Review: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

James Gunn’s first “Guardians of the Galaxy” remains one of Marvel’s most enjoyable efforts. In a cinematic universe more defined by its restrictions than its possibilities, ‘Guardians’ seemed to break out on its own the most. It was a cocky space opera with an emphasis on adventure and humor, the few weaknesses seemed to be when it fell back on the usual Marvel film tropes such as an undercooked villain.

Full credit then must go to Gunn for trying something a little different with the sequel, which neither falls into the trap of carbon copy repeating its predecessor or falling back on MCU formula (for the most part). Instead, the humor and easy appeal of the first gets nudged to the back burner as the heart comes to the fore and a storyline is built around it. It’s a gamble, one that will yield a decidedly more divided reaction overall.

At best it’s a self-conscious personal treatise on troubled fatherhood, be it themes of absenteeism (Star Lord), abuse (Gamora & Nebula), or alienation (Yondu, Rocket), and all of it delivered with the subtlety of a Kree sledgehammer. It’s a film about fathers and sons in which the use of Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” is one of its more restrained moves – that’s how overly earnest it is.

At worst it’s a misguided misfire, a heavy-handed Pixar film squeezed into a lesser pre-reboot “Star Trek” film where the labored metaphors are too often made manifest. The great visual style and cast chemistry remains intact, but too much of their energy is used to shore up fundamental structural flaws that can and should have been caught sooner.

Pixar films at least rely on a brains trust of creatives to objectively look at a project – meaning every line and emotional beat in the final script is one that had to be fought for and justified. The film has to work not just for the overly emotional, but also for the most jaded cynic in the room as well. This feels like it has had no such vetting, and that lack of oversight at a script level yields a more overworked and uneven result which feels oddly devoid of the natural life, confidence, and energy that coursed through the first’s veins.

Some sequences and ideas in play are inspired – the perfectionism of The Sovereign is superbly executed and pretty much everything related to these gilded ethereal beings, helped immensely by a superb performance by Elisabeth Debicki as the frosty and spiteful High Priestess, is a winner.

Same for the unexpected combination of Yondu and Rocket, the pair’s scenes both apart and together keep the fun, energy, and inventiveness in the foreground and so easily come the closest to recapturing the magic of the first film. Both characters get fleshed out more and there’s some great work from Michael Rooker who gets to show off some real range this time.

The casting remains superb – Pratt, Saldana, Gillan, Cooper, Diesel, Russell and Gunn’s brother Sean Gunn all deliver good work even if their material feels either stuck in all too familiar routine or, in at least one case, their entire personality suddenly changes on a dime.

Dave Bautista once again steals his scenes and new to the action Pom Klementieff is never less than committed to her intriguing new character of Mantis. However, attempts at an amusing rapport between the two go beyond falling flat and into uncomfortable territory – comparable to a clueless college football jock incessantly body shaming a mentally ill and socially awkward young girl, hardly a rich source for comedy. Some more emotional beats between the two are more effectively realised.

No better example of the film’s over-earnestness and over effort can be seen than with both the soundtrack and the easter eggs. Both call much more attention to themselves this time around, to the point that Kurt Russell’s Ego effectively sings a spoken word version of one of the tracks and uses it to spell out his already very clear subplot. Tracks used take on a much more folksy feel this time, and while there’s still some great ones from Fleetwood Mac to ELO, other choices aren’t as strong and their placement within the narrative and dominance over the digital sound mix is certainly more jarring.

The easter eggs reach further and further back into Marvel mythology to the point that only a few will recognise all the faces on screen, even as they are clearly more signposted this time out. The highlights of these being the original ‘Guardians’ team members from Sly Stallone’s decent sized role as Starhawk, to blink and miss cameos from Martinex, Mainframe, Charlie-27 and Aleta Ogord.

There’s no doubt Gunn’s filmmaking skill continues to improve considerably with each effort, the polish coming off the visuals and design here gives the overall production a more lived in and smoother flow, and Gunn knows how to stage, edit and shoot action with a skill others take many more films to master. However, like the change between the first and second “Thor,” there’s more of a reliance on digital sets and action than the first and so the level of immersion is both better in some ways, and worse in others.

Certainly little of anything outside of the first half hour is seemingly built for real which makes it feel like there’s less at stake – especially in that last half-hour which mostly consists of jumping between shifting rock formations against a psychedelic ‘sky’ interspersed with cutaways to scenes from a remake of “The Blob” to serve as a reminder of a larger threat.

It all comes back to tone and delivery. ‘Guardians Vol. 2’ has a great big heart that hurts and asks you to behold its beauty as it shares its very specific pain with the world. However, Gunn hasn’t mastered emotional filmmaking beats as well as he has comedic ones, and the greater focus on the former comes at something of a cost to the latter. The film’s greatest supporters will recognise that it is quite overstuffed, while its greatest detractors will admire some of the inventive ideas and bravura on display. It stands out over some of the more routine films of the MCU, but whereas the first can still fairly fight it out for the top prizes, this is decidedly more middle of the road.