The first several minutes of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 act as an exhilarating kick-off for 2017’s summer movie season. The colorful, confident and comedically satisfying opening credits sequence makes it clear that director James Gunn’s goal is to recapture the flashy freshness of his 2014 predecessor, only turned up to eleven. The scene (featuring a winning combination of adorable Baby Groot and Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky”) is packed with Guardians’ trademarks: outsized personalities, witty banter, imaginative sci-fi spectacle, nostalgic musical choices and an overall anarchic sense of fun. It is about as good as a first impression can get.
It doesn’t take long, however, for that confident veneer to fade and Vol. 2 to reveal itself as a movie exceedingly burdened by its precarious place in the superhero movie landscape. It is not only the sequel to a surprise hit praised for its inventiveness, but also the fifteenth film in an interconnected cinematic universe often criticized for its precise lack of inventiveness. It’s a lose-lose situation, as Gunn can’t possibly match the original’s novelty while simultaneously giving fans more of what they liked about it. He (and the Disney brass) ultimately choose to go the route most blockbuster sequels take: it doubles down on the familiar and simply pretends that it has something new to show.
This isn’t to say there aren’t fresh elements to the film, or that they aren’t some of its main assets. Though Vin Diesel’s Baby Groot is clearly a Disney ploy to insert the cute, easily marketable side characters found in their animated films, his toddler-like behavior and the reactions they elicit from the team is used to smartly build on the idea of the Guardians as a real family. Meanwhile, the hilariously naive insectoid Mantis, played wonderfully by French actress Pom Klementieff, fits perfectly within the established crew, providing a few moments of the genuine sweetness that the first film did so well, but that the returning cast never quite recapture within their own flimsy arcs.
The script’s fatal miscalculation is that it splits up the entire cast for a large chunk of the film. Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis chat, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Yondu (Michael Rooker) bicker, sisters Gamora (Zoe Seldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) brawl, and Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord bonds with long-lost father Ego, played by the ever-charismatic Kurt Russell. Breaking the cast up like this is a good idea in theory, as it allows Gunn to zero in on several specific relationships. In practice, it’s a complete disaster. Because the story jumps from one subplot to the next like an overstuffed, expensive sitcom episode, none of these threads are given nearly enough space or time to develop. An identical mistake was made in last summer’s similar sci-fi adventure Star Trek Beyond.
As a result, the plot progresses at a snail’s pace and the characters are unable to develop naturally. The Star-Lord/Ego storyline, ostensibly the emotional core of the movie, devolves into a guided tour of exposition on Ego’s fake-looking planet right in the middle of the film. Gamora and Nebula’s arc is a total waste of time, the Drax and Mantis relationship is cute but inconsequential, and though the Rocket/Yondu thread features one of the film’s few set pieces, the conflicts they face act mainly as a shameless setup for the already-announced third installment. Worse yet, the film ultimately tries to insert Yondu into Star-Lord’s storyline for emotional impact, but because the characters spend such a vast majority of the film apart, this falls totally flat.
The only upside to the script’s inert structure is that it gives Gunn an excuse to focus even more intently on the freewheeling humor that made the first film feel so alive. There are moments in Vol. 2 that blow its predecessor out of the water in terms of comedy, such as an extended gag in which Star-Lord tries to find tape in the midst of battle and another round of unexpected ’80s pop culture references. Unfortunately, here too the movie is strained by the expectations that come with its heritage. Gunn tries to double, triple, quadruple the jokes, and the emphasis should be on tries, both because he doesn’t always succeed and because he is trying really, really hard.
Comedy is extremely subjective, no doubt, but there are some jokes I can’t imagine anyone over the age of 14 would find funny (such as Rocket’s relentless, gratuitous insults) and there are others that are, quite objectively, not even jokes. I might have run out of fingers trying to keep count of how many punchlines consist of Drax simply giving a hearty laugh. Groot’s constant puppy dog eyes are also constantly played for laughs: When Shrek‘s Puss and Boots used the same tactic, the humor came from the fact that he was actually a smooth-talking Spanish lothario character using his cuteness for gain. Here, the whole joke is simply that Baby Groot is adorable. It’s true, but it’s not funny.
Another area of overcompensation is in the special effects. There are grander vistas, bigger explosions and a larger death count, but it all falls victim to inconsistent special effects. Disney continues to excel at creating lifelike CGI characters, with Rocket’s fur animations and Groot’s expressiveness being a noticeable step-up. The detail on spaceships and weaponry is equally impressive. On the other hand, the colorful vistas, especially Ego’s Eden-like home world, are extremely unconvincing, with shockingly poor green screen effects that recall the artificiality of some of Disney’s most subpar recent works like Maleficent and Tomorrowland. Compared to something like The Jungle Book, it never feels like the characters and the space exist on the same plane.
Everything culminates in a particularly loud, weightless and incoherent climax, uninspired even by Marvel standards. Even if the emotional content hadn’t been particularly underwhelming throughout, it’d be drowned out by all shouting, flashing lights, and debris. When this predictable final battle finally comes to an end, there’s a hasty scramble to end on a touching note. The problem is that up until this point the attitude of the characters and the film as a whole is that nothing really matters and life is disposable, but the audience is suddenly asked to care very earnestly about someone. This feels both unearned and tone deaf.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 tries painfully hard to not just live up to expectations, but to blow them out of the water. The result is a strained affair in almost every regard, from the character dynamics to the effects to the comedy. Quantity takes very clear precedence over quality to the detriment of both. There are good things about the film – the performances are still charming across the board, and the soundtrack is perhaps even better than the first. Still, this movie drops the ball where it really counts, ending up as a poster child for the type of well-intentioned but poorly-executed blockbuster sequels that the Guardians of the Galaxy themselves would likely mock relentlessly.
Score: 2 out of 5