Going into the original Guardians of the Galaxy the largest benefit was the lack of expectation. No one knew what to predict from this first foray into Marvel’s galactic universe, which afforded director James Gunn a certain amount of leeway. The slate was blank, and that gave him the freedom to reconstruct the rules for what was possible in a superhero movie.
To the surprise of, well, everybody, Guardians became one of Marvel’s biggest hits. Critics and fans adored the irreverent take and Gunn was praised for setting a new standard in superhero action. Unfortunately, the bar was set too high and too close to the sun. Nothing they could have done as a follow up would have been able to surpass what was accomplished there, and any attempt to would have no doubt resulted in a disaster.
Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 isn’t exactly disastrous, but it’s too often disappointing. What was once effortless and natural now feels shoehorned and forced. At times, it felt like the cinematic equivalent of listening to an over-produced second album, one that makes you long for the raw and frenetic intensity of a band’s debut.
What’s truly disheartening is that there’s actually a good movie in here. In fact, there’s two of them. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 takes an Empire Strikes Back approach storytelling by splitting up its group of heroes for two parallel adventures, both of which are intriguing, but neither of which are cooked enough to offer true delight.
On one side, you’ve got Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) who, along with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Drax (Dave Bautista) journey to a strange planet with Ego (Kurt Russell) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) to discover the truth of Star-Lord’s parentage. On the other, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) are forced to team up with roguish Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillian) on a mission to clear Yondu’s name with the space pirate union, the Ravagers.
Both stories offer their share of high-intensity and satisfying moments for fans to delight in, but the structure and set up is all rather slapdash. Either story would’ve made for a great sequel, but mashed together neither are given the room they need to breath and develop naturally. It feels at times like a movie written in response to the zeitgeist surrounding its predecessor, rather than one that creates the zeitgeist for itself. It’s a band chasing the success of their debut hit single who falls into the trap of repetition instead of embracing evolution.
Often you can almost see the wheels of thought from producers using market research to craft a movie in the hopes that something sticks. The internet loved Groot, so let’s make him adorable and give him more to do. Rocket was popular, so let’s make sure he’s got more of those quippy comebacks everyone loved. A lot of the time, this approach works. There are funny moments aplenty, more so than the original Guardians, but that comes as a result of throwing everything up and seeing what lands and much of the humor falls flat.
The same goes for the dramatic moments. Viewers are hardly given the time to digest one larger than life set piece before being whisked away to another. That becomes a problem quickly and it doesn’t take long for Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 to start to feel haphazard and top heavy. Its glossy veneer looks great, but without a solid foundation the whole endeavor threatens to collapse in on itself.
It’s to Gunn’s credit that the film manages to keep itself together. He’s as fine a filmmaker as any working today, and fans of Gunn’s larger body of work will no doubt recognize his signature in every frame of Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2. For many, that alone will be enough to justify the cost of admission, or even to justify actual love. Indeed, there is plenty to enjoy in the movie, provided you’re willing to overlook things like odd pacing and uneven plotting. When Guardians soars, it touches the sky. It reaches those points due largely to Gunn’s obvious love for the characters and franchise.
But it never does so enough. The big moments feel extra big and exciting when juxtaposed to the lackluster in between, as if in attempt to make up for all the meandering and the cartoonish humor. In the end, you’re left with an exciting exterior that holds a hollow center, a movie that’s more Guardians of the Galaxy shaped than actually Guardians of the Galaxy. None of which is to say that Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is bad, it’s just not particularly good. At best, it’s just fine. That might be enough for some, but given the heights we know this franchise can reach, just fine is a bit of a letdown.
Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is now playing in theaters everywhere.