Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Review

I really enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy film.

Sure, it had a few flat punch-lines and a weak, clichéd villain, but overall the main characters were colorful and interesting, and it did entertaining things within unique space opera set-pieces. It hit a lot of different familiar character archetypes but it did almost all of them with enough skill that they were very enjoyable to watch regardless. I also really appreciated having an installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that expanded the cosmology of the setting without involving Earth as a centerpiece.

However, it was also a movie that I felt became fairly stale on repeat viewings, when the jokes become more familiar, and the characters are already established and known entities. With the trailer for vol. 2 promising more of the same sense of humor and character interactions, many people (myself included) wondered if the sequel would go stale in the same way.

In short, kind of. But it still manages to be an entertaining movie, if not managing to break out of the initial mold its predecessor set for it.

Also HOOOO BOY BIG SPOILERS AHEAD

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The Plot

Much more concise and focused than in the original, and that works mainly to its benefit. This is a more introspective movie than the first, so there are fewer set-pieces and settings that the characters travel though. The tighter focus also means that the pacing of Vol. 2 didn’t feel like a drag nearly as much as the first did when they got to Knowhere. And again because of the more personal connections and stakes to the plot, it lets the characters grow and develop in different ways, rather than the whole crew getting dragged together by sheer selfish impulse.

The way that the team unites on Ego for their big, climactic fight against a Celestial brain feels more organic as a result because the choices that bring them back together carry more personal weight. The main thematic arc of isolation and loneliness is highlighted in a very strong way with all of them and their unique desires and motivations as a result.

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The Characters

This movie focuses almost entirely around Star-Lord’s character and his origins, but his character sticks so tightly to a recognizable daddy-issues plot that it almost doesn’t feel like it’s worth my time to go over it in more detail. As a recap, it turns out his dad is Ego the Living Planet, a “Celestial” who has traveled around the universe exploring and interacting with life, including making new life and offspring of his own – not just Peter Quill as it turns out. Ego then attempted to use his progeny as a power source to fuel his conquest of the galaxy, to expand his influence to assimilate all life within it into himself.

Regardless of the clichés, Chris Pratt is talented enough to sell the doubt, happiness, anger, sadness, and every other emotion that goes along with his arc. First, not believing Kurt Russel’s character, then being over-joyed at having a sense of belonging, then being betrayed in order to be used for Ego’s ultimate goal. It’s that delivery that allows the audience to get invested heavily into that arc in spite of how familiar it seems.

Speaking of Ego, I wanted to talk a bit about his character because I find it fascinating. Ego, despite being a near-omnipotent cosmic deity, picked up a lot of mortal mannerisms and modes of thought, even if he doesn’t want to admit it. Not just in how he deals with Peter – that can be played off as dealing with expectations Peter brings with him in their encounters.  But we can see first of all, when he takes Peter, Gamora and Drax to his planet, he could’ve attempted to reveal himself to Peter and remove his teammates right there, but he didn’t. Why didn’t he? The underhandedness and subterfuge in cajoling Peter to his side seem to suggest that on some level he knew that what he was doing was unacceptable to other life. He shouldn’t have had anything to fear from the mortal characters on his own turf, but he still wanted to talk Peter into joining his side rather than forcing him.

Then there’s the big reveal that he was responsible for giving Peter’s mom the tumor that killed her in the cold open of the first movie. Again, why? Because he was too attached to her, and didn’t want that to interrupt or prevent his chosen mission.

These two elements together suggest that Ego had enough of an understanding of sentient life to know his actions weren’t right, or at the very least were against the natural inclinations of all life in the universe. And yet he chooses to go through with his plan to take over all planets and all life on them regardless. This idea of a being with the ability to form emotional and sentimental bonds, to feel empathy and experience humanity, and yet choose to act completely in opposition to that conscience, is actually kind of horrifying on reflection. Because of that, Ego is a much more interesting and nuanced villain than Ronan was in the first. (That being said, I did enjoy how refreshingly direct and classical Ronan’s motivation and style was.)

This extreme case illustrates the main theme of isolation that the other characters fit into as well. Ego was unable to comprehend the true worth of life that was separate from himself, oddly enough, despite clearly loving Peter’s mother. He thought the sheer loneliness he felt in his wanderlust could only be fixed by making everything else in the universe a reflection and extension of his mind. Though, ironically, that would make him truly alone, since there would be nothing with which to interact that was not borne from his own creation. (Note: I write more heavily about this theme in my article about Green Lantern and Sinestro from a couple years back. It’s a surprisingly common recurring villain characterization.)

Similarly, we see the other characters find companionship and camaraderie in unlikely places by looking outside of their own expectations and accepting others as they are. Rocket connects with Yondu by recognizing that they’ve taken the same knocks in life and yet have friends who refuse to abandon them at their lowest points. Drax and Mantis are able to connect by being completely and totally honest with their emotions. Meanwhile, Peter and Gamora also finally become open about their feelings for each other.

Gamora also has a really touching subplot with Nebula, as both of them realize that all they wanted was family, and they’re the only people who can share the same experiences that have shaped them. This subplot in particular is an extremely well-acted and framed within the larger themes of the movie, and demonstrates how deftly the script can deal with emotional highlights when it actually wants to.

At the same time, another antagonist group provides a counterpoint to this overarching theme, the Sovereign, a race that has supposedly “perfected” themselves by completely controlling their individuals to fit in exactly to pre-determined niches and roles. They’re mostly played for laughs though, with their absurdly haughty demeanor and goofy arcade-style space battles. (That is, until one of the credits scenes pops up, hinting at a future appearance of Adam Warlock.)

Oh yeah the Ravagers are there too, but they mostly play into Yondu’s character arc, where he has to choose his loyalty to them over his own desires and ideals. In the end, his abandonment of a mutinous crew to go help Peter destroy Ego is what paradoxically proves and redeems his true loyalty to their code, and their appearance at his space-viking funeral was another genuinely emotional moment in the movie. I teared up a little, but I’m also, admittedly, a sap who cries at everything.

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The Jokes

An awful step down from the first movie, which is a shame considering that I mostly enjoyed the sense of humor in the first movie. Too many of the punchlines here consisted of vulgar, crass toilet humor that ruined a lot of scenes that would’ve been just as effective if they played them straight. A lot of those gags also came from Drax, which is a shame because he really does have a lot of good character development moments playing off Mantis in the latter parts of the movie. I wish they developed that more consistently, rather than making him the butt of most jokes. Rocket also gets his chain yanked a lot for the sake of humor, but it at least has a role in his character development in feeling constantly worthless and put-upon. He also gives just as good as he takes when it comes to the banter.

That’s not to say that EVERY punchline falls short, there’s a lot of legitimately good humor here, but it just doesn’t feel as natural as the first movie overall. A good way to show this is by contrasting how both movies open with their credits reel.

In the first, it’s how we’re introduced to Peter in the present day, dancing to his Walkman while casually plundering an ancient tomb world. In the sequel, the music is specifically set up for no actual reason (even the characters acknowledge it’s a stupid addition to their showdown with an inter-dimensional blob beast, but well here we are). In the first GOTG, it’s a neat scene that establishes Peter’s initial carefree nature, while still holding onto trinkets and nostalgia from his old life on Earth. It also contrasts with the cold open showing his mother’s death in the hospital and his subsequent abduction. He hasn’t really grown up in those twenty years since, despite the danger he constantly finds himself in, and it gives us a good platform to get the audience invested in his character from the word “go”.

In the sequel, while the big battle is going down, the camera is exclusively focused on Baby Groot dancing around as the rest of the Guardians fight for their lives in the background. Why couldn’t we have seen more of that background fight? Especially since they do show its conclusion played straight after the song runs for a few minutes. Just showing the fight without the dancing mascot mugging for the camera would have been a fantastic way of establishing how the team typically works together, with equal parts complaints, flippancy, and desperate attempts at trying to not die. There’s a lot more organic ways to build humor from that rather than giggling at a CGI Groot.

Overall, too many of the jokes in Vol. 2 ruined scenes that would’ve been more interesting and engaging if they were simply played straight rather than relying on the constant wink-wink-nudge-nudge too-clever-by-half self-reference the movie engages in.

(I haaaaaate how they used Baby Groot in this movie and want to do something violent to whatever executive producer demanded him for marketing purposes.)

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Everything else

While the characters and overall plotting benefit from the more personal, higher-stakes direction (they literally kill a small-g god in the climax of the movie), the actual style of the movie suffers a bit. A lot of the action sequences are stylish and visually impressive, but they can be too busy at times, and make it hard to tell what’s going on.

The jukebox soundtrack also suffers from the same issues as the jokes and sense of humor. It feels more jammed in for marketing purposes rather than fitting in with the context of the movie. I’d compare it with the use of certain songs in Watchmen, actually, for how jarring it makes the experience.

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Final verdict

If you enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy as I did, you’ll probably find a lot to enjoy in its sequel as well. While the character writing and overall plotting is more nuanced than the first, the sense of humor and aesthetic style doesn’t work as well when scaled up with it.

A lot of high expectations were riding on this movie, and judging from the mixed reactions, it seems that I’m not the only one who has this impression. If I were to be honest, I don’t think I’ve wholeheartedly enjoyed an MCU film since Ant-Man, and feel that the universe overall is starting to suffer from whatever executive meddling is pushing its unified direction. The first GOTG was a breath of fresh air to the superhero setting, but it seems the franchise – and the rest of the MCU as a whole – has become a victim of its own success.

There just isn’t too much else coming up in its slate of scheduled movie releases that interested me as much as GOTG vol. 2, and now that this one has failed to strike out of its own mold, I’m just not invested in the larger direction it seems to be taking through Infinity War and beyond. I hope for the best, since I always welcome more good superhero movies rather than fewer, but I think at this point the franchise has gone past its prime.

 

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