Hello, everyone! I’ve written before in my posts about how I think Marvel movies have all become formulaic, heartless, soul-sucking cash grabs, so I guess it’s no surprise that the Guardians franchise has succumbed to that paint-by-numbers scheme too. The first film was surprisingly witty and heartfelt, and managed to make the origin story of a group of unfamiliar, oddball assholes endearing. Not to mention, the soundtrack was fantastic. Vol.2 also has a killer soundtrack, but the wit and heart are harder to find. There’s a great movie in here somewhere, but it’s lost amidst $200 million worth of special effects and a plot so familiar that even the journey isn’t very fun.
Synopsis: After Rocket steals ultra powerful batteries from the Sovereigns, a race of superior beings, Peter Quill and his gang of Guardians escape to the planet Berhert, where they are found by Ego, Peter’s long lost father. A “Celestial” with the power to control and create matter, Ego promises to make up for his absentee parenting and teach Peter how to control his godlike powers. When Ego’s servant, an empath named Mantis, warns the Guardians that Ego is not who he seems, the team must try to leave the planet and defeat Ego for good.
The Good: Like the first Guardians, the sequel’s visual strategy relies on humor and zany action sequences. The opening scene sets the tone for the film, showing an adorable Baby Groot jiving to the music as the Guardians battle an enormous squid monster. Even though the film is full of perilous action scenes, with spaceships crashing left and right and characters falling repeatedly to their doom, there’s never any substantial tension in the film. Director James Gunn maintains a mostly lively tone throughout the film, though he often zips between heavy emotional scenes and stupid jokes like a pinball. The stupid jokes are one of Guardians’ greatest strengths. Drax, Peter, Mantis, and especially Baby Groot provide most of the laughs. Aging Groot down was a smart move on the part of the writers. His “I Am Groot” schtick gets old when he’s bigger, but as a tiny, easily distracted toddler with a penchant for getting into mischief, he’s funnier and more interesting to watch.
The main theme of the film was family, which worked adequately in some areas and failed in others. With a theme as broad and well-trod as that, the backstory between the characters has to be compelling and convincing. For me, the only pair who sold their “family love” story were Gamora and Nebula. I wasn’t moved to tears by the sisters reuniting after years of a violent rivalry, but I at least felt something close to touched. Drax’s budding friendship with Mantis was cute, as was the parent-child dynamic between Rocket and Baby Groot. When the characters existed in balance, they were enjoyable to watch, but when they were all competing against each other for screen time, cue the headaches.
Of course, the film wouldn’t be a Guardians movie if it didn’t feature a standout soundtrack. “Brandy” is the favorite this time around, with Fleetwood Mac’s “Chains” doing most of the emotional lifting in the climactic final battle scene. Tyler Bates’ score was a sleeper success for me. At first I thought some tracks sounded too similar to Jeremy Zuckerman’s Avatar The Last Airbender track “Peace,” but I was won over in the end by those tear-inducing violins. I can’t resist them! Does Bates’ score distinguish itself like Dario Marianelli’s score for Atonement? Of course not. But like the film, it’s just good enough.
The Bad: As I mentioned before, the film sags with too many interweaving plots. The two main adventures are Rocket and Groot’s plot with the stolen batteries and Peter, Gamora, and Drax’s plot with Peter’s father Ego. That split is enough to fill two hours of movie, but Gunn layers on the overarching conflict with the Sovereigns, Yondu’s conflict with his Ravager’s crew, the Ravager’s mutiny, Yondu’s fight with Taser Face, Yondu’s conflict with his former mentor Stakar (a weird Sylvester Stallone cameo), Nebula’s conflict with Gamora, Rocket’s conflict with his identity, and a few more I can’t even recall. That is tiring to type, not to mention to cobble together coherently through editing.
Guardians fails to find a point of equilibrium between these competing plots. Building a messy web of subplots is one of Marvel’s favorite storytelling strategies, but at least in their successful movies, they keep their eye on the most important plot, the thematic center of the film. For example, in one of my favorite Marvel films, X-Men: First Class, the assembly of the X-Men, the CIA story, Magneto’s search for the evil Sebastian Shaw, Mystique’s identity crisis, and Professor X’s struggle to protect the mutants all get ample screen time, but the film never forgets that the central conflict is between Magneto and Professor X. They are the emotional core of the film and therefore their story resonates most with the audience. In Guardians, the emotional core of the film is Peter reuniting with his lost father, but when it’s thrown in with all of the other characters’ stories, it feels like an insignificant subplot. Sure, the audience feels some emotional catharsis during Peter’s ultimate conflict with his father, but I’m not positive that the emotional payoff wasn’t derived more from the swelling strings than the actual strength of the screenplay.
This genuine lack of emotion was a problem throughout the whole movie. The film tried to elicit feeling, but it was hindered by the Marvel formula. Focus on the action, the explosions, and the jokes, then smash in all of the character development and tragedy in the last 15 minutes to overwhelm the viewers into feeling something close to sadness. This film felt so precise and yet so messy, the action scenes planned to the very second, and the emotion dripping and spilling haphazardly until it’s brutally chopped off so the story can progress into yet another battle with 5,000 remotely piloted ships that can’t manage to destroy one measly little spacecraft.
As I mentioned above, Gunn tries to balance real tragedy, such as the death of a pivotal character, with zingers. Sometimes this strategy is effective in lightening the mood, other times it ruins a poignant moment. It gives me the sense that Guardians, and other Marvel films, can’t handle anything more complex than one tone. Except for rare exceptions like X-Men: First Class, Marvel movies do best when they’re either fully bleak or fully light hearted, not somewhere in between. This film would have been more successful if it stayed in the lighthearted zone instead of drifting precariously into bleakness. No one comes to Guardians to feel sad. We want to laugh at crazy antics, not feel even a tingling of sadness at the death of a main character. Keep the bleakness to DC and leave the feel good with Marvel. That’s what they do best.
Final Consensus: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 doesn’t have the heart of its predecessor, but it has enough charm to maintain minimum levels of entertainment. If you’re in the mood for quips and explosions galore, hit the theaters, but if you want something a bit more complex than “love conquers all” and “family is all that matters,” spend your hard earned money somewhere else. Like the new Wonder Woman. That film seems lit.