Two years ago, I watched and wrote about every single film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They’ve made so many more of them since then! So, now I’m watching all of the newer ones before Endgame gets here.
Can I just say how happy I am that James Gunn is back to helm Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 3? I was so angry that Disney had caved to such a small, conservatively tinged, politically biased attack on someone who had long since made apologies for jokes in poor taste made years before he was working for the company. They’re problematic, but totally in tune with his time spent at Troma. His dismissal seemed the ultimate in overreaction. It’s just kind of the risk you run when you give a family-friendly franchise to someone with titles like Slither and Tromeo and Juliet on his resume. I might be biased, as the GotG franchise remains a personal favorite and Gunn’s personal sensibilities are the primary reason they work as well as they do, but his reinstatement felt like Disney had returned to its senses after a temporary bout of hysteria.
Watching Vol. 2, it’s easy to pick at the film’s minor issues. Honestly, the makeshift family concept has been portrayed on film and television ad nauseum. The balance between dour familial interactions between Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Yondo (Michael Rooker) on one side and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) feels a bit off when placed in contrast with the film’s zany, rapid-fire jokes and sight gags, even if does allow Gillan to show more emotional range than previously allowed.
Rocket’s (Bradley Cooper) character arc, going from a guy who pushes people away to someone who recognizes the importance of emotional connection feels a bit like a retread of his trajectory in the first film. In addition, Gunn’s overreliance on spectacle undercuts the scrappy, underdog feel of his first film in the franchise. However, this sequel remains too fun to really pick on too much. It may not feel as fresh or surprising as the first film did, and honestly how could it, but it maintains that film’s giddy, enthusiastic daffiness.
The Guardians films are unique because they have one central person both writing and directing them, and they’re imbued with Gunn’s mischievous zeal. From the “Mr. Blue Sky” opening, in which a tiny Groot (Vin Diesel) dances unaware of the massive battle unfolding behind him to a musical montage of a whistle-guided arrow massacring one character after another, the film has a unique, cohesive vision, because there’s only one man steering the ship.
He’s a guy who’s comfortable placing grisly violence with ludicrous humor, which tends to distinguish the GotG world from the other Marvel movies.
Vol. 2 feels a bit less focused than its predecessor, throwing in a bunch of plot strands and gives us new characters, including Mantis (Pom Klementieff) as an empathic, dream-giving love interest for Drax (Dave Bautista).
However, it’s Star-Lord’s attempt to bond with his father, Ego (Kurt Russell) that functions as the narrative’s primary focus. Russell’s presence represents this sequel’s biggest upgrade from its predecessor. Lee Pace is a fine actor, but Ronan was just another example in the ever-growing list of dour, one-note Marvel villains who exist as the cinematic equivalent of vapor. By contrast, Ego makes far more of an impression, both through the strange, vibrant kaleidoscopic world he inhabits and the charming façade he maintains for so much of the film’s running time. Beyond that, Russell’s laid-back, effortless charisma means we’re as enchanted with Ego as Peter has been.
When we find out Ego gave Star-Lord’s mother the brain tumor that killed her just because he had trouble staying away from her, it’s a really nasty gut punch. It may be a twist that’s a bit too dark for its own good, but it’s hard to deny. I mean, really, think about this for a second:
Ego basically killed someone not because of anything they’d done, but simply because she was an unneeded distraction, and he reveals it as casually as someone would mention they picked up a newspaper on the way home. The film lets the moment play out with the appropriate amount of gravitas, but that remains a truly grim plot strand to deploy in a script which relies pretty heavily on juvenile gags.
Vol. 2 has humble ambitions. It wants to be a crowd pleaser, with an extra bit of zany strangeness thrown into its mix, but it does succeed in that regard. The cast remains as charming and endearing as they were in the first film and the new characters fit in well too. And, honestly, as much as I like to complain about the whole “family is who you want it to be” theme, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the whole Yondo “Father and Son” accompanied send-off didn’t give me a warm, fuzzy feeling.
Making a crowd-pleasing blockbuster that doesn’t feel assembled by committee is a difficult feat to accomplish, and Gunn deserves credit for stuffing his film with all the weird, edgy chances that he does.