Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: A Good But Lesser Sequel


Jacob Sykuta

The word “Marvel,” as in comic books or movie studios, has become a foundation of our culture. Previously, you could sit through almost every one of today’s comic-book movies and not find a whole lot to marvel at.
That’s where Guardians of the Galaxy came in. After years of overstuffed, “taped-together” films, it was extremely funny, exciting and well-made. It was spectacular yet supple, without a shot or sequence out of place, having an obvious devotional interplay among its crew of renegades that recalled the original 1977 Star Wars (it’s chief influence).
The movie has the machinery of a high-budget film making franchise but then again went over and above it at the same time. So the question of what Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 can do for an encore isn’t really, “Will it top the first film?” It’s more like, “Will it be as good?”
With every shot and every line, the movie is an extravagant and witty follow-up made with the same friendly virtuosity. Yet this time it is easy to sense just how hard the series’ director, James Gunn, is working to entertain you. Maybe a little too hard.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an adventure worth taking, and the number of moviegoers around the world who will want to take it is astounding. But it doesn’t so much deepen the first “Guardians” as it does offer a more strenuous dose of fun to achieve a lower high.
The film opens with the unintentionally disquieting image of Kurt Russell, digitally edited and enhanced to resemble his younger self, wooing the Missouri woman who will be Peter Quill’s mother to the 1972 strains of “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” Instantly, this lets us know two things: Peter’s memento cassette tape entitled Awesome Mix Vol. 2, at least compared to Vol. 1, is going to be more  ostentatious than tasty and the movie is going to be all about his issues with his father.
The exhilarating credits sequence then shows us the Guardians in action: They’re out to slaughter an oversized tentacle monster that has four sets of angler-fish jaws, but the battle gets shoved into the background — in the foreground is the giant walking tree Groot, now portrayed as Baby Groot (less than a foot tall, still growing back from a lone twig from the end of the first movie), as he bops and dances to the sublime pop camp of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” letting us know that this is a movie with its background/foreground priorities in the right place.
The first film was all about how the Guardians met and teamed up, and part of the beauty of that was that you could feel just how much Chris Pratt’s troubleshooting, ’70s-dancing thief Peter, Zoe Saldana’s green-faced alien princess Gamora, Dave Bautista’s splendidly stern tell-it-like-it-is, tattoo-carved muscleman Drax, and Bradley Cooper’s Brooklynese raccoon scavenger Rocket really disliked each other.
The witty remarks and the hilarious retorts of the first movie were the opposite of forced; they were part of the captivation of seeing this team come together out of brutal necessity. All of which made “Guardians” feel like something more than an origin story. Vol. 2, on the other hand, is an origin story. The Guardians are now a seasoned team, but the movie is all about how Peter got to be who he is.
Early on, there’s a stand-off between the Guardians and Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the Golden High Priestess of the genetically perfect people of the Sovereign. The Guardians enrage her by stealing a handful of precious batteries, worth millions, and she comes after them with an army of remote-controlled golden attack pods seemingly like an arcade flight simulator.
Yet she figures into the film only peripherally — it’s all just a setup for the next sequel. Ditto for Sylvester Stallone, altering his look and acting style not one slurry iota, as Stakar, a Ravager leader who turned against Michael Rooker’s blue-skinned bandit Yondu when he learned that Yondu was selling child slaves on the black market.
Yondu’s got problems of his own — his men, who think he’s gone soft, launch a mutiny — but the film really gets underway when Ego (Kurt Russell) lands in his flying saucer to inform Peter that he’s his dad. (No, that’s not a spoiler; it’s the basic premise of the movie.) Peter was always a bit like Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in one body, and “Guardians Vol. 2” would like to stand in relation to the first “Guardians” as “The Empire Strikes Back” was to “Star Wars.” It’s yet another tale of an overgrown space kid finding his father, and his legacy.
Peter takes his comrades over to his dad’s planet, and once they arrive, there is much back-slapping Kurt Russell bonhomie, but there are also cues that something isn’t right. The name of Russell’s character is Ego. His planet, which he literally created, looks like a series of medieval French landscapes posing as Led Zeppelin album covers. He acts out his past to Peter with mannequins made of porcelain.
Did I mention that he’s a self-proclaimed god who wants Peter to step up and rule the universe with him? You do the math.
Pratt, through it all, keeps his swagger irreverent and commanding. In the right role (like this one), he knows how to express disdain and exuberance in equal measure — in other words, how to play a jerk you can’t help but like. Yet it’s easy to feel that the conflicts in Vol. 2 are a bit rote, whether it’s Peter upping the ante on his feisty flirtation with Gamora (he explains that their unspoken bond makes them just like Sam and Diane on “Cheers”) or Gamora duking it out with her seething bionic adoptive sister Nebula (Karen Gillan).
It’s all impeccably staged, yet it happens because the movie needs it to keep happening. One is grateful for the comic relief, especially from Bautista, who makes Drax so literal-minded — and so up front about his imperious male gaze — that his every judgmental utterance feels spontaneous. As for Rocket, Cooper burrows ever more hilariously into his babbly hostility (“Hope daddy isn’t as big a dick as you, orphan boy!”) and the self-hatred beneath it.
The gods of sci-fi must, of course, be served, and the climax of Vol. 2 is exorbitant, rousing, touching and just obligatory enough to be too much of a good thing. Gamora gets to wield a machine gun the size of a refrigerator, Yondu gets to do ever more dizzying flights of damage with his loop-the-loop arrow of death and Baby Groot gets to be his adorable self, all while being angry and murderous. The person who turns out to be the film’s lord of darkness morphs into all sorts of liquid digital forms, and there’s an in-the-middle-of-space farewell between Peter and someone close to him that’s beautiful and moving. If only the film could have left it at that!
The difference between the first Guardians and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is that the new movie is flush with what a big deal it is. Ironically, although a fantastic film worth seeing, the high expectations makes it a smaller deal.