Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

I didn’t much like the first Guardians of the Galaxy when it was released three years ago. But it’s grown on me, insistently, like some kind of extra-terrestrial parasite. As cluttered as the storyline was, as rote as the cosmic villainy and space opera tropes tended, as flashy yet merely competent as the action scenes proved, there was a simpler, rather nifty film in there amidst all the studio-mandated base-touching. That smaller project was rife with impudent humour and characters who earned their stripes as pop culture icons with startling speed, including the Bradley Cooper-voiced antisocial raccoon Rocket, the hulking but metaphorically challenged Drax (Dave Bautista), the cocky, perma-adolescent corsair Peter ‘Star Lord’ Quill (Chris Pratt), and the ferocious Nebula (Karen Gillan), exterminating angel and adopted sister to the rather more generic action chick, and object of Quill’s affection, Gamora (Zoe Saldana). Director and co-screenwriter James Gunn, who had already dismantled superhero tropes completely with his blackly comic 2010 film Super, rebuilt them in his own scattershot way. The first entry also represented an expansion of the spry but hitherto mostly straightlaced Marvel Films brand into big-scale sci-fi adventure with a big dose of smart-aleck humour and pop movie self-awareness, playing on the audience’s own cultural memory to make double-edged jokes involving retro detritus, like the tapes loaded with oft-dismissed classic rock radio staples that are Quill’s constant companions, and plentiful references to the kind of disreputable movies kids of recent decades cut their teeth on. The trouble was that instead of actually achieving the kind of fugue-state entertainment Gunn’s models seemed to enter into so easily back when, his film was reminiscent of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies in that it too often seemed more a monument to the idea of having fun than the actual experience itself. 

Still, it was hard to hate a film that offered a lampoon of Raiders of the Lost Ark’s (1981) opening tomb robbing scenes as a disco-dance number under the credits set to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love,” and where the pompous baddie was defeated in part by a few recycled Solid Gold moves. Vol. 2 sets out to one-up that gambit, whilst also suggesting the new influence of the mischievously distracted action scenes found in Guy Ritchie’s The Man From UNCLE (2015) - the Guardians’ rambunctious child, aka the tiny but maturing shoot that sprang out of Groot (Vin Diesel), dances, tries to eat bugs, and squabbles with alien critters, all as the focal point for Gunn’s camera, whilst the rest of the team battles a gigantic monster. Quill’s adopted father and pirate scum Yondu (Michael Rooker) faces down the spurning and blackballing of his fellow “ravagers,” led by Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone, in a sadly brief joke cameo), but takes on an offer from Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), high priestess of a race of snooty, gold-skinned, genetically engineered aliens called the Sovereign, to track down and capture the Guardians. Why? Because they stole a supply of valuable batteries from the Sovereign, who insist on paying back any insult with bloody constraint. But the real curveball this narrative saves for Peter and company comes when they’re saved from the Sovereign wrath by a mysterious spacefarer, a being who introduces himself to Peter as his real father – Ego (Kurt Russell). 

Ego explains he’s a celestial consciousness who has spent eons building himself first into a planetary manifestation and then a sentient, man-shaped avatar, one who sailed the cosmos looking for connection with life and just happened to fall in love with Peter’s mother Meredith (Laura Haddock) on Earth, explaining his emotional quandaries to Peter via the lyrics of Looking Glass’s deathless hit “Brandy (You're A Fine Girl).” Ego also finds to his excitement that Peter has inherited his gift for manipulating cosmic energy, manifesting in a knowing scene where reunited father and son play catch with ball lightning. But Ego’s companion, the empathic alien Mantis (Pom Klementieff), keeps dropping hints as to something more menacing lurking behind Ego’s bonhomie. Meanwhile Gamora is dealing with her own familial quandary, in the form of Nebula, handed over to the Guardians as payment for a job. She escapes and first aligns herself with a gang of mutineers in Yondu’s company who turn on their master and murder his loyalists, before then tracking down her sister and trying to kill her a couple of times. Yondu finds himself locked up with Rocket, who has grumpily taken his leave of his friends whilst they go to Ego’s planet, and have to find a way out of their jam with baby Groot’s scarcely-comprehending aid.

Vol. 2 of this saga is a tighter, funnier, more confidently animated beast than its predecessor. But that’s an achievement that comes with a curious price. The great opening shows off how energetic Gunn’s camera is becoming, and for a while he sustains a flow of gags and action and sideways glances at more serious business with such pace and dexterity that Vol. 2 threatens to be the finest Marvel film to date. But it slowly loses steam even as it cranks up the noise and spectacle, for reasons that take a little unpacking. Half an hour in I was grinning like an idiot, but by the end I was having trouble even remembering the start. The gang’s repartee and humour styles have become familiar shtick, like Drax’s constant guileless put-downs and his hearty roars of laughter whenever something mildly funny happens, as if Gunn is trying to outpace the more cynical audience members to the derisive punch. The day isn’t saved by anything as wilfully genre-ignorant as a dance-off; now we’re more fully submerged in traditional melodramatic battles and cliffhanger rescues. This means that the meme-like humour, like Quill’s encomiums to his imagined childhood father David Hasselhoff, feel present as a kind of reflex action, because everything else these days runs on such callbacks. 

At least this dramatic landscape has been pruned: now there’s only one faction too many to track properly in the story rather than two or three. Whereas the first film suffered from having Regulation Genocidal Villain No. 3445 driving its plot, here the relationship between Ego and Quill is the basic and essential lynchpin for what goes down, leaning on Russell’s expertly charismatic and poised performance to provide just the right balance of paternal appeal with undercurrents of smarm preparing us for the inevitable reveal he’s not Father of the Millennium material. Suffice to say Ego’s name is an advisory label, as he plans to use Quill’s ability to access the same energy source as him as part of his grand design to remake the universe entirely in his own image. Vol. 2 also wisely takes a cue from The Empire Strikes Back (1980) in splitting up its team to give various personalities breathing room. Groot and Rocket are stuck with Yondu on his spaceship, held captive by the mutineers, whose leader, Taser Face (Chris Sullivan), is singled out for Rocket’s most particularly provocative scorn. Unfortunately, the story these characters act out isn’t particularly interesting, and builds to a climax when Yondu, released from captivity, casually exterminates all the mutineers with his flying, whistle-driven magic arrow. This is filmed as a larkish moment but feels a bit ugly, especially as Yondu is supposed to be growing into a hero of sorts: his vengeance is justified, but, I dunno, kind of douchey in execution. Pratt, who’s had his leading man promise tugged in some dismaying directions lately, like last year’s Passengers where he seemed like a CGI simulacrum of himself, gets to push his characterisation forward here, as he’s called upon to show less dudebro emotions in the face of learning terrible things about himself – the moment when the penny drops and his long-guttering frustration suddenly gains a catalyst to become rage is strong. But he’s also had some of his humour stolen away, and his and Saldana’s romance remains painfully abstract, citizens of an eternal friend-zone demanded not by the story but by Marvel’s utter terror of turning off fanboys with gross kissy stuff.

Gillan’s Nebula isn’t just for me the best aspect of these films but is getting up there for my favourite character in the Marvel spectrum: she’s like Tom Hiddleston’s Loki but blessed with an unforgiving fierceness in both the character and Gillan’s performance that even he lacks, and which this imprimatur urgently needs more of. The edge of both sadism and masochism in her character is jarring and all the better for it – one of Vol. 2’s best moments, totally throwaway and yet likely to be the one that really sticks with me out of this moraine, comes when Yondu taps her cyborg limb’s power source to kickstart his spaceship, delivering the warning, “This is going to hurt,” to her breezy, flirtatious response: “Promises, promises.” That's what the Marvel brand needs, more S&M jokes. The trouble is, Gunn just doesn’t know what to do with her: after serving as narrative fifth wheel on the first film, here she gets more screen time, thrust into the company of the Guardians whose flaky relations so starkly contrast her own glowering, monomaniacal focus. She wants to avenge herself on her “father” Thanos and Gamora, who defeated her at every turn, a cycle that pushed along Thanos’ program of making her increasingly mechanical to make them more evenly matched. But Nebula and Gamora are reconciled in rather unconvincing manner and spend most of the rest of the film without much to do except dodge falling rocks. Instead, it’s Rooker’s Yondu who is nominated as tragic antihero, which is fair enough – Rooker’s gruff cracker drollery is grand, and not since Ron Perlman landed Hellboy has a character actor beloved for fare from far off beyond the pale had a better ticket to a big audience. But the paternal triangle between him, Ego, and Quill seems more theoretical than emotionally urgent, not least of all because Rooker and Pratt don’t get to share any screen time until the very end.

The superior integration of story and character also has a peculiarly negative impact on the inevitable epic-scale finale, because the Guardians are left without the right kind of antagonist to show off their skill sets. There's no cleverness to the danger or danger in the cleverness. We get the customary barrage of awesome special effects, illustrating a collision of story elements that leaves most of our heroes with frustratingly little to do except run around trying to stay alive, and the film’s wittier touches and appealing cast sadly get lost again amidst a barrage of noise and explosions. Several battle sequences involve the Guardians avoiding hordes of drone spaceships sent by the Sovereign, just as confused and eye-jarring as the all-too-similar effects in last year’s Star Trek Beyond. Gunn’s often ironic, sometimes plaintive use of his golden oldie soundtrack is, as in the first entry, always enjoyable but scarcely deployed with any real sense stylistic intricacy, and the project of casting new light on the kind of cheesy songs you’re not supposed to like is quietly betrayed by taking recourse in the obvious: when Gunn does try to entwine sound and image to grand dramatic effect, it’s to Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son”, one of the most recognisable hunks of cornball ever to grace the airwaves. This flourish helped clarify another aspect of these films that makes me uneasy. Gunn seems to want to restore the emotional texture of great storytelling, usually so wasted and phthisic in other blockbusters. But I got the feeling he’s pushing too far in the other direction, offering up a kind of life-lesson kabuki, played out in gobsmacked expressions and redemptive hugs and fireworks displayed for the fallen hero, becoming that most contradictory of concepts: sarcastic schmaltz. Again, I’m left with the feeling that here’s a movie I wish I liked more.

But then again, it might grow on me.

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