Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 2
My enthusiasm for the “MCU” has been cooling at a steady rate for the last number of entries. They have their strong central performances, the right kind of spectacle and tend to look good. But the same old problems keep appearing too: the non-stop quips and jokes, even in scenes that are screaming for seriousness, the bad female roles and the plethora of terrible antagonist characters. Marvel Studios is either unaware of such problems or, distracted by a routinely impressive take at the box office, don’t care about them. Well, I certainly can’t claim that anything is broken on the financial side of things, but in terms of film-making, the last number of MCU offerings have, in my eyes, been decidedly average.
And so, James Gunn’s sequel to the 2014 Hail Mary pass that turned into one of Marvel’s greatest success stories. I had my problems with Guardians Of The Galaxy – see aforementioned quips, bad female characters and terrible villains – but I couldn’t deny its sheer sense of vibrancy, colour and inventiveness in its every production detail, song choice and general tone. Lightning striking twice is always rare – Marvel are, in my eyes, yet to make a sequel that surpasses an original – and the promotion for this one made me nervous with its inane emphasis on the soundtrack and a certain lack of plot description. Was Vol. 2 the moment the MCU righted its listing ship, or another step on the long road to mediocrity?
Peter “Starlord” Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldano), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) continue to adventure together, taking advantage of their galactic fame and unorthodox, but effective, team dynamic. But things unravel when Rocket steals some precious artefacts from a client, leading the Guardians on a chase involving the gold-skinned Ayesha (Elizabeth Debecki), Ravager captain Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Gamora’s revenge-seeking sister Nebula (Karen Gillian). And additional complication emerges when Quill runs into Ego (Kurt Russell), a god-like alien who claims to be his father.
Well, it comes down to this I suppose: if you liked the first Guardians Of The Galaxy, you’ll more than likely enjoy Vol. 2. But, if you’re anything like me and came out of Vol. 1 with reservations, then Vol. 2 will feel like a largely missed opportunity: the same ingredients cooked in a slightly different way, for a negligible change in taste. You’ll swallow it down, but you’ll wonder if you shouldn’t have spent your time and money on something a bit more satisfying.
Perhaps the worst of it is the general aimlessness of things. It takes a very long time for the actual meat and bones of the plot to become apparent in Vol. 2, as nearly a whole hour breezes by in set-up, punctuated by short, intense action sequences. Vol. 2 attempts to solve the MCU villain problem by not having one for the majority of its running time, unless we count Debecki’s bizarre golden princess who mostly just pops up now and then to snark at the heroes, and is never portrayed in any kind of effective sense.
Which is a shame because when things finally do get going – once the Guardians arrive on Ego’s world, and the paternal status of Quill takes centre stage – Vol. 2 actually does become quite decent, and I feel like Gunn should have had more confidence in the spine of his narrative. Instead, it is largely relegated to the latter half, and indeed, latter third, of proceedings. A lot of other stuff is allowed to develop, at varying speed, to muck the rest of it up.
Oh, there is melodrama a plenty here, no doubt about it. Quill and Gamora verbally spar back and forth about their “unspoken” attraction, Gamora and Nebula have at it as the film tries to make Gillian’s previously all-out villainous character more sympathetic, Drax connects, as only he can, with Ego’s servant Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Yondu tries to gain some redemption for previous misdeeds while dealing with a growing mutiny, Rocket’s aggressive personality starts losing him friends and, all the while, Baby Groot does the necessaries to make toy versions of him very popular I’m sure. The script chugs along trying to keep up with all this, but the unending bickering between the principles does get a little bit tiring after a while (another reason why Russell’s intrusion is welcomed) and you can’t help but notice that there is very little new for characters to say (and a failure of the Bechdel test to boot).
You can’t deal with this many sub-plots properly in two hours, and you definitely can’t when you start them at random points in the narrative. And you super duper definitely can’t when the entire film is laden down with comedy at every moment, the kind of comedy that more than succeeds at making you laugh, but which conspires to kill the drama and engagement of the audience at every turn. I’m repeating myself all the time with the MCU on this score, but I’ll say it again for the record: you cannot expect an audience to remain engaged with drama and action when you feel the need to stuff jokes – and really dumb low-brow jokes on occasion – into every dramatic scene.
The worst offender in Vol. 2 is a surprise cameo from one of the internet’s favourite quasi-celebrities during a villain monologue that’s pivotal to setting up the entire finale, for no other reason than self-reverential, nostalgia bait yucks. It’s dumb, it’s lazy and I suppose as long as people keep paying money to see it, it will never change. But its stuff like this that stops the MCU films from individually standing as good films or even the best examples of the genre.
Not that I want to dismiss the film entirely. As stated, the Quill/Ego stuff is really rather good, and most of the sub-plots would be able to stand up better if given just a little more time. Ego in general is written excellently, like in a prologue featuring he and Quill’s mother, before things devolve into a Guardians/Space monster fight, and he could have been a real stand-out character in the larger canon. You can sense the effort being made by the writers and directors here to give Vol. 2 a bit more heart and substance than the first had, with the emphasis on family and the potential depth of many of the sub-plots. Even 20 minutes or so more, to really flesh things out, would have worked wonders here.
The individual portions of the production are up to scratch for sure. It’s easy to get lost in this cast – there are at least 12 I would describe as plot pivotal – but the performances are fine, as the returnees step back into roles they are used to and the new guys bounce around inside this cosmically-tinged universe. Pratt, Saldano, Cooper, Bautista and Diesel are very much at the same level they were before, their interactions as crisp even if the arguing gets a bit boring. At times they do struggle with the script and it’s joke a second predilections that can’t mesh properly with the action they are often a part of, but for the most part the titular team-members are a serious part of the attraction still.
The others are eye-catching of their own accord. Russell is having a ball as the appropriately named Ego, and the film could honestly have used more of his sheer enthusiasm and gung-ho. Rooker is subdued for the most part, but it fits with what the character is up to here, up to and including what I found to be a bizarre comedy scene where he goes about slaughtering a large amount of people with his magic space arrow (a legitimate question to ask for Vol. 2 might be how much murder and theft the “heroes” can get away with it before we start thinking of Batman V Superman). And Gillian tries her hardest with some of the melodrama sent her way, and just about gets it done, though one must wonder if her chance to transition to big screen star might have passed. The roles given to Debecki, Chris Sullivan and even Sylvester Stallone in a three scene cameo, are throwaway at best, but at least they are able to grab your attention on a visual level.
And what a visual treat it is. The “cosmic” description is apt, because here Gunn and his effects team go wild, just as they did before, in presenting a universe that is the apex of the MCU’s visual style. Living planets abound with unique abnormal fauna. Gravelly space pirates enjoy a robot brothel on a snow-filled world. Remote controlled drone fighters chase their quarry through fields of “quantum” asteroids that blink in and out of existence. Giant blobs of celestial mass expand and take over planets. Every character, ship and lifeform is different in some way. It’s a testament to the breadth of Gunn and his team’s imagination, a loving tribute to the Jack Kirby style of comics, and if nothing else, Vol. 2 is a film that you can get lost in visually, it’s worlds, its people, its technology. The actual cinematography – from Henry Braham, taking over from Ben Davis – is nothing all that special really, the sort of competent job that the MCU has long since settled into, the basics with a few instances of flash, like the opening fight scene, a Baby Groot focused romp to the strains of “Mr Blue Skies”.
Much like its approach to the villain problem, Vol. 2 approaches the MCU’s score problem by barely having one. The soundtrack is a nostalgia-fuelled audio rollercoaster, that dramatically overshadows what few instances of even vaguely memorable score Vol. 2 has (Exhibit A: the soundtrack album is nearly ten minutes longer than the score album). Instead, embark on your cross-galactic trip with the music of George Harrison, Fleetwood Mac and others in your erars, and it’s all well and good, provided you can ignore that little voice at the back of your head saying that such production decisions are as bad as any nostalgia bait any other film has been guilty of recently (cough, Suicide Squad, cough). Sure, it’s placed and melded with what’s on screen a bit better, but that doesn’t make it any less a cheap an d overly-praised attempt to play on sentimentality for a by-gone musical era.
So, in the end, the MCU is limping on. Vol. 2 is not the game-changer it really should be, merely more of the same – same tone, same quips, same villain problems – mixed with a few new problems, like a lack of direction throughout, best seen in the manner that sub-p[lots are introduced and resolved. Sure, there is stuff aplenty to attract interest here as well, like the good performances, the great visuals, and the comedy, when it works. But it’s all so samey when compared to the first one, and Vol. 2 certainly doesn’t improve on the lackadaisical last few MCU films. It’s perfectly acceptable entertainment, but the brain is missing. One wonders if the MCU will ever find it again. Partially recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).