It goes without saying that Marvel’s unlikely 2014 outing with an obscure and eclectic band of space misfits proved much more popular than anyone could have anticipated. A true dice-roll of a film, it married the offbeat sensibilities of James Gunn to a 70s soundtrack, Marvel worldbuilding, and a Star Wars sensibility. The rest, as they say, is history, and from success Hollywood invariably births a sequel. Here we are.
I’m done burying the lede: this is a fun movie. Opinions will remain, as ever, divided on various issues – is there too much Baby Groot? Does the film continue Marvel’s questionable track record on handling its female characters? Is the theme hammered home too bluntly and repeatedly?
Ultimately, I feel, a lot of your takeaway comes down to what you expected this film to be – and perhaps more importantly, what you believed the first film to be. I’ve noticed a sort of disconnect among many, myself included, between the memory of Guardians of the Galaxy and what the film actually contains. I remember a kinetic, colorful, witty space opera with a 70s soundtrack, and while those adjectives do show up time and again, a recent rewatch with a new set of eyes (a new viewer, that is – the same old peepers remain in place, never fear) exposed stretches of the film that are colorless, stultifying, and somewhat limp or dry.
That’s when I remember that I fell asleep at the theater during the first film.
Yes, there are merits of a sort to the climactic descent of the Dark Aster upon Xandar, it’s just… there are few reasons to really care, and the backloading of character moments and the esprit-de-corps that the film wants to sell us bogs down what should be important narrative development of the Guardians in a sludge of action sequences that are painfully forgettable. For the life of me I couldn’t tell you the name of Djimon Hounsou’s character without looking it up, and I have no idea why the characters are fighting him – nor, particularly, which ones did, or how that played out for him. I shall assume that, as the Guardians are back for a sequel and Hounsou is not, he got the short end of the stick in that particular encounter.
Let’s step around the first film for a bit and talk about the second. From the top this film establishes a desire to be brighter and more colorful, as an audience chamber filled with golden-skinned aliens helps make clear. We have individual narrative arcs for the various Guardians here, some looser or less intensely defined than others. Drax is contemplating his place in a universe where his revenge has been achieved (his first revenge, obviously, not offing the Mad Titan); Rocket is priming himself for rejection by undermining his relationships, lacking the more mature influence of an adult Groot to temper him; Gamora has a violent cyborg sister to deal with as they come to terms with differing perspectives on a shared ugly childhood; and Peter Quill, aka Starlord, meets his dad.
In case you haven’t seen the movie and haven’t figured it out yet, the theme for this one is “family.”
This is a movie that for most of the back half is just hitting that button as hard and as fast as possible, but it doesn’t feel tremendously obnoxious in doing so. Part of that is likely due to the multiple avenues taken on the theme, made easier by splitting the cast through the second act. If I may be permitted a small stretch, if the first film can be argued to focus (to some extent) on Drax and Groot, this movie gives more shrift to Quill and Rocket.
Yes, this means Gamora’s once again left out, and there are points where the movie has little use for her except as the contrarian voice of reason (aka the nag). That’s not to say her subplot is at all bad; in fact, I considered it particularly good. The larger issue may simply be that Gamora’s position in the group is that of the humorless professional with a flirtatious rapport with the male lead, whereas the rest of the cast gets to deal in some form of humor or other. I’m hoping the Guardians’ next outing takes the foreshadowed opportunity to bring her more to the forefront.
Let’s talk newcomers: Pom Klementieff as Mantis has an entertaining rapport with Drax in that both characters are extremely direct and honest, forming a two-person Greek chorus of sorts as they comment on the foibles of others (and of one another). Kurt Russell is worth every penny as the aptly-named Ego, Peter’s father, larger than life in more ways than one. He’s got a lot to answer for, ably done with a series of scenes he sculpts as he lays out his backstory for his long-lost son.
The real reason to watch this movie, however, may well be Michael Rooker as Yondu. A side character in the first film, here his presence becomes more important as his contribution to Peter’s narrative arc (as we find out in the previous film, he was hired to deliver Peter Quill to Ego and welched on the deal) is explored, as are the consequences of that decision both personal and professional. Rooker becomes a major part of the heart of this film, connecting with both of the focus characters as he works to claw back a degree of personal dignity and honor.
Outside of Rooker’s compelling and often poignant performance (no small feat under a coating of blue makeup and shark teeth), nothing about this movie screams of any kind of ambition. Even the soundtrack seems more alive in its trailer (Fox On The Run is a great song) than in the movie itself. What’s improved here is the general idea that watching the movie should be consistently engaging and enjoyable. There’s perhaps less meat to the film than there could be, but it’s all extremely palatable, depending on one’s individual tolerance for Baby Groot and oft-ridiculous 80s references (I can’t excuse the Cheers reference, Star-lord should know better by now).
With better pacing, better antagonists, and a better theme, it’s difficult not to regard this film as a better movie. It should be said that I don’t think it works unless you have seen the original, so there’s a case to be made that the heavy lifting done by the 2014 outing makes it deservedly superior. It’s not a case I’ll be making; as an individual entertainment, GotG 2 blew out the theater with laughter and had an opening-night audience clapping cheerfully at 1 AM after two hours of high-concept space nonsense.
And this time, I didn’t fall asleep.
PS. Be advised, James Gunn has included five credits scenes this time, and is therefore a colossal jerk.