By Travis Trombley
Vol. 2 astutely revisits much of what worked in the original - awkward charm, striking visuals, juvenile humor, pop culture awareness, approachable characters, and attention to a central theme. Its core is entertainment, and it stays true to itself by balancing jokes, heart, and spectacle, seamlessly weaving 70’s anthems with superhero roughhousing. It’s bright, both visually and tonally, a welcome departure from the faded Marvel palette and grit that revels in its unique ability to showcase an adorable dancing Ent baby while a rainbow-breathing kraken flails about in the background.
However, there remain a number of areas in need of improvement, chiefly the screenplay and the use of action. The restraint Gunn demonstrated so artfully in the last film is lost here, and the character-driven theme doesn’t find grounding in genuine decisions, resulting in something that, while certainly fun, both falls short of its potential greatness and fails to surpass, or even match, its predecessor in most categories of execution.
As always, major spoilers ahead.
Picking up some time after the events of the previous installment, entirely unaffected by the rest of the MCU’s shenanigans, Vol. 2 finds the Guardians together, but strained. Communication issues and pride fray the family fabric, resulting in a series of inter-character spats throughout: Quill and Rocket’s egos clash in bouts of biting insults; Peter and Gamora bicker over the legitimacy of Quill’s father and the nature of their will-they-won’t-they relationship. The theme of familial tension expands with the ensemble, too, with the Ravagers turning on Yondu, Peter connecting with his long-lost father, and, of course, the continued sibling rivalry between Gamora and her cyborg sister Nebula. All the ingredients are present for a conversation about dealing with relationships.
Allow me to explain. This lackluster development begins with the film’s almost categorical favoring of emotion over intellect, as if the two can even be reduced to such an elementary dichotomy. From the get go, the seeds are planted with Mantis, a self-professed empath. “A telepath can read other people’s thoughts; I feel people’s feelings,” she tells Drax. Later, Yondu inspires Peter’s resistance by telling him that he doesn’t control his arrow with his head, but with his heart, inducing the classic memory montage of feel-good moments so Peter can summon a Patronus charm….or something. The point is that emotions are important.
To Gunn’s credit, this is effectively contrasted against the film’s big bad: Ego. If his name didn’t give it away, he’s a cold celestial entity with a nasty case of narcissism. After coming into consciousness, he felt compelled to seek out other life, but did so to only find it disappointing, thus arriving at the conclusion that his life's purpose was to consume everything in his own essence. In the pursuit of this mission, he ruthlessly discards emotion, killing his spawn and lovers alike when they fail to serve his goal. To put the nail in the coffin, his core - his actual “being” - is a disembodied brain, symbolically solidifying him as a cerebral entity.
Lower-case ‘ego’ is an issue, too. Pride and lack of trust cause Peter and Rocket to bicker for control of the ship during a battle. Yondu’s Ravagers dislike their lot, so they blame their captain and mutiny, believing things will be better under their new leader Taser Face (a title responsible for one of the better gags in the film). Lastly, the presumption of perfection for the gilded Sovereign folks means failure, even when moderately consequenceless, can destroy one’s sense of self and lead to social rejection.
It’s an interesting setup, pitting acceptance of others over prioritization and replication of self, but the payoff doesn’t match. While the movie we’d like to see about these issues shines through occasionally, like in rushed subplots concerning Yondu and Rocket’s acceptance of their compassion for others and the quasi-reconciliation between Gamora and Nebula by way of their mutual abuse at the hands of Thanos, it fails to believably ground the issue for its primary conflict featuring everyone’s favorite Star-Lord.
But it's an emotional decision that could have more closely tied to the rest of the film. It’s odd that the memory of Peter’s mother spurs him to action when the rest of the film centered on Peter’s relationship with the other Guardians. Earlier, when Peter is defending his father to Gamora, he says, “I finally found my family,” to which she replies, “I thought you already had,” accusing him of deeming his surrogate family wanting in comparison. In other words, are they not worth the hassle? The narrative presents this tension early and throughout, like with Yondu and Rocket uniting on the other side of the galaxy around the idea of helping Peter, so it’d make sense for it to propel Peter’s resolution, too, actually developing him as a character. Instead, the film defaults to an established pain, making his decision more of an internalized reaction than a result of growth, thereby refusing him room to develop as a character by way of the established thematic framework.
This shortcoming is emphasized by the huge loss of opportunity in the character of Mantis. For a film so centrally concerned with emotional experience, how is her ability to read and slightly influence emotion limited to a few gags and making Ego take a short nap? Why not use her to build emotional bridges between characters, encourage empathy, and actually have the characters talk to one another? With all the groundwork laid so well, why not celebrate emotion as a relationship builder rather than write it off as a plot device?
It’s not that what’s here is broken, like with Suicide Squad, it’s just not very profound, not very memorable. The characters take a back-seat to the plot, even though the plot wants you to think it’s character driven.
The same can be said for much of the fight choreography here, too. While the action is more prevalent and ambitious than in the first, and all dazzlingly colorful, it lacks the same degree of character as that of the first installment.
When I think of the first film’s action, three distinct scenes come to mind: the original spat on Xandar, the prison break, and the assault on Ronan's ship. Each one showcases the characters’ unique talents, thereby becoming a form of visual characterization.
I think of an outmatched Peter cleverly attaching his boot jet to Gamora in the opening act, Groot excessively bashing Ronan's guards in a hallway then flashing a shit-eating grin to his friends, and Rocket laughing maniacally while gunning prison robots out of the air. I remember Drax tossing and bashing dudes between bouts of feral laughter and Gamora bounding gracefully across the screen, engaging enemies with flexible precision.
This distinction is represented well in one major change from the original to Vol. 2: Peter’s jet-boots have evolved into jet-packs for the whole group. In the first film, the jets were a carefully crafted resource that allowed for economical additions to the events on screen, like Peter drop kicking an opponent, landing on his back, then propelling himself backwards while shooting a few more enemies on the way. That was an awesome scene. In the sequel, the jet-packs became common visual flare and an excuse for nipple jokes.
Now let me be clear, I’m totally for nipple jokes. And poop gags, and penis humor, all of which the movie brings to the table well-prepared. But these should supplement, not supplant, quality cinematography. I don’t need Rocket to be John Wick (though, now that I say it…), but I do expect the characters’ action sequences to further or reflect their characters. Aside from Drax shooting at enemy ships while being tethered behind the Milano or Rocket’s ambush of the Ravagers in the forest, that purpose behind each punch is missing here.
This is nowhere more pronounced than the “boss fight” at the end. A complete 180 degree turn from the restrained dance-off at the end of the first film, Vol. 2 concludes with a fight scene reminiscent of the Dr. Doom brawl at the end of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, only this one comes complete with a Pac-Man construct. It’s flashy and thrilling, but gimmicky and ultimately unmemorable. Despite the film’s attempt to make the scene an emotionally charged climax in the vein of Aang’s showdown with Osai, the lack of economy, tension, or strategy reduces the Ego v Peter celestial smackdown to a shallow slog.
Such shortcomings keep Guardians from superhero cinema greatness, but I’m not sure Gunn or most audiences will care. As I said before, it’s still an extremely fun film, despite these blemishes. It relishes the audio-visual experience, providing viewers a few hours of hilarious dialogue delivered by actors unafraid to endow their misfit characters with zany life (Dave Bautista as Drax, Michael Rooker as Yondu, and newcomer Pom Klementieff as Mantis deserve special credit in this department) in between bouts of flashy spectacle that almost always manage to dazzle in one way or another without confusing the viewer. The slew of pop culture references throughout, from a running bit about David Hasselhoff to an entirely unnecessary appearance by Sylvester Stallone, prove this singular trait - the film will do anything to get a smile.
Hopefully the next installment can treat its characters as well as this film treats its viewers.