Guardians of the Galaxy is a particular weak spot for this reviewer. Despite the near-universal acclaim for the film, it has far too many glaring flaws (from a terrible villain to a script riddled with moments that stretch believability/villain stupidity too far) to overcome the amazing chemistry of the extremely-well-cast heroes. Films should be a more complete experience, and even if one aspect is far better than the others, these other aspects cannot be ignored. Going into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, all its script needed to do was be a little more believable with a villain with slightly more credibility to create an altogether wonderful experience. Where this sequel grows in some regards, it sacrifices credible character development for meaningless sequence after meaningless sequence of what can only be described as feature-length toy commercials. Some spoilers to follow.
Guardians Vol 2. opens where we last left these characters: cracking wise and having fun while the fate of the universe is on the line. They are in the employ of the Sovereign, a golden-skinned race of aliens seemingly obsessed with beauty and perfection. The opening of this film is by far its best asset; or at least, what it promises is. Instead the film doubles down on the mid-credits scene of the first film and its adorable dancing Groot with a full-length sequence of opening credits set against baby Groot dancing as the rest of the Guardians battle a colossal inter-dimensional beast mostly off-screen. This is the film’s message to the audience right from the onset; it is doubling down on the cute and funny moments in favor of shuffling everything else to the background, and this won’t be the only time that baby Groot mugs the screen to steal the collective hearts of the audience and make everyone ‘ooooh’ and ‘aaaah’ and rush to the toy store after the film to land a giant-eyed plastic baby tree. With this opening, writer/director James Gunn’s plan is laid bare for the audience to see; he’s going to pander, and pander hard.
This decision to eschew scenes of character development and plot exploration in favor of those deliberately done to set up a laugh turns what could have been a sequel worthy of the better films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a film that is a dismal shadow of an original film that now looks much better by comparison. The chemistry of the main cast, from Peter (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Groot (Vin Diesel) seems to be missing this time around. For instance Drax, who in the first film was funny because his literal readings of every situation were thrust into circumstances that would play against that, is now turned into a punchline machine. Bautista is still great in the role and has a great time with the material, but he’s set up to be funny here half the time instead of just letting it occur, and the script suffers for it. Many of his better moments in the first film were deeper character moments for Drax, and sadly he gets few of them here. Pom Klementieff joins the cast as Mantis, and as enjoyable as the character is to watch, one can’t help but feel that she’s essentially an exposition machine, waiting until the crucial time that the plot requires her to divulge some piece of information to the audience and meanwhile baiting them about some revelation to come. She serves almost as a tool to tell the audience not to worry, that something interesting will finally happen in the film later, especially as it plots through its first and second acts.
The “family” aspect of the film is definitely its strongest asset, with fantastic performances turned in by Karen Gillan (Nebula, easily stealing the show in the film) and even a deeper-than-he-gets-credit-for Michael Rooker as Yondu. The saddest thing is that the plot’s main thrust- Kurt Russell showing up and revealing himself as Quill’s father- is also by far one of its weakest. It is easy to telegraph his villainous turn way earlier in the movie as the script continues to refer to it, and his would-be father-son relationship with Peter never feels genuine; he comes off as trying too hard to bridge the gap too fast, and there doesn’t seem to be a lick of real emotion traded between the two of them. Now, it is very likely this was deliberate on Gunn’s part and he likely communicated this to Russell and Pratt in their performances, but it doesn’t make the film’s finale any easier to swallow. It is entirely detrimental, in fact, as there is no real emotional connection built between the elder and younger Quill, which could have served as a real heart-wrenching moment when the audience finally reveals the truth about Ego.
Yet again in the MCU are we the audience saddled with a villain who is ultimately all bark and no bite; he wants to come off as threatening, but never feels it, particularly since the idea that he’s an ageless god living as a planetoid but can’t beat a handful of space mercenaries seems utterly laughable. This was the problem with the first film as well, with Ronan holding ultimate power in his hands in the form of the Infinity stone but refusing to use it until the plot required him to, and only then to use it non-lethally against anyone who gets a prime spot in the credits. If Ego is an all-powerful celestial planetoid and he only needs Peter to take over the universe, he could have crushed and destroyed the other Guardians with absolute ease and forced Peter to obey his will, or could have even imprisoned them in the planet somewhere, somehow and controlled it that way. Yet he refuses to exercise these powers really at all, instead content to let the plot deliver him to downfall.
This brings us to the climax, which won’t be entirely spoiled here, but the film already made it obvious numerous times that they were going for “being your father doesn’t mean he’s your dad” theme, so Gunn is content to then whip out a hammer and start beating it into the audience with unnecessary dialogue, first via Yondu and then via Peter. Is it not enough to simply show the audience what you’re intending them to see? Is it really necessary to hammer home these ideas over and over again, afraid that the audience is too dumb to get what you’re going for? This is a massive failure on the part of a movie that already checked out of itself halfway through the runtime anyway, going through the motions of a “plot” and “character development” in between baby Groot toy commercials and silly scenes meant to set up a laugh or to queue up the next song on the soundtrack and nothing more. Guardians Vol. 2 doesn’t even reach the mediocrity of its woeful predecessor; at least that film’s chemistry was genuine and at least those characters had some heart and some passion written into them. This feels like a cheap slap in the face, a weak attempt to cash in on what it did well the first time and doubling-down on the worst elements of it. With any luck Gunn will learn the lessons of some of the MCU’s better fare (looking at you, Captain America films) and will round out the Guardians series with a hell of a finale. Four out of ten stars.