Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Marvel Studios took a big risk with Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s a fringe Marvel property and not the kind of film that on paper would attract the number of fans who went to see the Spider-Man or Captain America movies. Even more than that, they put comedy director James Gunn at the helm and let him take the film in a much different direction than the rest of the franchise.

And it paid off. Word got around that it was a fun, colorful action adventure romp that alleviated a lot of the grimness making the rounds through the superhero movie genre. It was an energy shot to a genre that was becoming insufferably cynical and overdramatic. Superhero movies could be fun and goofy again. Doctor Strange, for all its dramatics, is surprisingly funny and Thor: Ragnarok looks like a drastic tone shift from the previous film.

A sequel for Guardians was inevitable. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 sidesteps a lot of the problems of modern Marvel films. The film is a self-contained story and less connected to the impending crossover Infinity War. If there’s a major downside to the sequel it’s that while the first film was a delightful surprise, now there’s an expectation and Vol. 2 doesn’t always reach that expectation.

What made a lot of moments hit for the original film is its use of oldies music to set up these fun sequences where the music and the action synthesis into these cinematic moments. Watching a spaceport fly by as Bowie’s Moonage Daydream played or two characters dancing to Elvin Bishop’s Fooled Around and Fell in Love were moments enhanced and elevated by the music.

Vol. 2’s soundtrack comes across as obligatory because that’s the shtick that elevated the first film. Here, the selections are often uninspired, the music moments are self-aware, and some songs are shoehorned into the plot. Where the first go around felt like a fresh and offbeat idea, out of this world antics blended with familiar oldies, Vol. 2 rehashes the idea and the novelty wears off by the end of the opening credits sequence.

The opening sequence is a funny little number where Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) dances around the platform as Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) try to destroy a horrendous battery-sucking monster. It’s endemic of the larger film: focusing on comedic opportunity while the epic fighting is left to flash by in the background.

And while that approach is a funny play on expectations, by the end of the opening credits, it’s already overstayed its welcome. When the film continues this down the line, it becomes progressively less and less funny. Guardians of the Galaxy took in the beauty and wonder of its cosmic adventure setting but here it comes across as a colorful background for joke delivery and character development.

And that’s not always a bad thing as the humor does hit quite well. James Gunn’s screenwriting provides lots of witty banter and bickering that made the first film memorable. Here it’s a bit more self-aware of its humor, which sometimes undercuts the punch of a joke. When Drax points out why something is a joke, it might fit his character, but it’s also killing the joke.

The characters are where Gunn beefs up the writing. He moves these people from a group of misfits to a series of complex relationships that force the characters to grow and even be vulnerable with each other. The film centers around Star-Lord/Peter Quill meeting his father Ego (Kurt Russell) and how that forces him to rethink who he is as a person, and the other Guardians get the moment to face their own pasts.

Gamora has multiple showdowns with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) who wants to kill her, although the reason is quite telling. Rocket ends up working alongside Yondu (Michael Rooker) and discovering a bit more about himself along the way. And Yondu becomes challenged when he faces an old friend who rebuffs him. Capping it off is Drax’s relationship with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an empath who is able to touch and feel what other beings are feeling.

All of these relationships build to one thing: the desire to be understood and accepted. Each of these characters holds this burning fire within them, this hot center of the past that slowly grows until it bursts out of them. And those outbursts come from the feeling of being misunderstood, or maligned, or feeling threatened.

Each character wants someone to get and accept him/her for who he/she is. The vast universe is a lonely place and a little bit of understanding and acceptance can make for a deep tether to some small part of the cosmos. It can turn a group of rejects into a family.

While Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice chase after these deep, heady themes with political corollaries, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a much more human and intimate look at that innate desire to be loved and accepted. And that’s such a far cry from the power fantasy of superheroes or the simplistic moralizing of these types of films that it’s shocking to see something so deeply human and vulnerable in a genre about super powerful beings.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 doesn’t achieve the cinematic magic of the first film, but it does once again break the mold of genre expectations by being a deeply vulnerable and human story. This series remains a bold and distinct move away from what the genre often demands and somehow makes its bizarre cast of alien characters far more human and relatable than the actual humans that populate the modern superhero films.

© James Blake Ewing 2017