One week after its initial release I penned an article on the importance of the first Guardians of the Galaxy film to the overall development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Among the gushing praise was speculation of a possible negative outcome of Guardian‘s success: Marvel may move so far into its established formula, while putting out so much content, that each contribution although entertaining no longer feels vital. In other words, rather than being the event films they were at the start, they feel like smaller installments to merely tide over until the next actually important event. We’ve already seen this effect.
Last year brought us perhaps Marvel’s best film yet in Captain America – Civil War and one of Marvel’s most underwhelming releases in Dr. Strange. While Strange has its fans, little argument could be made that it belongs either among the very best of Marvel (in my opinion: Iron Man, Avengers, Winter Solider, Civil War, and, of course, Guardians of the Galaxy). Strange instead feels like a film Marvel needed to make in order to introduce characters and narrative elements to use later on. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 on the other hand feels less like a film Marvel needed to make than one it wanted to, if only for the vast amount of money it’ll bring in and to continue momentum leading into Avengers – Infinity War. All of this is to say that while Vol. 2 is uproariously entertaining, it doesn’t feel vital. And what’s worse, it actually pushes toward some of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s worst tendencies.
Perhaps the greatest advantage the first Guardians film had over this follow-up was that no one really knew what to expect. Between the setting, the story, the style, the characters, and the cast, Guardians had as much of a chance of success as it did at spectacular failure. Obviously it didn’t fail. And it’s because of this that Guardians Vol. 2 has a much harder time of succeeding than its predecessor. Rather than coming in as unknown properties, Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot return as beloved characters that the audience can’t wait to see more of. As opposed to the high-wire act of the first film, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, follows the blueprint of Iron Man 2 in allowing the quality and acclaim of its predecessor to sell the new installment. We want to see it not because we think it’ll be an important story or novel concept, even in relation to the MCU, but because the first one was awesome and this one, being just like the first but with an adorable baby tree, also looks awesome.
There are moments in Guardians Vol. 2 which are awesome. There are also moments in Guardians Vol. 2 which are baffling.
Among its most awesome moments is the very first scene where the Guardians appear, and from which much of the material for the numerous trailers is taken. Instead of following the insane battle happening around us, the camera leads Baby Groot as he dances to the vintage soundtrack with only glimpses of an increasingly ridiculous struggle. The scene is truly inspired, immediately recapturing the fun and off-kilter attitude of the previous film, and it looks beautiful with Groot just as adorable as a block of anthropomorphic wood can possibly be and an entire rainbow of colors streaming through the background. It even establishes the new character of Groot as he chases down other creatures and the role of other Guardians with Gamora warning that he could be hurt, Drax trying to focus on the battle, and Rocket removing the fist-sized bug Groot stuffs in his mouth. Much of what works in the movie as a whole is on display here: the sense of play, (mostly) strong visuals, character interaction, and, of course, banter. However, this single scene also typifies many of Vol. 2‘s problem. Rather than allowing Quill’s love of 70’s music to be a fun and sweet quirk, it forces the song into the foreground with even the characters wondering why it’s important. Similarly, by focusing directly on Baby Groot to the literal detriment of other characters, this sequence signals that the film is more interesting in double down on the cute and fun moments and ignoring the substance of what’s happening around the fun. In essence, this first scene forces in as much as possible of what made the first film uniquely enjoyable, while ignoring some of the essential components of making a film enjoyable. The operative word here is “forces.”
Where Guardians of the Galaxy felt like a free-wheeling romp through the universe and its many weird wonders, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 feels like a filmmaker and cast trying very hard to make that same magic happen again (including maybe three too many slow motion hero walks over soundtrack). Rather than crackle with witty energy, exchanges between characters have an occasional sitcom feel with each awaiting their chance to deliver the punchline before moving onto the setup for the next joke and some of the running gags not being strong enough to carry through their numerous callbacks.
As well, while the previous film had surprising amounts of depth and nuance in how it handled character development, this second installment has absolutely no concept of subtext, putting every thought and emotion into words, including the “unspoken” ones, as though they’ve all taken on Drax’s inability to comprehend metaphor. Perhaps this is a feature of having a character who can literally absorb another’s feelings, but hers isn’t the lens through which we see the film. Such an ability is practically useless among a group of people who directly verbalize absolutely everything they’re thinking and feeling, driving the theme of family into our skulls like a handful of rusty nails. The story, while serving the theme, feels unsatisfying as the different threads would be much more impacting if given the time to full develop on their own.
Similarly, the characters that we quickly grew to love teeter too closely with becoming flattened versions of themselves, one-note jokes and stereotypes whose entire existence is to be one thing and no more. The effect of this lack of subtlety is that many moments don’t earn their emotional climax in the same way that watching someone cry is undercut by that same person going, “I’m crying because I’m so sad. Look at me crying. It’s all so sad.”
That’s not to say there isn’t a ton of fun to be had in Vol. 2. Many of the character interactions are quick and hilarious, the cast is still sharp in their characters (with a very nice addition in Kurt Russell), the universe is vast and beautiful (well, mostly beautiful), Rocket’s fur is particularly lush, Groot is almost too adorable, the film is overloaded with Easter eggs, and there are just as many absurd and clever twists as ever. I had a particularly fun experience being the only person at my screening familiar enough with American popular culture to understand all of Peter Quill’s references, at least one of which doesn’t land as successfully as it should, and at least one of which pays off brilliantly. It is, however, when jokes and emotions fail to land that we notice the inconsistencies and absurdities that the first film masked so well. Doubling down on quirk can lead to a ton of laughs, but it also exposes an emptiness underneath it all. As fun as Vol. 2 is, and is a lot of fun, it doesn’t have the same heft as the previous. It’s a snack in place of a meal. It’s an installment to push the series along, rather than a vital story which needs to be told. Which is exactly what I was afraid would happen with Marvel movies as a whole with the forced banter of Age of Ultron being the closest equivalent. Time will tell if this sequel proves as inessential and forgettable the Avengers one.
The idea of entitling the second Guardians of the Galaxy film as Vol. 2 rather than a number or one of the ever-popular subtitles works on the surface as reference to the film’s Awesome Mix Vol. 2. But anyone old enough to remember actually making mixtapes will understand that although “Volume 2” can have some great material, perhaps even surpassing the highs of Volume 1, there will always be songs that weren’t good enough or didn’t thematically fit onto the first mix. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has this same problem. It’s still more of the characters, style, humor, and action that we loved the first time. It’s the same sensibility which brought us Volume 1. It just doesn’t have the same cohesion, layers or surprise as the previous offering. It’s still an Awesome Mix, just not quite as awesome as the one before.