steadfast is the film is a marvel to look at and while is doesn’t have the universality of the first one, it still paints a beautiful kaleidoscope of imagery and color. And although it doesn’t seem as expansive this time, mostly due to “space jumping”, the planets they do focus on are nice to look at. This reveals another weak point however as Ego’s plan involves an “expansion of universe” motif we end up seeing very little of the actual universe itself.
The soundtrack is again on point with a nice mix of classics including songs by Sam Cooke, George Harrison and Cat Stevens (Father and Son, duh) but again taps into too much of the same vibe as Volume 1, even cue wise, to separate itself thereby making it natural to conjure comparisons rather than contrasts.
Listen…Volume 1 was brash, fearless, exciting and bold and caught everybody off guard and it’s impact can be felt. This volume is a good fun film and a very nice addition to what will eventually be a trilogy, it’s just not great. The opportunity was there to go for more not less. But that’s what we got…
Till next time…