This search for purpose also afflicts the Ravager captain Yondu (Michael Rooker), who has spent a lifetime finding the wrong purposes. Our first glimpse of the space pirate shows him finishing an apparent encounter at a robo-brothel and staring vacantly out a window. For a while, he obtained all he wanted: a loyal crew and apparent riches thanks to ravaging. But he went too far, even for space pirates, and his attempts at course-correction only worsen his life. He crosses his “family’s” boundaries, and they double-cross him. Here, Vol. 2 almost challenges its own suggestion that “finding a new family” can save you from your sin, at least any more than becoming a benevolent mercenary who incidentally saves the galaxy—twice.
Alas, these interesting character worlds to explore are frequently outshone by older, familiar, and safer terrain, including the notion we’ve heard from many movies (some from Disney or its subsidiaries): Your biological family may abandon you, but you can always join a new family among quirky friends.
In the first film, Peter Quill was abducted from his natural mother on Earth, but as an adult, he escaped his Ravager abductors and found a new surrogate family with Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot. Now in the second film, Peter is slowly tempted away from them by his birth father’s offer of a biological family and effective “godhood.” But the story doesn’t convincingly justify Peter’s temptation by, for example, showing any serious tensions with his new family. Apart from this, Peter’s lost-father plot grounds him on an artificial planet with artificial melodramatic gravity for much of the story’s runtime while our other heroes get all the action moments.
Peter is also stuck waiting for the inevitable Ego plot twist, which is horrible yet familiar, recalling Forbidden Planet and half a dozen seemingly paradise planets already charted by Starfleet. But the horror rings hollow: After all, Yondu himself acts similarly to Ego, but the story takes Yondu’s side for an over-casual, bad-attitude-hero-kills-all-the-guys montage—complete with theme from the film’s famous curated mix tracks. It’s a deliberate, disturbing collision with the story’s own villain condemnation: An eye for an eye, and a lethal whistle-arrow for a mob mutiny, don’t help impress upon us the heft and horror of mass murder.
Ultimately, then, Vol. 2, for all its shine and polish to get the formula just right, seems to neglect the wisdom of un-subverted, sincere moments in earlier Marvel films. In Iron Man, for instance, Tony Stark repents of his sins and (at least for a time) tries to change his genius billionaire follies. Thor is angered by injustice in his family, and Captain America insists on duty and patriotism. He and Thor even take turns chastising Tony for cracking wise during dire situations.
Vol. 2, on the other hand, builds up serious moments, then immediately tears them down, often with its own humor. The first film’s laugh lines, such as Drax’s metaphor-challenged nature, Groot’s distractions, or Rocket’s pranks, often drove its story and characters. Vol. 2 offers similar moments, such as when Drax innocently recounts the memory of his father’s boasts about Drax’s own conception. But the film often stops the story cold for mandatory Joke Times: mocking Drax’s bathroom output, calling out “comical” private parts names, or halting for its heroes’ banter while ignoring supposedly life-threatening crises. At one point, Gamora actually asks, “Can we put the bickering on hold till after we survive the massive space battle?” The lampshading only goes so far: It simply calls attention to ideas that may have been better left for disc-release special features.