This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Sally Jane Black’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
CW: abuse, sexism
Somewhere in the depths of the awkwardly exposited David Hasslehoff story, it struck me that I probably shouldn't judge too hard, considering how much of my own emotional development has been anchored by pop culture. As resident hypocrite of this movie-blogging site, I judged anyway. This film's relentless pop culture motifs, from visual references to verbal, from soundtrack to storyline, infect every part of it. It's been said before that this is pandering to the target audience, and that's honestly all right by me, but it has a handful of consequences. Foremost, anyone who doesn't get the references is left out, no matter how hard they try to explain David Hasslehoff or whatever; while I don't demand universal access to this or any film, it can feel even more isolating in a film that is steeped in a very specific medium that is not universally embraced. A few references here and there, or some clever work incorporating pop culture into the plot, sure fine, but a film that feels like one pop culture moment after another stitched together just ends up feeling opaque at times, even though I got a lot of the references. The other is that it interferes with some of the better moments of the film, especially when you don't share the love--i.e., not giving a damn about Pac-Man means seeing the corny effects in the climatic fight just got in the way of the action. The other issue is that pop culture is often very bad at emotion. It's shallow and corny, and while this film wasn't really aiming higher than that, it easily could have.
The central idea here is about what makes a family. It sets up three kinds of fathers: tough love fathers, absentee fathers, openly abusive fathers. This could theoretically be interesting, except the "tough love" it describes is undeniably abusive and, as mentioned above, the emotional narrative is hampered by its intentional shallowness. Yondu's storyline is kinda horrifying, really, but the part that left me most disturbed was watching him murder people who he claimed as family not too long before. That they betrayed him is a valid objection, but his merciless slaughter is disquieting all the same. I get that these are supposed to be antiheroes and that Yondu is a villain-being-redeemed, but this is a bit much. That he serves as the role model for Quill bodes ill for how they depict his future relationships. The other two kinds of fathers are shown as equally horrifying, one villainously selfish, the other unnervingly cruel. (There are fathers who are unable to be there for their kids for complicated and/or valid reasons, and honestly, if you don't want to be in your kid's life, I am not above suggesting they might be better off without your callous ass in it, but the sort of megalomaniacal paternity depicted here is def. the latter.) (Funnily enough, the absentee father is present on screen in this while the other is not.) Anyway, while the shallow exploration of the damage done to the characters by their respective fathers was not as fully explored as I would have liked, it more or less managed not to fuck up the latter two kinds of fatherhood being explored. Both ultimately contrasted the "chosen family" theme of the series and drove the characters emotionally closer together--and hinted at narratives to come.
(As a further contrast about family lines, the other major antagonist present is a world of eugenicists.)
I noted to a friend after watching that I appreciated that it did not spend the whole time objectifying Gamora, and I was surprised to note that the film actually avoided visually objectifying any of them women. However, it did spend an inordinate amount of time mocking and deriding Mantis's looks in a way that was offensive and cruel. The film also, of course, had the only black woman in the main cast doused in green paint, continuing the blockbuster trend of hiding people of color when they do give them central roles; this complaint was made about the first film by better spoken writers than myself. (No, I do not want to hear your objections to this about the race of Bradley Cooper.) There were also moments that came off as ableist or sexist in other ways, much as there inevitably tends to be in American blockbusters. It has all of Hollywood's flaws right there, far too loud and noisy and full of cruelty.
But it's also bright and colorful in a way that truly surprised me. There's a moment where Gamora is sitting in a field of flowers and warmth, and she's in the lower right corner of the screen, letting the whole frame just be full of wonder and prismatic glory and open space. It's a beautiful shot for a film obsessed with fiery explosions, rapid editing, and cosmic viscera; the whole world she's on is full of beauty for a brief time. It's one of the rare moments films like this actually use the incredible resources at their disposal to show us something worth seeing, to show us something we could not see in the day-to-day. To show us something alien and strange but artful and stupendous. Eventually, all of this is squandered in badly crafted action sequences that are disorienting, overlong, and devoid of suspense. (I have to note that I did laugh until I hurt during the montage of Groot trying to get the fin. I cannot explain my sense of humor.) Despite the informed characterization, though, the plot was probably the strongest feature of the film, besides the excoriation of selfish entitlement in the form of the main villain. It manages to fit quite a bit in that builds on what was promised in the previous film. While it does feel somewhat like a sidetrip away from some grander storyline, it still comes around to something vast and cosmic in scale.