This article contains potential spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Near the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, hero Peter Quill and the film’s main villain are ready for their big fight. Before it begins, though, Quill angrily lashes out at his enemy: “You shouldn't have killed my mom and squished my Walkman!” This outburst encapsulates the movie in microcosm: It wants to get us hooked on a feeling of real human emotion and struggle, but also wants to instant-mix such moments with the safety represented by its jokey nods to 1980s popular culture.
Like director James Gunn’s 2014 breakout Guardians of the Galaxy, the sequel aims to make equal space for both humor and heart. Fans of its stellar cast—Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (voice by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (voice by Vin Diesel)—will find plenty to enjoy about this misfit space crew’s mercenary adventures.
But as Peter suggested near the first film’s end, he and his new friends accomplish “something good, something bad, a little bit of both.” Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at Vol. 2’s very literal fulfillment of this promise. When the filmmakers show discipline by focusing separately on the crew’s very human griefs, with humor that helps power these struggles, the film blasts off. But moments of uncertainty—especially when the story retreats from its own big ideas in favor of tiny ideas or distracting jokes—threaten to undermine the film’s own fun characters and original ideas.
In 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy explored new worlds even while following the standard Marvel Cinematic Universe formula: likeable heroes, superpowers, and a magic MacGuffin that bad guys want and heroes guard. Vol. 2, however, courageously disregards MacGuffin-driven drama in favor of trusting in its already-famous heroes’ relationship dramas.
This time, the Guardians, having truly bonded in the first film, are finishing their latest space-mercenary job when they end up on the run from their employers, the gold-skinned elitist Sovereign race. They hire Peter’s former adoptive father, the space pirate Yondu, and his band of Ravagers to hunt them down. Genuine thrills and danger ensue—and, impressively, it’s not at the expense of slowing down to take in the sights. Guardians eagerly showcases animation genius, not just in the photo-real Rocket and Groot, but the splendid backdrops of space and the organically built, gilded worlds half the crew visits for most of the story.
The film’s official description says the Guardians must “unravel the mystery of Peter Quill’s true parentage.” However, the mystery is actually solved within 30 minutes (having already been revealed by many Vol. 2 trailers and clips). Peter’s father, it turns out, is Ego (Kurt Russell), a “celestial,” or small-G god. (For spiritually sensitive viewers, he’s careful to de-capitalize himself). As a planet-sized entity with Demiurge-style creation powers, Ego has spent eons searching for purpose to his existence.
What is the chief end of a self-evolved godlike entity? Ego’s solution is genuinely scary, and very nearly pushes the story, as goofy as it can be, into the territory of classic science-fiction philosophy about the nature of humanity and our moral limits. In this case, apart from the wise rule of an uppercase-G God, even parenthood can turn into a perversion that seeks to spread evil across the universe.
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.
A little bit of both
Perhaps our expectations ought not be too exacting for a blockbuster Marvel movie about a baby tree-creature and a militant raccoon. But the first Guardians already raised the standards and showcased its makers’ God-given skills in harnessing off-the-wall-humor—even sweetly crude humor—as an energy source for likeable characters who struggle with sincere emotion. If its sequel errs, it does so by throwing these parts more randomly together and distracting itself away from the film’s big ideas—including the implicit challenge to the cinematic “friends are a better family” trope.
Audiences are loving Vol. 2, with an early screening score of a rare 100, and a current film reviewer “Fresh” rating of 81 percent. At my movie screening, audience response felt more subdued. I felt the same. The film, like its likeable heroes, struggles to find its own sense of significance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and its titular saved “galaxy” is left with little gravity or sense of place. By the story’s end, what is our response? Should we laugh or weep? Vol. 2 exclaims, “Both at the same time!”
I wonder, then, if the film’s makers could have instead paid heed to another old song, based on a Preacher who urged disciplined separation of these feelings: “A time to laugh, a time to weep … A time to build up, a time to break down / A time to dance, a time to mourn.” Perhaps Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 will re-improve this series by separating these moments, exploring its heroes’ humor and pursuit of purpose with “extravagant humility,” as Drax might say. Far better to be hooked on one feeling at a time rather than try to hook all the feelings at once.