I was unreasonably excited for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I’m no Marvel fan – that much has become undoubtedly clear to me in the last few years – but Guardians was a film that truly outshined its overblown colleagues. It was absurd, it was action-packed, it was even sappy at times: so why did I love it so much? The key the film possessed to my heart was just how weird it was. Not “weird” the same way The Shining or A Serious Man are (it’s a Marvel movie, don’t be ridiculous), and at no point would I hold Guardians of the Galaxy up and call it high art, but as a Marvel movie of all things it didn’t seem to contain the same issue that has plagued almost every single film from the studio: tonal inconsistency. Now, don’t get me wrong: I completely recognise it isn’t absolutely sinless in this regard – parts of Guardians’ third act certainly commit this ultimate crime – but it certainly wasn’t close to being as unbearable at times as both Avengers films individually (more so Age of Ultron, but I’ll leave those various gripes at the door for now).
In summary, Guardians is quite important to me, both as proof that some kind of personality and soul can seep grotesquely through the cracks of the dreaded ever-looming threat studio interference, and also just as a damn fucking good movie. In case you somehow haven’t guessed, it’s certainly my favourite Marvel film by some length. So along comes Marvel with the teaser trailer for the sequel, bragging that James Gunn would return as writer/director for both this and the third instalment in the series, at which point I had essentially already booked my ticket and sat down in my seat with a Coke in one hand and an XL popcorn bucket in the other (side note: for the sake of my dwindling reputation, I would never blaspheme in such a manner by buying popcorn, or any edible substance, during the viewing of a film, and anyone who does so should be executed via hanging for their heinous war crimes against the state). I should add that I have not seen any other of Gunn’s films other than both Guardians films (and the Scooby Doo films but we won’t about *shudders* those…), but what I’ve seen makes me keen to indulge in many more of his movies in years to come.
Ah yes, I might actually start talking about the movie now. Let’s get this out the way: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is not nearly as good as its predecessor. However, that’s not to say it was bad – quite the contrary, this film was immense fun. Naturally, it wouldn’t be a Guardians sequel if it didn’t evoke laughs, and it most certainly does. There are many recurring jokes throughout the runtime: everyone’s identification of Rocket’s species (is he a raccoon though I genuinely don’t know at this point), a Ravager’s hilarious failure at having an intimidating name, and even some references to the first film (and some comic book references too I presume, but I don’t read comics so I can only assume). Some of the humour becomes a little too stretched and forced at times, feeling as though it was being inserted for the sake of either making a scene funnier or extending the runtime, but at least 90% of the jokes landed and landed hard. The entire theatre was roaring with laughter, a special favourite being Dave Bautista as Drax, who admittedly does a fantastic job in his role, providing both the humanity and emotion whilst also delivering some excellent humour.
Emotional scenes are what the first film rather lacked, to an extent. Not that that was a bad thing, per se, as Gunn decided delivering a primarily comedic film with heart was more important than creating a serious film with a couple jokes sloppily thrown in. To a certain extent, Guardians 2 leans both ways: one the one hand, the film is first and foremost a comedy, but on the other, there is a noticeable increase in emotional moments. Unfortunately, while some short scenes hit their mark spectacularly, a lot of the “character development” seems to forget the cardinal screenwriting rule of ‘show, don’t tell’. It’s a shame, because characters like Nebula and Yondu could be genuinely fascinating, but they’re limited to simply stating how they feel instead of allowing the audience to figure it out themselves. This is far and away the worst way to develop characters, and induces more frustration than engagement. However, while those scenes linger throughout the film like that one creepy friend nobody really likes but you keep around because you don’t want to tell them to tone it down a notch with the sexual innuendos for two seconds please, there are some moments that are carried out to incredible effect, and oftentimes, unsurprisingly, they are totally silent. A moment of contemplation for Drax or a tragic realisation for Peter are pulled off very well and left me choking up a little bit, despite how few and far between these segments were. Even other moments of complete chaos were equally affecting, as the acting talent achieves heights very rarely reached in any studio film, let alone a Marvel one. The joy or even anguish expressed by the characters at the appropriate times in the film work almost too well. A big-budget summer blockbuster has no right to be this good in this field.
However, my emotional connection to the events of the film could be in part due to how much I adore the characters. The first film somehow managed to tell the stories of each character without ever feeling unfocused or messy, making them more endearing and interesting (except Gamora who’s still a boring bastard, isn’t she?). One fear I had going into Guardians 2 was how Gunn would be able to handle so many characters in one movie. As the trailer shows, there are some new characters thrown into the Space Avengers mix, and by new I mean two of them were antagonists in the last film and another is in kahoots with Kurt Russell so isn’t really a part of the group until the third act. It is made clear very early on that Guardians 2 is intent on fleshing out its characters further, but at points it does come off as sloppy at times. One minute Rocket will be cracking jokes while Baby Groot fails to understand the English language, and all of a sudden Yondu begins spouting off about how he never feels appreciated or needed by anyone in his life. Let me make this clear: none of the characters never became unlikeable because of this, but the writing could have been a lot more subtle. Yondu isn’t the only one with a rushed character arc, however, as shown with Case Study #2: Nebula. Nebula’s conflict in this film is, once again, a sibling rivalry with Gamora due to their shaky past. The first film did a very good job of implying the reason these two didn’t get along, but unfortunately Guardians 2 throws that shit out the window ana instead lets Nebula tell Gamora directly exactly why they are fighting. These exchanges happen quite a few times, some better than others, and almost every time they are painful to watch. What was probably a very entertaining action sequence or comedic exchange swiftly becomes this overly sentimental dumpster fire of poor dialogue and stilted conversation.
Let me take a moment out of tearing this aspect of the film to shreds to talk about the character moments which were, for lack of a better word, rather touching. Rocket Raccoon remains my favourite character in the series largely based on the clever interweaving of comedy and deep-cutting character revelations. Rocket has trouble taking anything seriously, and as such he has a tendency to make jokes at somewhat inappropriate times. He is called a “professional asshole” by both Peter and Yondu, and instead of being bothered by it, he chooses to accept himself as that and shrugs it off. However, you can see in his eyes and facial expressions that these things do bother him immensely. It’s interesting that a foul-mouthed CG anthropomorphic space raccoon felt more expressive than the actual human actors in this film. Bradley Cooper, who voices Rocket, had his facial animations recorded as he spoke his lines, which were then translated over to his character, so I suppose the acting credit should go to him. Congrats, Bradley, if there’s an award for vocal performances, you deserve to win it. I think Gunn is better at connecting comedy with character development, as shown with Rocket, and I think that could have been achieved with every character with the right dialogue.
It sounds like I’m bashing Gunn’s writing ability – and, to a certain extent, I am – but it’s important to note that this film is immensely funny. It’s possible that the jokes here were on par with the first film, if not better than that, a rare feat for any sequel to a comedy. Also, I need to express my gratitude to Mr James on the fact that he didn’t bow down to his Marvel overlords and make this a set-up for the upcoming Infinity War. It’s incredibly refreshing to see a movie that can be enjoyed by itself, on its own merits, without the need to watch every grotesque, deformed Marvel child ever conceived by the Queen Mother of the Hollywood Hive, Disney. Gunn admitted that the scene with Thanos in the first film felt immensely out of place (which it did) and it’s clear that he’s gone extra lengths to make sure this can be enjoyed as a standalone film, which I must commend. It’s not often that you see a superhero film like this, so it was a nice change of pace. However, there is one fatal issue with Guardians 2 that is definitely in need of pointing out: it lacks a proper main character.
Now, before you start commenting, ‘oh but Ali of course Peter is the main character’, I’m not so sure. Obviously he is that on paper, but Chris Pratt has surprisingly few lines to recite in this film. The film is trying very hard to cram a sufficient amount of time for each character in the ensemble, but, similar to *shudders once more* Suicide Squad, it has this problem by trying to get everyone to be a main character, no-one is. While it isn’t nearly as godawful as that utter misstep, in that these characters are actually likeable and have clear motivations, it’s still an issue nonetheless and weakens Peter’s arc considerably. Speaking of clear motivations, colour me more surprised than Jacqueline Kennedy on National Eat a Cranberry Day of 1963 (look it up) that for the first time since Thor, we actually have *pause for dramatic effect* a GOOD MARVEL VILLAIN *crowds erupt in tremendous applause*. Yes, no joke, the villain in Guardians 2 is genuinely awesome. Unlike Ronan “fuck you dad I do what I want” the Accuser, their motivations are clear and – wait for it – they are actually developed as a character so you understand the root of their villainy and thus grow to absolute despise them. I won’t say who they are, because that would be a big ol’ spoiler (even if it is tremendously obvious), but the twist that leads the second act into the third is equal parts disturbing, fascinating, and utterly brilliant.
I suppose it’s only fitting to round off this overly long review with the part that anyone can enjoy, be you five or five-hundred (if you’re the latter, please return to your grave for your own safety because zombies brought back from the dead don’t have the best reputation in the modern day. Also you probably smell kinda weird and that’ll just make everyone in the theatre feel uncomfortable so try to be kind), are the action scenes. I’m never particularly engaged by marvel fight scenes. They always feel very artificial and inorganic, unlike the action in both Guardians films. James Gunn might not be one for emotional dialogue, but he definitely has a keen eye for creative ways to improve scenes. Not once was I ever bored in this film, and the opening fight sequence is so hilarious and well-done, as well as the rest of the movie’s action, that it is definitely worth recommending based solely on that alone. If I were rating this based exclusively on how much fun I was having in these scenes, it would get at least an 8.5.
But alas, just like any other movie, I must factor in everything else, good or bad. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, just like its predecessor, is light years better than the other schlock that comes from the dirty depths of the Marvel sewer (just kidding, they’re not that bad). It often does the Marvel thing where much of it is either fine or good, which isn’t particularly encouraging for the series going forward. Truthfully, the positives and negatives here are incredibly polarising. What Guardians 2 does wrong, it often does very wrong, and the dreaded studio interference beast begins to show its monstrous head. However, when it succeeds, when it strikes the back of the net in full force, when it decisively hits that nail right on its head, my God does that nail sink deep.