The first Guardians of the Galaxy remains my favorite Marvel Studios film, a jokey-but-not-hokey science-fiction romp filled with characters so warmly written you can’t help but to fall in love with them. That film pulls off being funny, exciting and emotionally resonant all at the same time, and it does so seemingly with ease. Its new sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, attempts to replicate the trick, with the same cast and the same writer/director, James Gunn. So why does what felt effortless the first time feel so damn forced this go-round?
You can’t accuse Gunn of not giving it his best shot. Like the Russo brothers’ incredibly well-received Captain America follow-ups, Guardians 2 juggles a slew of different characters, and Gunn attempts to give each one a narrative arc over the course of the film. Guardians team leader Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), has been tracked down by the father he never knew (Kurt Russell), a super-powered celestial being with big plans for his son. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is keeping an eye out on Quill’s well-being while also trying to deal with Nebula (Karen Gillan), the sister who wants to kill her. Drax (Dave Bautista) bonds with new character Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an alien empath keeping some secrets about Quill’s father to herself. Rocket (Bradley Cooper) works on becoming a better racoo…uh…anthropomorphic being with an assist from Yondu (Michael Rooker), who’s struggling with both being cast out of his own clan and the paternal feelings he has for Quill. I haven’t even mentioned Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) or the golden-skinned, genetically-engineered super species who want pretty much everyone listed above dead.
So, yeah, there’s a lot going on in this movie. The problem is, Gunn can’t seem to balance all the zig-zagging character arcs as well as the Russos are able. Rooker is great here, but too much time is spent on his fellow Ravagers, the band of space pirates that Gunn clearly cares about more than we do, as several of them are played by well-known actors in cameos. Meanwhile, Quill feels too disconnected from the rest of the team, with Pratt getting most of his screen-time opposite Russell. He has a “play catch with dad” scene that is embarrassingly literal and follows that later on with a CG-heavy throwdown that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Ryan Reynolds-led Green Lantern sequel.
Gunn also makes the mistake of thinking the Footloose gag in the first film was the funniest joke in the movie. (It wasn’t.) So this time around he doubles-down on the ’80s references, giving us a David Hasselhoff and a Pac-Man cameo. Both are eye-rollers. Even the ’70s music feels more programmed rather than seamlessly integrated this time. There’s a scene where Rocket has to ask the Ravagers if any of Quill’s music is sitting around just as a narrative excuse to have another action scene set to yet another aging radio hit. (And as for the film’s symphonic score, is it just me or does the main theme suddenly sound way too similar to The Avengers theme?)
Of course, it’s hard to totally tank this universe with this cast. Baby Groot isn’t in the film as much as you might think based on the advertising, but he is indeed adorable and always fun to watch. Russell makes for a great addition, and a bit with him at the beginning featuring Marvel’s de-age-ifying CG magic has me convinced we could absolutely get an Escape from New York threequel starring a 35-year-old Kurt as Snake Plissken, if only someone would pay for it. (Any John Carpenter fans win the lottery recently?) The Day-Glo visuals are again delightful and build upon the trippy precedent set by Doctor Strange last fall. I like Rooker getting more to chew on, and Nebula’s return proves to be a welcome one.
There’s a theme the film develops concerning the nature of family, of how those most important to you aren’t always related by blood and why the best parents might not be the ones who conceived you. That would make for a fine underpinning to the wisecracks and whiz-bang shenanigans, but unfortunately Gunn only pays it attention in fits and spurts. Maybe there’s just too much going on here. Gunn was able to serve multiple characters while balancing a couple of different tones in the first film, but, with Guardians 2, the juggling act looks a lot sloppier. To use a dancing metaphor (which I’m sure Star-Lord would appreciate), the song’s still catchy, but everyone’s rhythm is off.
Despite the misstep here, I still can’t imagine anyone making these movies besides for Gunn. There’s a distinct weirdness coursing through Vol. 2 that demands appreciation and that he remains ideally suited to providing. Look no further than the galactic whorehouse filled with other-worldly sex workers or the drone spaceships that are piloted by what amounts to a group of arcade videogame players. You’re not going to find these things in any other Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, and their inclusion here demands Gunn be given the chance to course-correct and fully recapture the vibe of the original film. Just enough of Vol. 2 works that it’s easy to imagine that happening. But if Vol. 3 also disappoints, I’m worried the dance floor might empty out fast.