Warning: This review discusses aspects of the plot and reveals the fate of major characters.
For those filmmakers invited to contribute to the Marvel juggernaut, the presumed audience at least one generation removed from their own, the opportunity has been to rework ideas from their favourite pop cultural touchstones (or in Shane Black’s case, his own scripts) and present them buffed up like new. To paraphrase an old Lucasfilm marketing slogan, see them again for the first time.
James Gunn’s contribution, The Guardians of the Galaxy, wears its mix tape credentials with pride; indeed it’s a literal motif in both the 2014 film and this sequel; but whereas “Vol.2” namechecks Knightrider, Cheers and, with one eye on the forthcoming Disney sequel, Mary Poppins, it’s curiously coy when it comes to talking about its real Dad, The Empire Strikes Back.
Gunn’s story so clearly reworks elements of the first Star Wars sequel that one can practically see the cogs turn in the writer/director’s mind. Centred on the relationship between Chris Pratt’s Star Lord and the return of his all-powerful absent Father, who just happens to be a villain endowed with celestial energy, nursing universe conquering ambitions involving his progeny, the movie ticks off story beats and themes from Irvin Kershner’s film with the cold efficiency of a chancing plagiarist. As a remake it’ll do until Rian Johnson’s attempt in December.
There’s the simmering relationship between Pratt and Zoe Saldana’s Gomorra, in no way reminiscent of Han and Leia’s antagonistic romance, the main cast separated for most of the running time only to converge for a final act rescue, a place of sanctuary harbouring a hidden threat, our hero being trained to use his genetically ordained abilities, even an attempt to flee a squadron of alien fighters in an asteroid field for fuck’s sake. When your influences are this stark, pun intended, the movie almost makes itself.
Except that whereas Empire was a well-structured affair that always gave its principle characters plenty to do, Guardians 2 is overstuffed and unfocused, with Gunn struggling to tell his story while simultaneously delivering the overwrought, computer-animated spectacle thought to be fundamental to the film’s success as a blockbuster.
That’s a pity because somewhere under all the corporate-ordered junk he’s obliged to include, Gunn has attempted, and part-succeeded, in introducing a subversive element to Marvel’s safe, four quadrant friendly film series. If your brain can still function after the sensory overload – action set to the enjoyable hits of yesteryear – there’s a few agitating ideas on display; space Jesus (or the space Anti-Christ to be more accurate), child trafficking, infanticide, even some delicious ironies – namely Kurt Russell’s figurative and needless placing of a bomb in Pratt’s mother’s brain avenged by a literal one in his.
This is the equivalent of sneaking a message on Satan worship into a confected pop song, but the attempt to push the format also results in some problems with tone. Vol. 2 has a B-Movie witlessness about it, that often results in some jarring lewd talk. Do we really need asides on scrotums, impregnation and Kurt Russell’s penis in a movie designed to please adults and children alike? There’s winking at the audience and there’s just putting a pair of tits on screen, and all too often Gunn’s instinct veers toward the latter.
Ultimately, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 wastes the opportunity to add depth to its characters, instead tying them up with underdeveloped subplots (Chris Pratt has practically nothing to do for over half the running time and he’s the star of the show), and lacks the impetus (or perhaps permission) to push its strongest ideas to the fore.
Russell’s Ego, a Demi-God who’s created his own planet, looks to have solved Marvel’s villain problem by having an organic connection to a main character and enough screen time to be developed. But even he, flattered as he is by a prominent role in proceedings, ultimately ends up as a one-dimensional big bad that must be fought at length and destroyed. One’s left wondering if the Marvel formula will ever allow a filmmaker to cut loose and take risks. If not, it’s likely that one day their product will be remembered the way music enthusiasts regard the Zune mp3 player today.