This sequel to Marvel’s space-hopping smash hit is all formula and no substance.
Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Kurt Russell, Karen Gillan
Released: 28th April 2017
Guardians of the Galaxy was the surprise movie hit of 2014. At a time when the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was beginning to look stale, it proved to be a huge milestone, reinvigorating the franchise and turning its lesser known comic book characters – a spaceman, a green alien, a grey alien, a talking raccoon and a talking tree – into worldwide stars, and its indie writer-director, James Gunn, into a hot property.
It was a big risk to take, but Guardians of the Galaxy had all the right ingredients to make it a success: comedy, action, high-flying space opera, quirky characters and an emotional centre. Three years later, the Guardians and Gunn have returned with a sequel that has all the same elements of the first instalment dialled up to 11.
Picking up shortly after the original film’s conclusion, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) are hired to stop a giant, tentacled alien stealing some batteries from an alien race named the Sovereign. When the mission doesn’t go according to plan, they are pursued through space until they are rescued, almost by chance, by a man purporting to be Quill’s long lost father (Kurt Russell).
Yes, all the pieces that created a winning formula before have been increased tenfold for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. This is not a good thing. Vol. 2 is not a good sequel. And, at the risk of being ostracised from the popular table, it’s not a good film.
The reason why comes from this trend in the MCU’s previous sequels – particularly in Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World – where they have to be bigger than their predecessor. Whatever worked before will absolutely work now and in the future if the producers, directors and writer just do more of it. In the case of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, that means doubling down on the comedy, the cosmic hijinks and the dysfunctional relationship of its protagonists. The film leans so hard on these gimmicks that any hint of genuine substance is suffocated.
The opening scene consists almost entirely of Baby Groot – remember, Baby Groot was adorable at the end of the first film – dancing while the other Guardians fight out of focus in the background; he does very little else during the film. Drax’s dialogue mostly consists of schadenfreude and belly laughs at inappropriate times. Rocket’s brash and irascible nature continues to betray his deep vulnerability. Quill is still Chris Pratt being Chris Pratt. Gamora is perhaps the only character to emerge unscathed.
These individual tropes are entertaining, but when they become more important than character development and storytelling, they quickly lose their shine. Any attempts at seriousness or emotion between characters are immediately undermined by a snarky comment from Rocket followed by a fit of laughter from Drax. Being battered over the head with this idea that Vol. 2 has to be a comedy, and therefore funny all the time soon becomes exhausting. It’s almost like Marvel are afraid of nuance or even the slightest notion of pathos in their screenwriting.
Similarly, the focus on Quill as both main character and the centre of a father-son story is an uninspired choice for Gunn and Marvel to make. Understandably, as the sole human in the team, he’s pitched as the anchor for the audience. A person we can relate to in a galaxy full of aliens and dangerous creatures. But his cockiness and freewheeling demeanour are barely removed from other MCU staples such as Tony Stark and Thor.
Quill is surrounded by characters whose backstories are far more tragic than his: Gamora was raised as a slave to her adoptive father, Thanos. Drax’s wife and daughter were murdered. Rocket was genetically engineered, experimented upon and tortured by scientists. Groot is a talking tree.
Of the above, Rocket’s tragic origins make him perhaps the best placed for some kind of solo outing, or at least a film where he plays a more substantial role. Cooper’s voice acting is superb, and the brief moments where he’s allowed to display some genuine emotion are a surprise among the banality.
That’s not to say any of the performances are bad. As has been the case throughout the majority of the MCU’s output, the casting remains impeccable. Michael Rooker’s role as the disgraced Ravager, Yondu, is greatly expanded, and Russell is an excellent choice to play Quill’s father, considering his history in sci-fi cinema.
But a great deal of the development for these stalwarts is rushed and underserved. The paternal bond between Quill and Russell’s character is dissolved as quickly as it is established, and Yondu’s extended screentime, while enjoyable, serves very little narrative purpose. It’s difficult to care about these events and people when their foundations are so thin.
This is the crux of the many issues to be had with Vol. 2. Whatever foundations that existed before have been almost completely eroded away. Characters have been replaced by archetypes; devices have been turned into tropes through overuse. If Guardians of the Galaxy was a gamble that paid off, then Vol. 2 is unfiltered formula in the worst way possible. And the MCU will suffer because of it.