Only a few minutes in, the sequel to 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy acknowledges exactly what place its brand of action occupies in cinematic entertainment. A self-aware title sequence showcases everyone’s favorite cartoon tree toddler dancing to non-offensive 70s rock (ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”), while his teammates/friends/caretakers/whatever engage in a massive laser/explosion-filled battle with a CGI squid blob on a platform behind him. Instead of highlighting each flailing tentacle or fiery explosion with the glee of a digital artist run amok, however, it’s Baby Groot’s small but sweet moves that attain prominence, the rest of the fracas relegated merely to an out-of-focus background, barely worth paying attention to. It’s a delightful start, full of hope that this space adventure will be self-aware enough to really go to some fun, quirky character places instead of putting on a meaningless fireworks display, but while there is some creative life and spark sprinkled throughout Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, ultimately the blow-stuff-up noise overtakes the interesting parts of the film, playing it blockbuster safe with an attempt at razzle-dazzle that rarely fails to inspire anything other than forgettable fuzziness.
Much like with its predecessor, there is some kind of plot, but having to rely on audiences recalling whatever happened to Peter Quill/Star Lord and his ragtag group of galaxy-saving mercenaries three years ago limits what this new story can do a bit. If you don’t remember who Thanos is, how Quill is associated with the Ravagers, or what happened in the last film entirely, it doesn’t really matter. Suffice to say we are reminded that Peter still has daddy abandonment issues, Gamora’s mostly-robotic sister still wants to kill her, Drax and his id are still just there for comic relief (though there are hints at his feelings about his former family life), and not-a-raccoon-thing Rocket is still pissed off at the universe that created him. Some honor code stuff with Peter’s former blue mentor/employer/enemy, Yondu, is also tacked on for good measure, but despite all the story balls in the air, nothing is particularly difficult to juggle – because nothing is given enough time to properly develop.
Sure, a mysterious, aptly-named stranger played by the always-entertaining Kurt Russell shows up (at one point in a creepy but utterly believable, digitally-enhanced younger version) to keep the script’s main ship moving forward, but the issues at the center of his and Peter’s relationship play out like the abridged version of an alien’s take on how humans interact in such situations. Subplots like Drax’s growing bond with a bug girl empath called Mantis are exploited more for yuks than heart, and even though the more serious plight of Yondu gets slightly more quality attention, winning a character arc competition isn’t exactly a point of pride when it comes to a Guardians movie. These things are about style, after all – not substance.
True to form, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does try hard to distract from its shallowness with sass in the script and imagination in its art direction, but even some nifty sequences can’t keep it from eventually succumbing to the uneven pacing and tedious spectacle (including a lengthy final battle, the end of which could serve as a metaphor for the story itself). With heroes that are essentially indestructible and not beholden to the laws of any physics, the fake fights lose all excitement, seeming almost like an interlude between actual entertainment sections. I actually found myself rooting for the bad guys in many of the battles, just to see if these underdogs could somehow damage beings whose bones are apparently stronger than solid rock. Again, background noise. Director James Gunn seems to switch on Marvel auto-pilot as soon as shots are fired, and I don’t blame him. I’d also rather put my energy into making a sentient sapling dance than figuring out how to make yet another spaceship battle seem cool. Still, there are some moments of choreographic prowess that find their way into otherwise boilerplate scenes.
A prison escape aboard the Ravagers’ ship involving a magic arrow turns into a wonderful neon light show, a sleek music video of death that works like beautiful stitching. Elsewhere, an ambush in a pine forest allows Gunn to show off his adroitness at amusing sight gags. There’s even a clever bit referencing video games (too easy), with elitists treating the life-and-death struggle of other 99% with an air of detachment. Still, these scenes stand out for their coherence, not suffering from the ceaseless camera-swooshing or awe-seeking particle count displays that the more “epic” fights bog themselves down in, and are the exception instead of the rule. Most of the action in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 serves merely as an unwelcome break from the comedy skit dialogue scenes, a chance to hit the concession counter or restroom.
That’s not to say that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a total slog, however. Thanks to the likable cast, who come through in the sarcasm department yet again by displaying sharp timing and seemingly effortless chemistry, the films leans on the often witty dialogue and the fresh deliveries. Drax, in particular, is given time to shine in this department, endearingly oblivious to his insulting honesty, childlike in his lack of modesty or embarrassment, and Russell also tries his best to inject some life into what is essentially an expository role by finding the crazy every now and again, his gravelly voice raising to an unnaturally high pitch for the one supposed to be lending (at least some) gravitas to the proceedings. There are plenty of fun conversations that have nothing to do with anything other than putting a smile on viewers faces, and the familial aspects really translate (even with the team split up for much of the film). Really, had the whole fate of the universe plot been completely scrapped, it’s doubtless anyone would have cared.
The art direction also contributes to the good feelings. The fantastical worlds are rarely dull to look at, even when the sci-fi technology makes absolutely no sense, and the endless cavalcade of primary color aliens reinforces the light-hearted vibe. It’s hard to take even the massive (seriously, massive) body count too seriously when the pile of corpses looks like a magical rainbow, especially when set to radio-friendly, upbeat tunes. The ultra-relaxed atmosphere is the saving grace Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and deserves a larger share of the spotlight than it’s ultimately given. Though it may go against the formula grain, there’s nothing wrong with recognizing one’s strengths and shifting the focus to what works best.
Unfortunately, the promise of self-awareness those opening titles suggest is not fulfilled, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 eases back into the comfort zone of mediocrity. The last act, in particular, abandons crackling humor for extended destruction and forced schmaltz, shoving its way to the foreground, and losing both its focus and relevance in the process.