It’s not going to be easy, but for the sake of this series let’s see if I can find anything to say about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 that I didn’t cover in my first review of this movie. Marvel Studios has a definite “Part 2” problem. Only Captain America: The Winter Soldier managed to surpass expectations and be successful by sequel standards. Every other one has fallen victim to the big expectations created by its original. The first Guardians of the Galaxy was such an unknown quantity that audiences didn’t know how to build expectations, but now the die is cast. When the experience of the first movie evaporated, it left behind a vague longing to recapture those feelings that enchanted us. Expectations are the enemy of enjoyment, and our expectations for this movie could not have been higher. This is the rock that James Gunn and Marvel have to push up their own personal hill.
Guardians of the Galaxy often tops lists about the MCU. The movie coalesced into a delightful experience, but it’s a tempting mistake to pin its success on the sum of its parts. The humor, the music, the pop culture references, the lavish style, and likable characters were all instrumental to that movie’s identity, but in this movie it seems the filmmakers are determined to double check every box on the audience wish list, and that sometimes comes off a little pandering. The humor in particular steps into self-indulgence, but careful handling on the part of the filmmakers keep the jokes focused on the characters in a way that builds our sympathy for them. The movie trips up trying to keep audiences happy as it drives towards it’s emotionally complicated story of resolving the question of Quill’s parentage; the answer to which is so weird that the movie loses momentum trying to hurdle over increasingly bizarre concepts. Peter’s dad is Ego the Living Planet, a celestial who consists of a giant floating brain that somehow gained the ability to control molecules and used them to construct a planet around him, and then a Kurt Russell-looking human avatar that can travel away from the planet and breed with other species. While the movie does lose a little steam in the set up, it is nearly as fun, funny, and exciting as the first. “Nearly” might be a disappointment for some, but this movie is still charming hell.
Now onto the emotional crap. The first movie showed us how the main characters came together as a makeshift family, but this movie showcases how they dysfunction. Peter Quill chases after Gamora, who clearly loves him but is mature enough to know he cannot sustain a healthy relationship. Meanwhile, Peter is constantly butting heads with Rocket, as Rocket won’t stop acting out as a means of testing how much bullshit the rest of them will tolerate, and keeps himself distant for fear of rejection from his new family. Drax is the most emotionally open of the group, perhaps because he felt the death of his family was avenged and stopped making that pain stoke his fury, and in keeping with his simple-mindedness, he is constantly bellowing feelings most would keep hidden. He strikes a friendship with the newest member, Mantis, who began as a servant to Ego. Mantis’ ability to sense and manipulate emotion highlights what the crew has been missing: empathy. They are all covered in rough edges that callously grind away at each other, ignorant of the damage they cause. And then there is Baby Groot, who the director declared to be the offspring of Groot from the first movie, and that the original Groot is gone forever. Baby Groot provides the lion’s share of laughs and is so overwhelmingly, obnoxiously cute that he plays like a deconstruction of the “Let’s add a kid” trope from 80s sitcoms. Baby Groot might not add much to the story, but how can you hate that face?
While the focus of the movie shifts across all the members of the Guardians, the majority still lands on Peter Quill. The end of the first movie showed him finally confronting his mother’s death and stepping into adulthood. Unfortunately, his stunted emotional life has left him terribly unprepared to do so. The trauma of his mother’s death burned so intensely he never dared to approach it for fear of getting charred, and it’s only when that fire is extinguished that he can notice his abundant stock of daddy issues. He is defenseless when Ego shows up, and while he would like his friends to join him on his journey of self discovery, he displays a willingness to scrape them off if they get in his way. He has been pining for paternal acceptance since the only previous father figure he had was Yondu, a tough and harsh outlaw. Yondu’s attempts to be both a nurturing father figure and an ice cold space pirate captain fail spectacularly when his crew get fed up with his leniency on Peter and carry out a mutiny. Losing his captaincy frees Yondu to focus on being a father figure, first with Rocket to break through his fear of rejection, then with Peter as he sacrifices himself so Peter can live. This comes just in time as Ego reveals his plan to replace all life in the universe with himself, and that he deliberately gave Peter’s mom brain cancer to remain emotionally distant from her, causing Peter to violently reject him. Peter must learn to step out of the emotional trappings of fatherlessness, and become a self-actualized person by defeating Ego (GET IT?). By the end, Yondu has earned his redemption as the movie graces him with a beautiful and touching funeral that tops the one for Thor’s mother.
We expected this to be a bigger, better version of the first movie, not learning our lesson from every other part 2 in the MCU. This movie has a lot of heavy lifting to do in the narrative, and while the first movie carried its story effortlessly, this movie shows a little strain under the weight. The filmmakers knew our expectations were high and tried to meet them while delivering the stealth attack of this movie: the emotional punch. Loving these characters opens us up to experiencing their pain, and there is plenty to experience here. The ending of this movie left me sobbing like I had just watched Marley and Me after half a bottle of rosé. If you were only open to a movie that could beat its predecessor in spectacle, this movie was probably a disappointment. But if you are willing to check your expectations at the door, you’d find a real emotional journey that could leave you moved. Also, it could have used more Steve Agee. 4/5
Coming up next: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)