“It’s not ripe”
The world of Guardians of the Galaxy proved a necessary shot of comic and action adrenaline for the Marvel Cinematic Universe back in 2014. It gave a breather from the Tony Stark crew, allowed the voice of an outsider in James Gunn to permeate the Hollywood machine, and introduced a level of sky’s-the-limit promise and potential as far as aliens, planets, and scope (Thanos isn’t Earth’s random enemy, we’re just standing in his way of much bigger goals beyond our comprehension). Its success came via its characters, each a fully formed misfit seeking that sense of family they’ve either never experienced or unwittingly were forced to endure. They’re idiots, thieves, and killers with hearts of gold who literally saved life itself—or at least staved off impending extinction.
To me it’s the franchise’s best film. Perhaps that’s only because it gave us something different, but I’d say it’s more to do with Gunn’s vision inside a situation appearing on the surface to provide more creative license than the other entries (see Edgar Wright‘s unceremonious exit from Ant-Man). So how would he continue the tale? How would Gunn expand outwards from the excitement and uncertainty of anti-heroes now revealed through Nova Corps sanction as bona fide heroes without an asterisk? And what sort of leeway would he have considering the next time we see these characters will be in Avengers: Infinity War? Suddenly it’s no longer simply about getting to know Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and his friends. Now they’re a part of something bigger than themselves.
Well, after watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 the answer to that last question is simple: a lot. Gunn has ostensibly been allowed to once more play within a sandbox of his own choosing, the only imperatives being who must survive it for what’s coming next. Thanos is non-existent (besides as one of many checkered fathers whose actions have dictated their children’s trajectories towards hate and/or redemption). The Avengers are still more than likely unknown entities to everyone onscreen. And Nova itself is used as but a throwaway mention, this latest adventure proving to be all about the characters and how each of their psychological hang-ups (mainly egos as individuals who’ve never liked sharing) affects their newfound kinship together. It’s nature vs. nurture and blood vs. love.
And it all surrounds Star-Lord’s father, aptly named Ego (Kurt Russell)—a character written into the role (he isn’t Quill’s Dad in comics canon) before Marvel was allowed to use him (Fox ultimately gave permission if Marvel let them change Negasonic Teenage Warhead’s power in Deadpool). It’s not a spoiler to say Ego is a living planet, a Celestial alive for millennia that happened to fall in love with Peter’s mother much like Zeus with Alcmene. It’s taken thirty years, but he’s found his son after Yondu (Michael Rooker) refused to deliver him as promised. Ego can teach Peter about the God-like “light” inside him, an absentee father making amends for his regretful disappearance while the others lament the fact that the same will never happen for them.
This theme of parents and children permeates the whole for poignant moments getting to the heart of character motivations that may have seemed superficial at first. We actually got a lot of the existential angst and mixture of physical and emotional pain from Rocket (Bradley Cooper) previously, so the augmentation of that through self-sabotage and rebellion is hardly surprising here. What might be, however, are relationship struggles between Gamora (Zoë Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), their reunion occurring in strained circumstances with the latter in handcuffs. Or perhaps even the yet unseen backstory of Yondu concerning events surrounding both his rescue by Ravager leader Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone) and his kidnapping of Quill. Now add newcomer Mantis (Pom Klementieff), ward/servant/prisoner(?) of Ego who’s never known any other world.
Drax (Dave Bautista) is allowed memories of what it meant to be a father (a good one); Groot (Vin Diesel) shifts from being the protector of Rocket to the protected; and Gamora attempts to reconcile her mistrust with unspoken feelings towards Quill despite his unabashed advances. It’s a lot to juggle, but doable when there’s no plot to compete. I don’t say that lightly either: for better or worse, there’s no plot to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. There are attempts at one with the looming pursuit of Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) and her Sovereign race, but that thread is more excuse for Ravager mutiny, pulling characters apart to provide them chances for reconciliation, and one of five end credits sequences setting up Vol. 3 than anything else.
While this allows for some wonderful character-based moments to give each one a depth of emotion and relevancy that some of the standalone heroes in other Marvel movies have yet to achieve in three-plus installments, it also renders the ballooned runtime of 136-minutes somewhat boring. It doesn’t start that way (thanks to an opening credit sequence of background carnage while Baby Groot dances to Electric Light orchestra), but it definitely has moments of prolonged bloat where style does not quite overcome a lack of substance. Don’t get me wrong: I like watching Yondu’s arrow rip through a hundred men too. I like seeing exposition explained via visual expressionism rather than pure flashback. But these sequences drag on. The “cool” factor should never screech pacing to a halt.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say some poignancy is subverted by triteness (I’m looking at you clumsily handled game of catch unsubtly alluded to at the start that plays like a broadly comical spoof with big goofy grins). Empathy is effective and Gunn achieves it in most instances of emotional duress, but he also lays it on thick to devolve into melodrama that undercuts resonance. The humor has a tendency of falling prey to this “gone too far” mentality as well with turd jokes turning into second-hand embarrassment, sexism as laughs (Why would a woman spend money on anything but a necklace?), and overplaying dumb yet witty gags (colliding the Sovereigns being impeccably vain with Chris Sullivan playing a Ravager named Taserface) during serious moments of betrayal.
The humor that made the original so memorable is used to lighten up the small morsels of plot because it must. That light-heartedness needs to arrive elsewhere when you’re dealing with such weighty issues on a character level and it’s easy to project it onto the two-dimensional periphery beings created for just that comic relief while also propelling the limited conflict forward. The stuff happening between Peter and Ego has to go to dark places considering the latter left and Meredith Quill (Laura Haddock) died, so its drama must remain intact. The same goes with Gamora/Nebula and Rocket/Yondu too. But while the humor of Drax and Mantis’ dynamic feels authentic (they are socially awkward as a rule), the rest feels tacked on even if the joke lands.
But while this hinders me from applauding the piece as loudly and proudly as Vol. 1, I did still enjoy it as the middle section of a trilogy more attuned to developing motivations/relationships for the future than supplying story for the present. Despite missteps in tone, everything occurring on a character basis is necessary to bring this group together as family after the adrenaline high of fame dissipates: yelling, fits of idiocy bordering on malicious intent, and the reality that deep-seeded disappointment, fear, and sadness can’t be rectified overnight. I just would have liked it in a film able to stand on its own too. Adding visual spectacle and insanity on top of increased emotion is great, but it doesn’t distract from the fact that nothing really happens.
courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures