Back in the ’80s, two wise old rock stars said, “There’s a fine line between clever and stupid.” Not only did the first Guardians of the Galaxy flirt with stupidity at every turn, it leaned into it, but it also possessed a sweet sincerity that made it one of the freshest (and cleverest) Marvel movies to date. The film bore all the earmarks of the ’80s, director/writer James Gunn’s preferred decade of choice: dopey but well-meaning heroes, mismatched sidekicks, off-the-wall settings, heartwarming character beats mixing it up with smarmy wisecracks, capped with a sunny conclusion and a soundtrack that reminded us that once upon a time, movies actually featured songs instead of clanging symphonic jackhammer beats. The film was an easygoing, ramshackle construction, which also happened to be the source of its charm.
The adventures of wannabe space legend Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and his gang continue in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and much remains the same. Once again, the soundtrack is an eclectic mix of classic chestnuts and cult favorites. Once again, our heroes bicker their way back and forth across the universe when they’re not saving it in their usual messy fashion. Once more, a bushel of cutesy pop culture references is thrown our way, everything from Knight Rider (not to worry, David Hasselhoff shows up) to an appearance by Sylvester Stallone, and even a completely left-field reference to Mary Poppins. This time though, the vibe is anything but easy. We would would do well to heed the well-worn wisdom of Spinal Tap‘s David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel: the line between clever and stupid is indeed a treacherous one, and Guardians 2 crosses it repeatedly. In this current age of comic book movie sequels, you can also tack on an amendment: There’s a fine line between fresh and rote.
Superficially, the second chapter of the Guardians saga plays out on similar tracks as the first. On the run once again after his team steals some precious baubles, Quill and his confederates get their bacon saved by a handsome alien named Ego (Kurt Russell), who rides astride his egg of a spaceship like a cowboy atop his trusted steed. Ego has a bombshell to drop: he claims to be Quill’s biological father, which means that Quill is a half-celestial with the powers of a god within (“God with a small ‘g,’ ” Ego elaborates modestly). Meanwhile, some of the baddies from the first Guardians movie linger around the plot’s edges, awaiting their chance for payback. Quill’s former mercenary father-figure-in-arms Yondo (Michael Rooker), still smarting from Quill’s betrayal in the previous film, is on the prowl, as is Gamora’s half-machine, half-sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), who has a bone to pick. Or as she helpfully explains, “After I murder my sister, I will buy a warship with every conceivable instrument of death, I will hunt my father like a dog and I will tear him apart, slowly.” It all culminates in yet another plot to annihilate the galaxy, with our dysfunctional heroes forced to save the day.
Those slivers of story alone should be enough to power the movie — after all, the first movie had even less to work with. One must take the disease of sequel-itis into account, however, and Guardians 2 is both frenetic and bloated, clocking in at well over two hours. The strain is evident from the moment ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” saunters onto the soundtrack for the opening titles. Quill and his associates Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) are in the midst of a noisy battle with a giant tentacle monster, but the camera (and our attention) are directed to cute lil’ Baby Groot (once again voiced by Vin Diesel) as he jimmies and shakes his little booty, oblivious to the mini-apocalypse erupting around him. In terms of level of difficulty, the sequence is a step up from Quill’s “Come and Get Your Love” dance moves from the title sequence of the previous Guardians film, and about half as charming. The rest of the movie operates at a similar deficit. The best moments turn out to be reheated leftovers of what was good in the previous film, whether it’s Quill romancing Gamora with the help of a soul ditty (Sam Cooke this time), or ’70s rock underscoring a slow-mo shot of the gang striding into battle (Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” is this film’s lynchpin, although Gunn excises the song’s climactic drum-and-bass breakdown, a soundtrack offense deserving of forty lashes). As usual, insults, puns, non-sequiturs, and low humor proliferate, only this time the dialogue thuds along hard and fast, never relaxing into the loose rhythms of the first film — get used to punch lines like “I have famously huge turds!” It’s all very expected, and over-emphatic, and ultimately a bit tiresome. Even the musical cuts sound exhausted, as if the mix engineers were running low on Red Bull.
Rocket Raccoon: Are we really saving the galaxy, again?
Peter Quill: Yeah.
Rocket Raccoon: Awesome! We can jack up our prices if we’re two-time galaxy savers!
It must have been a conundrum for Gunn — how do you maintain the off-hand levity of the first Guardians, but move the story and characters forward? His response is to double down on Quill’s daddy and abandonment issues, whether it’s Peter’s relationship with his new dad Ego, or with his surrogate father Yondo. (Yes, two dozen Marvel movies later, and it’s still about absent parents and primal injuries.) As Ego, Russell has a pleasingly ambivalent presence — with his twinkle and submerged nastiness, you’re never quite sure where to stand with him — but his repartee with Pratt is played ramrod straight, even after he reveals his true intentions. In Marvel comic lore, Quill’s father has a more complicated backstory (as well as several reasons to cut his son’s throat), and while you can’t fault the filmmakers for going their own path, they miss the opportunity for a more juicy father-son dynamic. What if Quill’s dad turned out to be more of a love-’em-and-leave-’em intergalactic Lothario (surely not a stretch for Russell), or a haughty would-be emperor, as in the comics? The film might have found some humor and pathos in their interactions. Instead, Pratt is left to gape or scowl in confusion, essentially reduced to an overgrown adolescent. (His biggest line of dialogue: “You shouldn’t have killed my mom and squished my Walkman!”)
Rocket sums it up when he mutters, “You people have issues!” But Quill isn’t alone when it comes to soppy character drama; the movie puts everyone on the couch. Gamora and Nebula must resolve their sibling rivalry, Yondo must deal with a mutiny as well as his paternal feelings for Quill, Rocket must learn not to push his friends away, and Quill and Gamora must address their “unspoken thing,” or as Quill puts it, “our Sam-and-Diane on Cheers thing.” These subplots require finesse, but Gunn has never been a particularly subtle director, and the pace drags every time someone is forced to voice their feelings. Ironically enough, it’s the characters that don’t have to deal with growth who fare the best, such as Bautista, still a blast as the loudmouthed, literal-minded Drax. Although he’s asked to belly-laugh at the film’s jokes about a half-dozen times too many, he can claim half of the movie’s most affecting moment: the empathetic Mantis (girlish Pom Klementieff, outfitted with antennae and bugged-out eyes, like a refugee from a Tezuka anime) registers Drax’s sorrow about his lost family and sobs while he impassively stares into the distance. In a similar vein, Gillan is all brittle steel as Nebula, though her beef with Zaldana’s Gamora is settled in less than convincing fashion. And yes, it must be said, Baby Groot is pretty darned cute (even though he’s a clear merchandising ploy) and he’s used sparingly and well after the title sequence.
The film’s look is impeccable, at least; the spacey and spaced-out production designs and day-glo colors pop as well as they ever have. Unfortunately, we’re also bombarded with the usual hefty amount of CGI-generated doom at the film’s climax, as gargantuan energy waves threaten to engulf the universe. We’re also treated to homilies about celestial destiny and the power of family, and the future of the galaxy depends on utilizing or destroying energy balls. It always boils down to energy balls, doesn’t it? The first Guardians movie suffered from similar problems, but it also knew when to throw some cheekiness into the mix, like Quill launching into a dance-off with the fate of a planet in the balance. Guardians 2 dares to end on a more muted note, much like The Empire Strikes Back, which can only be intentional, given the father issues at play; if nothing else, Gunn has always been self-aware about these films’ self-awareness. But then how to take Quill’s final summation? “Sometimes, that thing you’re searching for your whole life is right there by your side all along, and you don’t even know it,” he says, without a trace of sarcasm or irony. Perhaps it’s a relief that the sentiment isn’t immediately met with a half-baked, snarky joke, but unalloyed, corny earnestness doesn’t suit the Guardians of the Galaxy, either. In the end, Quill’s mashed-up walkman is replaced with that newfangled thing called a Zune (“It’s what everybody on Earth is listening to,” he’s assured). Gunn might try fooling us as he presents an ’80s-inflected version of the Guardians’ theme over the end titles, but it’s clear that we’ve abandoned the analog world of cassette tapes for a colder digital future of endless sequels, where the cover song is never as good as the original item.