Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2: Actually Fun This Time

guardians of the galaxy vol 2Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Directed by James Gunn
Opens May 5

“I’m gonna make some weird shit,” says Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) upon learning that he has inherited some pretty major world-building powers from his long-lost god father (note the space), played by Kurt Russell. Quill, an intergalactic thief turned hero also known as Star-Lord, then describes a statue of Pac-Man. This is the Star-Lord aesthetic in a nutshell: ’80s-kid references that are supposed to be “weird” and “random” because they happen in the middle of a space opera. A statue of Pac-Man isn’t that weird. Liking extremely popular songs from the ’70s and ’80s isn’t that quirky. And deadpan jokes about David Hasselhoff, while admirably committed, were conquered by Norm MacDonald circa 1995 (there’s a ’90s-kid reference for you). Accordingly, Guardians of the Galaxy, the first movie starring Peter Quill and his band of space-bandit misfits, was only offbeat on the margins, with plenty of room for obvious jokes alongside the good ones. Entertaining as it is, it’s also the kind of bold originality beloved principally by people who mostly go see other big-budget comic book movies.

It turns out, though, that Guardians of the Galaxy mastermind James Gunn really does want to make some weird shit. His sequel, labeled Vol. 2 after a series of cassette mixes beloved by Star-Lord and handed down to him by his mother back on Earth (before she died of cancer), has already been damned with faint raves: lots of fun, so likable, but not quite as fresh as the original. Yet to my eyes, Guardians Vol. 2 is a better, more satisfying movie, and despite its supposed sequelitis stands alone better than almost any other recent entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The original counterbalanced its lightness with universe-building business, some of which pays off here, and the rest of which will probably turn up in an unwieldy sequel to this or some other movie down the line. But the sequel itself, like last summer’s Star Trek Beyond, feels refreshingly like its own deal, taking advantage of its characters’ familiarity but not relying on a bunch of mythology homework.

Part of its improvement is, perhaps, counterintuitive: The story takes Pratt’s Star-Lord both out of the heaviest action and out of the punchline business for at least a third of its running time. Pratt is a charming guy, but comedically he has yet to improve upon Andy Dwyer, the slightly chubby goofbro he played on Parks and Recreation for seven seasons. His Star-Lord lines often sound substantially sitcommier than, say, one of the best ad-libs in TV comedy history, so it’s not much of a drag to sideline him as he connects with Ego (Russell), the ultra-powerful father he never knew. On a mostly uninhabited planet of Ego’s making, father and son share some intergalactic catch, while the stoic Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and fearsome Drax (Dave Bautista) cool their jets and make small-talk with Ego’s assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Meanwhile, Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and baby-fied tree-person Groot (voice nonetheless provided by Vin Diesel) work to repair the Guardians’ ship and fight off various groups that want their heads, including a faction of Ravagers, once led by Yondu (Michael Rooker).

Readers, it’s a lot. But the space-opera muchness feels lighter on its feet this time around. Characters whose introductions felt tedious last time, like the similarly blue-skinned Yondu and Nebula (Karen Gillan), the furious sister of Gamora, have more interesting stuff to do. There’s even room for supporting antagonists like Elizabeth Debicki, playing an alien leader with shiny gold haughtiness, and brief visits to locations like a planet that looks like a cross between Hoth and Amsterdam’s red-light district. Sylvester Stallone is in this thing, too, though a formal Tango & Cash reunion is one kitsch reference left unexplored.

At his best, Gunn pushes the extremes of his sci-fi environments into psychedelia that coexists perfectly with his visual jokes. The opening credit sequence puts that out front (though not before the standard uninspired MCU prologue), using out-of-focus background space and 3D to give Baby Groot a winning, delightful showcase as explosions go off like confetti in a massive space-creature battle. Not soon after, Gunn pulls back the curtains on a giant space battle to reveal arcade-like roots, both funny and weirdly logical.

For all of Gunn’s playfulness and facility with funny exchanges during tense moments, he’s strangely ill at ease with the actual mechanics of simpler dialogue scenes. When multiple characters have to inhabit the same room for a few minutes at a time, Gunn—like plenty of other MCU filmmakers—gets antsy with all his coverage, pointlessly cutting to wide shots for a few seconds, as if nervous about fanboys’ attention spans. On a bigger canvas, his confidence swells: Late in the movie, there’s an action moment with Gamora and Nebula that uses wide shots beautifully, playing out with relatively few close-ups—it almost looks like the kind of cool concept art that’s more stylized than what winds up in the movie.

I wish the MCU thematic concerns—daddy issues, teamwork as the building block of a surrogate family—weren’t so recurrent, and instead could match the invention of the series’ funniest comic moments or wildest designs. Having Drax, a bald tough guy prone to inappropriate belly laughs, intone that the Guardians aren’t friends, they’re family, lands somewhere between obliviously derivative and outright trolling of poor Vin Diesel, who’s explained that family thing so many times over in his Fast and Furious series. A subplot with Yondu has surprising depth, but Gunn overplays his hand, dragging out moments when a few concise emotional hits would do.

The emotional overkill matches the climactic action which, as ever, gets busier and noisier than necessary in the final stretch. Gunn doesn’t have the mischievous command of action choreography to make the all-out multi-plane spectacular he seems to be chasing—the final half-hour of Temple of Doom or Attack of the Clones, say, or pretty much all of Mad Max: Fury Road. The cutaways to disaster-movie gunk threatening to overtake different planets (Earth included) are especially non-productive (you can see the producers nodding approvingly: “For scope!”). But even here there are wonderfully bizarre sights, like characters summoning their powers to create avatars out of rocks, and scenes that, like that credits sequence, leave the spectacle to the background as the characters bicker and stall. I found Guardians of the Galaxy occasionally a little smug about the amount of fun it presumed to be giving its audience. In its actually-fun, actually-weird, sometimes overblown way, Vol. 2 relaxes.