GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 Review
Director: James Gunn
Genre: Superhero, Action, Sci-Fi
It’s getting harder and harder to objectively gauge the quality of Marvel films. Since each one is a part of a greater, interconnected “universe,” and each builds upon the last, leading towards huge blockbuster crossover events, each then comes with a sort of built-in viewing requirement. However, this does not mean that each one needs to be seen, or even should be seen. As IRON MAN 2, THOR: THE DARK WORLD, and AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON have shown us, Marvel Studios is more than capable of producing duds and is certainly not immune to critical panning. That being said, some of Marvel’s best films (ANT-MAN, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) have always been relatively small-scale, insular affairs that don’t take themselves too seriously and don’t make a huge point of trying to force themselves into the bigger picture of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe.” Clocking in at 138 minutes, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 is Marvel Studios’ longest non-AVENGERS film to date, and is immeasurably bigger, flashier, and louder than the last.
The first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY was—and is—a fantastic movie, and stands as one of the best Marvel films to date. It was something that had never been done before—an irreverent, grandiose space opera as concerned with celebrating the pop culture of a bygone era as it was with bringing life to an endlessly large and complex universe. And it pulled it off. It was fresh, it was fun, and it was funny. The characters were unique and likeable—lovable, even—and they weren’t retreads of those in other Marvel films. The alien planet of Xandar and the numerous off-world colonies they explored all looked and felt like real places, and the various alien races that populated those locales were all fleshed out enough to differentiate themselves from each other by more than just appearance. And the stakes, while not having any impact on Earth, carried a sense of consequence and emotional weight. But most important to its success as a standalone film, GUARDIANS didn’t bother trying to establish itself as a part of the greater Marvel canon. It was a Marvel film, yes, but it was its own movie first and foremost.
The Guardians, seen wondering wtf they’re doing here
Enter VOL. 2, where writer/director James Gunn has taken everything that contributed to the success of the first film and cranked it up to 11. Yet, in trying to recapture the magic of the first, he has lost sight of why those things were magical, causing him to miss the mark in a huge way. With a budget greater than the GDP of most nations and the biggest and best VFX available, VOL. 2 crash-lands hard in the Uncanny Valley. There is no doubt that the de-aged Kurt Russell looks incredible, but it is troubling because this appears to be where the VFX teams directed the bulk of their efforts, as almost everything else falls flat. The alien worlds that looked so great in the first film are wildly unconvincing this time around, and the various critters running around look no better than they did back in 2014. The action centerpieces are jumbled and chaotic to the point of being incomprehensible, all-too-often becoming nauseating. And just like how Season Two of DAREDEVIL left me wondering how I could possibly get bored by ninja fights, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 left me wondering how such intricate, dazzling space battles could be so damn tedious.
The character dynamics are no better, either. Part of what made GUARDIANS so great was that its group of misfits and outlaws didn’t interact like, say, The Avengers did. They were rough around the edges, they didn’t play nice, and they bickered and took every opportunity to crack a joke at another’s expense. And yet their shift from adversaries bound by survival to an actual team had a natural progression. I can’t say Gunn lost sight of this in bringing VOL. 2 to the screen, but he sure as hell dropped the ball. Dialogue is canned. Exchanges feel forced. There is a painfully hamfisted thread on the importance of “Family,” (I knew Vin was in this movie somewhere) which is laid thick over every major character, but never manages to take hold. And, perhaps worst of all, the humor sprinkled throughout the first film runs amok, here. Jokes are rapid-fire and they rarely land. They are also very lowbrow. I’m talking dick jokes and a whole lot of dad-screwing-mom. It doesn’t end there, though. The movie firmly commits to the kind of slapstick visual gags and outdated pop culture references that only a man-child would find entertaining. As an artist, there is perhaps no greater sin than pandering to the lowest common denominator. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 doesn’t just pander to it, it wallows in it.
Touching back on the characters, there is hardly one that is further developed or explored from where we left off in the first film. Here, Gunn allows our lovable outlaw gang to stagnate—in some cases, regress. Rocket Raccoon is still an unconvincing-looking insult generator. Peter Quill is much less Star-Lord than another reskinned Chris Pratt-brand adventurer. Drax, the brooding Ronin of the first film, has been reduced to a one-note parody of himself. Gamora is still no-nonsense and tough as nails, but is now awkward and flighty, having been maneuvered into the same kind of noxious role as Black Widow in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON. She is, however, given some final (extremely clunky and out-of-place) lines in what I can only imagine was a last-minute attempt to dodge accusations of falling short in the so-called “Bechdel Test.” Indeed, she spends an uncomfortable amount of time pinballing around the screen with Peter in a protracted “will they, won’t they” scenario that was pretty well plumbed in the first film. And yes, it is every bit as soapy as one might worry it to be.
The worst offender, though—by far—is Groot (sorry, Baby Groot), whose brief closing-credits scene in the first film has come to eclipse his galaxy-wide reputation as a force to be reckoned with. Groot, despite being a dumb, monosyllabic tree-thing, cemented himself as perhaps the team’s most versatile member with the unique abilities he displayed before sacrificing himself to save The Guardians in the film’s finale. Well, Groot lived, because powers (and no death is permanent and all loss is meaningless in the comic book world), and now as Baby Groot in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, his new role is not to smash face or shield others from certain death, but to sell tickets as a pint-sized, exceptionally cloying bit of squee bait. A truly obscene amount of screentime is dedicated to shoving his cuteness (and blatant merchandising potential) in the viewer’s face, derailing the movie in no less than three needlessly long fanservice sequences that do nothing to further the plot. It is, in a word, masturbatory. It’s a bad joke that gets told over and over because the teller isn’t sure the listener got it the first time.
Me reading the comments section
Even the film’s villains are meh. (Although, to be fair, the MCU has always had a major villain problem.) Elizabeth Debicki is positively stunning as Ayesha, high priestess of The Sovereign, a genetically-engineered humanoid race who act as the antagonists in the first act. She does a fantastic job in betraying the wounded pride of someone not used to being crossed through her facial tics and nuanced gestures, and is easily the most believable in a movie overflowing with characters. However, The Sovereign race as a whole serves as little more than STAR TREK-esque background noise, harassing The Guardians while they try to deal with more pressing matters. The Ravagers, the nasty space pirates led by Yondu in the first movie, get a lot of screentime as well, but it does nothing to further them as real players. Despite being comprised of several different alien races, they all behave exactly the same—that is, dumb, rowdy, and crude—and they are easily thwarted at every turn. We do learn there are 99 other Ravager factions from which Yondu and his crew have been exiled, but it comes across as more of a footnote in an already ponderous story and yet another lead-in to a future franchise.
The film’s main villain is even more disappointing. Without giving too much away, our heroes face off against Ego, a nigh-immortal being capable of manipulating matter down to the molecular level. But this isn’t a cosmic-level threat from Marvel’s esoteric back catalog. Ego is handily defeated in the most dumbfounding way seen in a Marvel movie yet, even putting aside all plot contrivances, and the repercussions of his try at universal conquest are never really addressed. There isn’t even a single scene by which to gauge his collateral damage after all is said and done, as seen in, well, basically every other Marvel movie. Worse, the stoic, rough-hewn badass of Kurt Russell’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE THING is nowhere to be seen. Instead we’re treated to him playing a weird sort of audience-expected version of himself—an ersatz caricature plucked straight from your choice of overblown Quentin Tarantino genre sendup. (Those performances of his are, probably not coincidentally, perhaps most familiar to this film’s viewer base.)
Maybe Kurt has moved past the grit of his early career and has eased himself into a well-earned grace period, maybe he is right and the current crop of moviegoers “understands” what he’s been trying to do all along. Maybe. But considering how much effort was put into making him look 40 years younger and how he seems to be breezing through his role the way Chris Pratt does it raises some serious concerns. Marvel Studios, more and more, seems less concerned with acting than it does with slapping a face on a poster. And this, this turning back the hands on a seasoned vet, signifies something maybe even a little sinister. Much like the off-putting Grand Moff Tarkin simulacrum seen in ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY, we’re entering an age in which not only acting, but the actor himself is no longer quite so important. (Just look at Rocket, or Baby freakin’ Groot.) And for someone as legendary as Kurt, it could very well mean that a digital recreation of him could be paraded around long after his passing. (Although with Disney’s merciful decision not to do the same with the late Carrie Fisher in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI, maybe there is some hope after all.)
A truly bad Marvel Studios film is rare, but a great one is even rarer. Most, despite sporting eight-figure budgets, a veritable who’s who of big-name actors, and the absolute best of the best in the realms of prop and VFX work, still manage to miss the good mark, falling squarely within the average-to-forgettable territory. That being said, Marvel has done a tremendous job in elevating relatively unknown characters to A-list status. Who actually cared about Iron Man or Ant-Man before Robert Downey Jr. and Paul Rudd donned their respective suits? Who had even heard of The Guardians of the Galaxy before they were in a movie? However, Marvel has not had the same success rate in making unique, interesting films. DC catches a lot of flak for making bad movies, which they often do, but so far they have had the distinction of being actual efforts. So where BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE is a terrible movie, it at least knew what it wanted to do and what it wanted to be. This movie does not.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 is a mess. Not knowing where to take itself, it throws everything at the wall. It can’t decide if it wants to be a raucous free-for-all or a somber meditation on family and loss, just as it can’t choose between kid’s movie/merchandise vehicle or 40-year-old nostalgia bomb. And every time it gets too confused, there is a stopgap dancing Baby Groot or dick joke to distract the viewer, if only until the next script flub. In the end, though, it caves in to its most base desires, attempting to make a meal of the goofs and quirks that complemented the first film so well, the end result being an overwrought, wishy-washy, tone deaf farce that misfires on all cylinders. It simply tries to do too many cool, silly, and slick things, none of which it succeeds in. So when the ragtag group lead by a household-name actor playing himself finally does battle with the planetary threat they clearly are not cut out for, we are left slack-jawed at just how vacuous the spectacle really is. This is Marvel’s SUICIDE SQUAD.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend