7.5 out of 10
Chris Pratt as Peter Quill / Star-Lord
Directed by James Gunn
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Review #2:
Beware cultural touchstones. They can hold such a place in the collective imagination that whenever anything even remotely related arrives, the urge becomes irresistible to make a connection. This usually results in the work being either unfairly knocked for not being one of those touchstones or transmogrified in the imagination to fit the preconceived notion. It’s particularly true for genre films where every sci-fi action sequel becomes ‘the series’ Empire Strikes Back, whether it fits or not. Beware cultural touchstones.
Most of the time, a follow-up reveals not the most influential film in an oeuvre but the preoccupations of the maker. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is not the series’ The Empire Strikes Back because it’s not trying to be. It’s a petri dish for writer/director James Gunn to experiment with the idea of family as a construct.
It’s been the core driver of Peter Quill’s life (Pratt) even if he hasn’t always been aware of it, which means it’s pretty much the only thing Vol. 2 is interested in. Having gone out into the universe after the death of his mother, Peter has spent the last 35 years trying to replicate the feeling of security family brings, either through artifacts of his past or increasingly through actual interpersonal connections which replicate it.
Like almost every modern action adventure ensemble from Star Trek to superheroes, the Guardians of the Galaxy stay together not from any sort of shared ethos or survival requirements. It’s because they (theoretically) can be counted on for understanding and acceptance regardless of any members’ individual peccadillos, be it Rocket’s larceny, Drax’s tactlessness or Gamora’s inability to dance.
Whether that’s true or an illusion they’ve all been sharing is put to the test when Peter’s mysterious father – the errant space god Ego (Russell) – arrives to take him away from the Guardians and revitalize their relationship.
This naturally puts Quill front and center of everything going on in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and that’s generally a good thing. His arrested development – unwilling to grow up because doing so would mean admitting his biological family is gone and he must forge a new one – was a perfect fit for Pratt’s skills and that remains true in Vol. 2.
The focus on childish impulses makes for a strange dichotomy with his occasional attempts at adult interaction, appearing mainly in the form of trying to develop a relationship with Gamora (Saldana). In part that’s because everyone else is stuck in the same loop Quill is in, because just to make sure we get the heart of the matter, the focus on family, both text and subtext, is repeated as many times as possible (more on this in a second).
While Quill tries to re-engage with his long-absent father, Rocket (Cooper) is stuck in a jail cell with intergalactic outlaw Yondu (Rooker) so that they can both lament on how their bad choices in life have caught up with them, while Gamora tries to come to a rapprochement with her sister Nebula (Gillan) using giant machine guns.
[Gamora remains the worst character in the series, primarily because she exists to define other people – Quill and Nebula – instead of herself].
How well does any of that work? Let’s put it this way, the most consistently-successful characters in Vol. 2 are Drax and newcomer Mantis (Klementieff), the only two who don’t have, in Drax’s words, any “weird hang-ups.” Each is an innocent in their own way, unwilling or unable to cover up what they really think about the world.
What was occasionally shtick in the first Guardians has been sharpened to acute observation and many of the film’s best lines. Because he doesn’t dissemble, Drax is capable of being sentimental without sounding forced or false.
By comparison, the rest of the cast spends so much time mocking open sentimentality (and the many tropes Hollywood has built around it) that when they try to be truthful they sound like they’ve become the thing they were making fun of, and not intentionally. It’s a problem which is amplified by characters repeating major thematic revelations just to make sure the audience gets it.
If Superman made you believe a man can fly, then Guardians Vol. 2 wants to make you believe that trusting your heart is all you need and your real family is the one you make and a bunch of other stuff the Guardians would be laughing at if they weren’t the ones actually saying it.
When they’re not saying that sort of thing, though, Guardians Vol. 2 is often mercilessly funny, even if there is no moment of brilliance at the level of Quill’s Dance Off of Ultimate Destiny. Like a lot of sequels, it’s ultimately a mixture of what worked the best in the first film (Rocket, Drax, Groot) and what interests the director about the group the most (family dynamics, pop music, taking the piss from space opera) with a smattering of elements that should be dumped but can’t be (Gamora).
Its fundamentally inward focus leaves it with little narrative drive, which causes some finger tapping in the second act and some difficult maneuvering to create a finale which can sustain every character in the third. But most of that sort of thing worked the first time around and it still does here. It never leaps beyond its initial premise the way, for instance, Captain America has, but Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is still willing to go places other sci-fi adventures fear to tread.
It is not the series’ The Empire Strikes Back, not by any stretch of the imagination, and trying to view it that way will leave you watching a different movie than Gunn has made. But it’s still a worthy piece of summer diversion and that sort of thing is much harder to do than it seems.[Gallery not found]