Director: James Gunn (Slither, Super, Movie 43)
Writer: James Gunn
Producers: Kevin Feige
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Kurt Russell
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 136 min.
Three years ago, The Guardians of the Galaxy was considered the first big risk of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, completely removed from the rest of the Avengers on other planets with characters even avid comic book readers weren’t overly familiar with, all led by an actor who was primarily known as the chubby goofball on an NBC workplace sitcom. To the surprise of everyone, the movie became an absolute juggernaut on release, a critical and commercial smash that immediately cemented itself as one of the most beloved entries into the franchise, even considered the very best by many. The fact that it was so much weirder and very different to the rest of the MCU ended up being the thing that people loved most. With an irreverent wit, a group of anti-hero characters who hated everyone as much as they loved themselves banding together to save the galaxy, and a bright, extravagant visual palette that popped in a way that directly opposed the bland, grey tones of the rest of the MCU, the first Guardians was lightning in a bottle that would be impossible to capture twice.
So how do you follow that up? The whole idea of the first Guardians was that it was fresh and unique, but even before it came out the film already had its sequel confirmed, which gave returning writer/director James Gunn (who recently announced that he’ll also be back for the third Guardians film) a tall task. His response, as is the case with most sequels, was more more more. That word defines The Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and it’s got connotations both good and bad. Guardians 2 is weirder, more energetic, more colorful, with more action and even more humor than the first. It’s also jam-packed with more characters all fighting for more screentime, more plot, more exposition, more storylines, and more dead spaces in between all of the good stuff. It’s a fun ride, immediately capturing the spirit of the first, but there’s an undeniable feeling of simply returning to the well rather than bringing the kind of refreshing verve that the first movie brought.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a nice change of pace from the rest of the MCU (particularly its most recent entry, the unbelievably dull origin story Doctor Strange) but by its very nature as a sequel, it can’t pop to the full extent of its predecessor. Guardians 2 gets off to an excellent start, with an opening credits sequence that rivals the greatest of any scenes in the MCU to date. With all of the character introductions and the team established from the first movie, we’re able to slide right back into the groove of things as the returning quintet (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel) of the title immediately bring back the dysfunctional family chemistry that they formed so well three years ago. Things look like they’re setting up for an epic opening battle, the kind we’ve seen in most of the MCU movies, but right as the tension rises and their behemoth alien opposition arrives to the party, the focus instead narrows in on little Baby Groot, who kicks on the tunes and starts grooving. While the battle rages on out of focus in the background, we instead watch Groot dance around to “Mr. Blue Sky” with utter glee.
It’s an absolutely delightful sequence, and just the kind of subversion of convention that the first movie excelled at, defining the creative tongue in cheek spirit of this sub-franchise in comparison to its brethren. Unfortunately, Guardians 2 could have used a lot more of that. Things run swimmingly for a while, with the plot kicking into gear after Rocket steals some powerful batteries that the team were hired to protect by an alien race led by Elizabeth Debicki’s character, who in turn orders her army to hunt the Guardians down and make them pay the ultimate price. This gets them stranded after a crash landing, where they meet Star-Lord’s mysterious father for the first time, a man named Ego played by Kurt Russell. Here is where the team splinters off into two groups, and that’s the movie’s first big mistake.
A lot of the strength of these movies comes from the chemistry of the cast, and watching the characters interact with one another. Splitting the team up after spending the first movie bringing them together is a pretty standard sequel move, but it’s almost always a mistake and that’s definitely the case here. It doesn’t help that one of the groups contains far and away the best characters in these movies, Rocket and Groot (who are joined in less than ideal circumstances by two other returning characters, Karen Gillan’s Nebula, and Michael Rooker’s Yondu), and those two continue to steal the spotlight here. Even though their plot is far less interesting, with them stuck in the middle of an incredibly lame mutiny within Yondu’s crew, the two of them are absolutely hilarious yet again, and so the laughs keep coming in their scenes.
Unfortunately, that makes the scenes with the other group drag on as we wait to return to the good stuff. It doesn’t help that the development of the story with the other group is extremely obvious and predictable from the word go, as Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Ego, and his ward Mantis (Pom Klementieff) head to Ego’s home planet and find its shiny welcoming is hiding some dark secrets. It’s all pretty boilerplate stuff, and way too much time is spent waiting for the characters to come back together. In the meantime, we have to suffer through Ego delivering page upon page of exposition to explain his character’s backstory and purpose, all of which is delivered via him standing in a room and just telling it to Star-Lord, which basically feels like we’re just watching an acclaimed actor reading a Wikipedia description of their character for half an hour.
The middle section of the movie is so bogged down in subplots and side characters, with Star-Lord busy catching up with dad, Yondu’s crew doing their mutiny thing, Drax and Mantis forming a bizarre but lovable friendship bond, and Gamora and Nebula again having to deal with their sibling rivalry and tortured upbringing. Gunn already had five main characters who needed attention and detail over the course of a two hour movie, but instead of making sure they each had their proper time in the sun, he bombards the film with a gluttony of other focal characters on top of them. There are simply too many characters here who all need screentime and character arcs and it clutters the hell out of the movie in a way that leaves a lot of dead space and unfulfilled potential. If that weren’t enough, Gunn stuffs the movie with more Easter eggs than perhaps any movie in the history of cinema, overwhelming the thing to a distracting level that ultimately makes it feel like he stopped caring about any actual narrative cohesion or smooth pacing and just wanted to cram as much “cool” stuff into the movie as possible.
In a way it almost works, as it does draw the eye away from some of the other flaws of the movie, like a central plot that is far from extraordinary. At first it’s tempting to give Guardians 2 credit for being the rare MCU movie to try and do something different with its villain, long one of the biggest flaws of this franchise, but if you look at it for more than a few seconds it becomes clear that the villain here is actually just more of the same old stuff. The character had so much potential, but their development is so obvious you can map it out from the second they’re introduced, and their motivation is the same old world domination because they’re a “superior being” nonsense that we’ve seen time and time again. Gunn tries his best to pull attention away from this with so many bells and whistles going on at all times that the movie just kind of flies by, but that’s not particularly nourishing either.
Things get especially dire when the second half of the film tries to force in an abundance of cheesy heartwarming moments that are transparently designed to aggressively pull on the heart strings, but they feel so artificial and unearned, not to mention plagued by weak dialogue and a tonal discrepancy with the tongue in cheek nature of the brand, that they all fall painfully flat. Don’t get me wrong, Guardians 2 is fun, at times hysterically so, and it’s still a nice and colorful deviation from the rest of the MCU, but it’s also got a lot of the same old flaws, and at the end of the day it is the definition of unnecessary excess. For evidence of that, look no further than the FIVE end credits scenes, only one of which is even remotely worth sticking around for.