It seems impossible that mastermind James Gunn could strip down the already bare-bones formula that made 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy so popular, but he still manages to forsake almost all plot in favor of having a good time. The result: a $100 million, obscenely fun superhero movie packed with amazing visuals, groovy tunes, wacky action, and unapologetic schmaltz.
The pre-title sequence firmly establishes what a schlocky, over-the-top ride awaits. Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) dances deliriously to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while the rest of his Guardian pals battle a hideous space monster. To reiterate: a cartoonish blob of flailing tentacles fights the even more cartoonish CGI renderings of ridiculously costumed actors while a Happy Meal toy struts to a pop ditty from the ‘70s. It’s a disaster of epically cheesy proportions and yet it works. Completely.
The reason it works, and the reason why Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 will certainly eclipse the unexpected success of its predecessor, has everything to do with Gunn’s insistence upon character development. No one will argue that a one-dimensional roguelike Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) or a foul-mouthed raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) are ‘complicated’ characters, but they have clearly identified hopes, dreams, and fears that keep them relatable, even under the most preposterous of circumstances.
More specifically, Gunn keeps his focus on the family.
Quill is still obsessed with finding the father he never knew; a man he imagines to personify the epic coolness of Knight Rider era David Hasselhoff. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her half-robot sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) can’t decide whether to kill each other or have a hug-fest. Rocket (riotously dubbed “trash panda” by Quill) and Drax (Dave Bautista) can’t overcome their abrasive personalities long enough to let people love them. Even the blue-faced villain Yondu (Michael Rooker) yearns for acceptance after being excommunicated by the leader of the Ravagers (a jarringly serious Sylvester Stallone) for breaking their archaic code of pillaging.
Gunn wisely forgoes complicated plots and callbacks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in favor of lighthearted shenanigans. Indeed, these Guardians stand as an independent entity, more concerned with resolving their own internal conflicts than setting up future films. Sure, they’ll save the world when they have to, but they’d rather snipe and argue while battling the daily soap opera that is life.
Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) have a laugh.
This allows plenty of room for riffing and scenery chewing. What other superhero movie would interrupt an action sequence so the hero can find some adhesive tape or have a Field of Dreams game of catch with his old man? When Quill learns he has the power to conjure things with his mind, his thoughts immediately turn to “building weird shit” instead of saving the galaxy. All of these wacky flourishes may be delightfully unnecessary, but they’re precisely why this franchise remains the most enjoyable and fun of its kind.
While the new characters exist largely to further the minuscule plot, each also allows Gunn to highlight a different visual motif. Kurt Russell hams it up as Ego, Quill’s ‘celestial’ father. “That’s god with a small ‘g’,” he advises his awestruck son. Ego has created an entire planet for himself, though the garish furnishings are more indicative of an omnipotent 13-year-old boy. Ego’s questionable motivations set the stage for some audacious battle sequences, including one that features a pulsating brain at the planet’s core and a giant Pac-Man devouring space rocks.
Yondu (an oddly hued Michael Rooker), Baby Groot (a mini Vin Diesel) and Rocket (a fuzzy Bradley Cooper)
The Sovereign, a snooty race of golden extra-terrestrials lead by the High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), mechanically drive the plot forward by chasing the Guardians across the galaxy. That tends to happen when a sticky-fingered raccoon helps himself to your treasured religious artifacts. Gunn and his special effects crew design an entire legion of military drones for the Sovereign because, after all, there’s no need getting your golden hands dirty with direct combat. Each drone features ’80s-era arcade-style pings and graphics as remote operators try to outfox the raccoon pilot during numerous aerial assaults.
The look, tone, and sound of this world continue to be scrupulously distinctive. Colorful spaceships and dazzling planets, each with their own personality (one resembles the dreary depiction of Los Angeles in Blade Runner), create an original landscape that still remains beholden to the outlandish cartoon panels that spawned it.
Whether it’s Quill’s unjustified machismo or Drax’s inappropriate belly laugh, the tone stays refreshingly irreverent. The action is often in questionable taste, as well. Take, for instance, the balletic sequence aboard Yondu’s ship in which he gleefully murders dozens of opponents with his ‘whistling arrow’. There’s no blood, and most of the carnage takes place from a distance, but it’s still mass murder punctuated with slow motion and pithy tunes.
And oh, those pithy tunes…
Gunn outdoes Quill’s Awesome Mix Vol. 1 with a mishmash of genres and artists, some recognizable and others more obscure. He’s a DJ that isn’t content to play just the hits. From Parliament’s “Flash Light” to “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens, this eclectic mix of songs inform everything swirling around them. Even Kurt Russell joins the act, reciting a few verses of Looking Glass’s “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” to perfectly capture the essence of his character.
Of course, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t perfect. As mentioned above, Sly Stallone is brutal in his mercifully brief appearance. Sly apparently didn’t get the memo about having fun, which makes his dour performance noticeably out of place.
The film’s biggest flaw — a direct byproduct of giving each character a discernible arc — is a clunky denouement that nearly drowns in emotional epiphanies. This would be the ‘schmaltz’ portion of the program, for those playing at home. What makes this prolonged ending tolerable is that it’s earned; each character finds a satisfying solution to what plagues them. They aren’t healed so much as bandaged up until the next thrilling installment.
It’s clear that Gunn and Marvel were attentive to what made Guardians of the Galaxy such a big hit. Gunn replaces plot with spectacle, allowing his talented cast, glorious visuals, and funky soundtrack to tell the story. If Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t better than its predecessor, it’s certainly not for lack of effort.