Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ★★★½

2017 Ranked
Seen in Theaters

The sequel to the only Marvel film that I have loved was a prospect that I was very much looking forward to back in 2014. However, since then, Marvel films have gotten progressively more and more generic with the marks from the assembly line obstructing every image of the film. Last year's Captain America: Civil War was the first sign of trouble at Marvel studio with a made-by-committee checklist type of film that just fell flat. Doctor Strange, however, took it a step further and was a film made by both committee and focus group. The results were absolutely alarming. As such, there was no way I was rushing out to see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Part of it was fear that the Guardians would be ruined as well, but a lot of it was low expectations as demanded by being so underwhelmed by Marvel and the superhero genre as a whole in 2016. It seemed as though superhero movies were no longer something I could enjoy like everybody else with jokes I did not find funny and plots that were hardly worth my time. Fortunately, Guardians Vol. 2 somewhat changed that.

I say somewhat because this film is still littered with issues. The original was defined by its raw and unexpected parent-driven emotion, its sense of family, constant jokes, interesting worlds and planets, music from the 80s, and more. This film has all of that, but slightly worse. It lacks the originality and inspiration found in the original on these fronts, even while possessing the most inspiration and daring found in the Marvel Cinematic Universe right now. This film tosses in neon (akin to Drive or other neon-lit favorites) and barren landscapes (akin to Mad Max: Fury Road) to the mix after the moviegoer surveys received by Marvel advised them to include both due to how "in" both were at the moment. Blended with the rehashing and fan service from the original, the film certainly feels like a film that was made to be pleasing, but not challenging or unique. It is a conveyor belt film like Marvel's other recent output, but it is by way of director James Gunn. With a light hearted energy where the film knows how stupid it all is, the film somehow sticks the landing and is like a slightly shinier and more precisely put together piece from that very same conveyor belt.

Yet, though it sticks the landing, the film's writing does still often leave a lot to be desired. One of the most egregious missteps comes in the very beginning. Dropping us into a situation where the Guardians face off with some monster to protect batteries at the behest of a race of people known as the Sovereign people, the film then introduces us to the high priestess of those people, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki). With her first words being forced exposition about who the Sovereign people are even though the Guardians should already know that, the film not just tips its hand that these people will keep popping up, but it is a line of dialogue that adds nothing to the story and never comes into play in any meaningful way. They hired the Guardians to defend this battery and then encounter them throughout the film. Leave it at that. There is no defined need to explain who they are because it is nothing but unneeded exposition and in-your-face foreshadowing.

The film's in-your-face foreshadow is only foreshadowed by this awful moment of exposition, however. Once introduced to Peter's (Chris Pratt) father, Ego (Kurt Russell), we are bombarded by Gamora (Zoe Saldana) immediately warning Peter that he may not be all good. After wanting him to find his father, she immediately jumps past the honeymoon period and alerts the audience that there is more to Ego than may immediately meet the eye. Through not-so-subtle repeated mentions of secrets held by Ego and some mystery regarding whether or not he is everything he claims to be, the film continuously hints at a big twist and reveal that is forthcoming. By the time it arrives, Gunn plays it as if it were a twist even if it had been spelled out and fully outlined by the time it is finally revealed. Instead of a shock, it becomes a situation where the audience just waits for Peter and the Guardians to finally wake up and realize that Ego is not good. Though the reveal is quite nice with the mountain of bodies, the film's shock and surprise reveal about who the true antagonist is about as secretive and subtle as James Gunn coming out and saying that Ego is bad at the very beginning of the movie. Naming him Ego is also a major clue here, particularly with his cliche demands of the world.

This cliched demand to destroy the world and make it in his own image is one of the film's many cliches that really do hold it back, as is often the case with superhero films, particularly Marvel ones. Though handed a compelling villain, the film largely does not take advantage of him and instead just turns him into another "destroy the world" villain, which is a shame. As is often the case, the film also has a "love conquers all" message that kills him and is invoked by our heroes. These two combine into a rather tame and typical film that feels like a re-tread of any number of films in history that have either a "destroy the world" villain or a bad guy who loses because of the power of love. In all, it is rather bleh and an unfortunate blight on an, otherwise, rather solid film.

Furthering the film's weakness is a reliance upon poorly timed jokes that ruin serious moments, a reliance on awkward sex humor and penis jokes, and fart jokes. It is this running current of juvenile humor that holds this sequel back from being as funny or strong as the original. Fortunately, however, whenever the film ditches this low-brow humor, Guardians of the Galaxy is an incredibly funny film. James Gunn knows comedy and knows how to make tongue-in-cheek superhero movies with the film's absurd battle scenes and well-timed banter between the gang being the main indicators of this. As a result, the film is able to overcome its lame attempts at humor with genuine comedy that relies upon some well-timed visual gags, the aforementioned banter, or off-hand observational comedy that really hits all the right notes. Though the film may turn to Drax (Dave Bautista) too often for the comedy in the film, the jokes largely do work and have a really genuine and light-hearted feeling to them that makes even the misses oddly palatable. At the end of the day, this is a summer blockbuster that fully realizes it is an insane and odd film, so it embraces that with an undercurrent of comedy lingering in every scene. Films such as Doctor Strange failed in this regard by trying to balance serious plot development with awkward jokes that ruined the flow of the film. By playing practically nothing straight, Guardians of the Galaxy is able to allow all of its written jokes flow and feel like natural inclusions, instead of shoe-horned in quips, which have largely ruined this Universe.

As with the original, one of the strongest elements of the film is its depiction of familial relations and ability to evoke tears from the audience. The opening scene of the original is still one of the more shockingly powerful first acts this decade and is a virtual anomaly in superhero cinema. Here, Gunn is able to introduce Peter's father and all of the resultant emotions from learning the truth of his past. With strong relationships developed between Peter and Ego - summed up with the two playing catch, as Peter had always wanted - as well as Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Gamora, and even Yandu (Michael Rooker) and Peter, the film is one with excellently drawn out relationships that ring true consistently. As a result, with how relatable they are and how reminiscent of reality they can become, the film still manages to evoke considerable emotion and power that is still unusual in the genre. The film's blurred line of human relationships, where anger and animosity can be derived from, and the misunderstandings that can lead to confusion and fractured relationships, are nuanced and impeccably composed. Though they can be a bit on-the-nose and always satisfy the audience with tearjerking pay-offs, this simplicity can be excused in the name of praising the film for its uncompromising look at relationships of all kinds. It is never overly sentimental or manipulative. Rather, its raw emotional expressions are based on how real people would act and speak, which really gives the film a strong foundation and leg to stand on.

The writing strong emotional writing, however, barely scratches the surface of how unusually strong the writing is as a whole. Though it has shoehorned exposition and awful foreshadowing, the film really does not allow many scenes go to waste. Each scene builds on the tension, excitement, and thrill of the film with no moment included just because it looked cool. In Captain America: Civil War, scenes of Captain America reining in a helicopter or Bucky landing a sick motorcycle jump never advance the plot, but are instead highly pornographic looks at the human form or highly stylized but hollow action scenes. While Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is hardly an example of a perfectly tight film with no filler whatsoever, it manages to mostly use its action or dialogue to advance the plot. In the former, it manages to give its battles considerable weight and purpose while looking cool. Thus, they become not just vapid expressions of what the special effects team is capable of doing, but purposeful expressions of what the team can do in the name of telling a story or of choreographing an excellent action set piece. Similarly, the film's comedy and comedic flow never intrudes on the film with forced quips or awkward moments that never really do anything. Though, on the surface, some scenes may appear to be filler (Mantis displaying her powers), the film always ties them back and uses it for both character development and for laying the emotional foundation for the film's eventual cathartic release at the end. Though the film can often be lacking in subtly with regard to its typical superhero beats, it remains a well-written film that rarely allows a moment of screentime to go to waste or to not somehow tie into events later on in the film. Each character's action has a purpose and most lines advance the film. There is very little filler and very few hollow points here, both of which are absolute unicorns in the superhero blockbuster genre of 2017.

Visually, the film is equally as stellar with a shockingly astute eye for composition and style. While the film is naturally a special effects extravaganza - especially whenever the group explores a new world or in the gorgeous shot of them in a ship staring at the core of Ego's planet - the film still finds some purely beautiful cinematography along the way. One such highlight comes in the forest as Rocket (Bradley Cooper) fights off the ravagers. With the green darkness of the forest surrounding them with a light pouring through the trees, the CGI on display takes a backseat to the simple beauty of the moment, which Gunn is almostly certainly aware of with the camera not moving at all once it finds that shot of the light pouring through the trees. Instead, it is stationery, allowing us to soak in the simple beauty of the moment while Rocket fights off two attackers and recovers after the battle. Later, however, the film finds its peak with a shot of Gamora sitting on the terrain of Ego's planet. Placing her on the far left of the frame, the camera is able to soak in the Mad Max esque orange wasteland of the planet with the light blue sky creating a gorgeous contrast. Highlighting a keen sense of placement and framing like few superhero movies have demonstrated over the years, this shot is the very pinnacle of the film visually, even amidst the parade of beautiful lights and CGI effects. That is not to say the CGI is not beautiful, however. In the film's final sequence, a funeral, we see various bright lights and pretty colors that create a visually stunning and emotionally powerful moment. Though the light bubbles floating up to the camera is too reminiscent of the first film when Groot (Vin Diesel) sacrifices himself for his friends, the scene as a whole is a gorgeously composed moment that packs a visual and emotional punch.

Thematically, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is unexpectedly compelling. In the original film, we are introduced to the fact that Peter's father was from another world. Here, we learn that it is Ego, a Celestial god. Immediately, parallels begin to make themselves clear between the story of God and Jesus. Though Ego clarifies that he is a god with a lower-cased "g", the similarities are still quite stark and intentional. With Ego creating a planet out of himself akin to how God made man in his own image, Ego sought to find meaning and tried to create a child. As a result, on Earth, he impregnates a woman who gives birth to a son. Destined for greatness as half-god, half-man, Peter is the savior of the world as demonstrated in both films. He preaches love, understanding, and sacrifices himself to save the world at any cost with him putting his life on the absolute line both times without hesitation. Where the film diverges, however, is rather compelling. For one, Peter is not sent to Earth to save humanity. Instead, Ego creates children in the name of destroying the world. Second, Peter does not sacrifice himself. Instead, Yandu (Michael Rooker) sacrifices himself to save Peter. Both are rather noteworthy and, though the latter can be explained by needing Peter to have the series continue on at all, the former's explanation is found in the differentiation between "God" and "god". By clarifying the difference, Gunn assures viewers that there is a God in this universe, making Ego not exactly God, but rather just a god. Out of a need to copy this one true God, he seeks to create a son to preside over the world with himself. Similar to God, he procreates a son with a being from another world in order to get that son. Except, as his intentions were not pure and were to not save humanity like his son's, his son turns against him and exposes him for the cruel god that he was. Thus, though the film creates parallels between Ego and Peter and God and Jesus, Gunn shows the difference between absolute good and absolute evil quite clearly in the results of both deities progeny and the realization of their destinies. The film's religious themes further reveal themselves in the world of the Sovereign people. With Ayesha being called a high priestess - a mostly pagan term - she becomes a natural enemy of the Jesus-like Peter and his fellow saviors of humanity. Turning her and her people - perfected embracers of stem cells, selective pregnancies, and abortion - into villains is a natural progression from the series' development of Peter as the aforementioned savior of humanity. In a post-credits scene, the reveal that Ayesha has a new machine named "Adam" only further screams out the film's great religious focus with this "Adam" most likely marking the creation of a new item that can be corrupted.

A thrilling, funny, and mostly inspired sequel to the best film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 may not be an excellent film, but still remains firmly in the "good" category. Its rehashing of the original's strengths, low-brow humor, and on-the-nose "foreshadowing", all hold the film back, but it still manages to mostly overcome those problems with strokes of genius. Its rather strong writing and sense of emotion coupled with gorgeous visuals allow the film to show the most ambition and inventiveness found thus far in the Universe and rise above the megastudio's recent missteps in the superhero genre. That said, the constant nostalgia namedrops and rehashing of what made the first film work so well are concerning and need to be fine tuned in the third film. Should it similarly just copy what this and the first one work while referencing old music and television shows constantly, the film will likely fall firmly into mediocre territory, especially with many of the series' emotional touch-points having already been broached and explored, leaving the film with no out should its nostalgic fan service fall flat.

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