Let’s get the unsurprising thing out of the way first. If you enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, there’s a very big chance you’ll enjoy this one as well. If what you want is more of the same, then you’ll most certainly get it. Actually, a more accurate way to describe this sequel would be to say that it delivers “most” of the same. It’s not a coincidence that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the first Marvel Studios movie since Iron Man 3 to feel like the work of a human director rather than a sophisticated computer algorithm. James Gunn has come back as writer-director and seized the success of the first Guardians to turn up the volume as loud as he can on every single aspect of his new movie. Guardians of the Galaxy was praised for being fresh, original, and weird. It wasn’t any of those things. However, Gunn’s unhinged choices make Volume 2 fresher, more original, and weirder than its predecessor. The good news is that the sequel improves on enough aspects of the first film to be considered a good movie. The bad news is that certain irritating things about the original remain part of the package.
Gunn’s strategy for the sequel is clear since the very beginning of the movie. After a brief flashback to the eighties, the movie truly begins with our team of intergalatic crusaders fighting off a big gooey monster. We then get an opening credit sequence that calls back to the last movie, only instead of Chris Pratt getting down to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love”, we get Baby Groot (who is the same tree creature of the last movie, albeit reincarnated as an infant) dancing to “Mr. Blue Sky” while the rest of the Guardians fight the gooey monster in the background. It’s a gag that works better in concept than in execution. The joke of the thing becomes clear pretty quickly, and then we still have two minutes of credits to go through. Part of the problem is that Groot, by virtue of being a computer generated image and not a human being, isn’t a particularly engaging dancer to watch (though I must suspect I am in the minority on not being charmed by the cuteness of this so-called Baby Groot).
Even though the movie slowly won me over, one thing remained true of my disappointing first impression: the use of seventies songs as the movie’s main soundtrack isn’t as inspired as it was in the first movie. This is understandable. The first movie’s soundtrack was so good that even I downloaded it to my phone. I, who didn’t even like the movie. It’s hard for lightning to strike twice, especially when you’ve used up some of the best seventies tunes in your first go-round. The selections in this second movie aren’t exactly bad, but their use is far less memorable. That being said, there’s one significant exception. The movie recognizes the awesomeness of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” and uses it to great effect. I give it credit for that.
And so the movie marches along for most of its running time, going back and forth from inspired touches of truly delightful popcorn cinema to the same old schtick of second-tier summer blockbusters. The thing that irritated me the most, as it did in the first one, was the movie’s sense of humor. Not, mind you, the fact that it had humor in the first place. I love to laugh. But the way in which it insists on wearing its humor as a crutch, constantly sabotaging its own jokes and its own efficiency as a movie. There is a particular type of joke (or way to treat a joke, to be more precise) that drives me crazy, and I want to get deeper into it because Guardians of the Galaxy is far from the only movie to be guilty of this. Here’s an example of what happens after Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) vindictively calls Rocket (Bradley Cooper) a “raccoon”:
Rocket: Don’t call me a raccoon.
Peter: Sorry, I took it too far. What I meant to say is “you trash panda”
Rocket: Is that better?
Drax: I don’t know.
Peter: It’s worse. (starts to laugh) It’s so much worse!
The “trash panda” line is funny. I laughed. But then, there are three more lines of dialogue that serve absolutely no purpose other than to keep pointing out the joke. Rocket and Drax’s responses aren’t too bad, even though they aren’t as funny as the panda line, but by the time Peter is explaining that being called a trash panda is worse than being called a raccoon, I had become embarrassed that I laughed at the panda line in the first place. Like Shakespeare said: “Brevity is the soul of wit”. Leave a good joke live on its own instead of murdering it by calling attention to it. I don’t find this kind of thing funny, and there’s a lot of it in both Guardians of the Galaxy movies.
But my beef with the movie’s sense of humor isn’t just that I don’t find its jokes funny, but that the movie insists in using humor to undercut its own drama. This is particularly annoying this time around because the dramatic elements of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 are surprisingly effective. The main dramatic arc of the movie involves Peter Quill’s relationship to his absent father, who turns out to be a sentient planet played by Kurt Russell. It’s familiar territory, but effective enough that it made me think Pratt is a better actor when there’s a little sadness to him and not just quippy bantering. There’s an arc involving the sister rivalry between heroine Gomora (Zoe Saldana) and villain Nebula (Karen Gillan) that turns two of the most boring characters of the first movie into people I’m interested about, and even Rocket Raccoon -by far my least favorite part of the last movie- redeems himself with a pretty solid introspection of his assholery.
All of these arcs come together rather elegantly in the last act of the movie. Sure, there is a character who nobly sacrifices himself for the good of the team just like in the first movie, and sure, the movie’s main arc of “a team of ragtags becomes a family” is hardly original, but at least there is no giant spaceship hovering over the Manhattan skyline. What’s more, the character groundwork up to that point is handled with enough artistry that I got quite emotional toward the end, something that no Marvel movie has ever managed to do. I couldn’t care less when Captain America and Iron Man were punching each other in the face last summer, yet I came very close to tearing up at the end of this adventure. Maybe if the movie hadn’t repeatedly pointed out the silliness of its own existence I might have actually teared up, but let’s not ignore the fact that this sort of emotional reaction is kind of a big deal for such a film.
Before I close this review, let me be clear in the fact that I do not begrudge the fact that this movie wants to be funny. James Gunn can be very funny. Some of his jokes get in the way of my enjoyment of his movie, yes, but some others can be truly inspired. Gunn has a particularly good eye for zany visuals, and this is where his “most of the same” approach truly pays off. Not being afraid of cartoony visuals, Gunn goes all in on the most intense colors and grotesque sights he can afford. There is, for example, a visual gag involving heads bending out of shape that is funny in an endearingly immature type of way. It only lasts for a few seconds, but it earns a laugh. And as far as action is concerned, Gunn is willing to give in to Looney Tunes levels (and styles) of violence. The best action sequence in the movie involves Michael Rooker’s Yondu and a murderous, flying pen. It is as much of a comedic set-piece as it is a sight of gnarly beauty; a red light dashing through the darkness, just strong enough to illuminate the bodies it is leaving in its path.
Big studio blockbusters are in a pretty dire artistic situation these days, especially those created by the Marvel machine. It’s becoming harder and harder to find artistry when most of them resemble a mass-produced object more closely than they do a piece of art. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is far from perfect, but it has enough character to think of it as an honest-to-God movie. That is not a small feat, considering its origins.