James Gunn’s second intergalactic farce is a middling mixbag of cartoon chaos.
Somebody once did a survey which found that, more than the US President or the Pope, the celebrity who was most recognisable to people on every continent, around the world, was Mr. David Hasselhoff. And so, David Hasselhoff becomes the subject of the biggest recurring gag in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the ‘bigger/better/louder/funnier’ sequel to 2014’s smash-hit sci-fi/superhero hybrid from kings of the forgettable popcorn movie, Kevin Feige’s Marvel Studios. But more importantly, BROADER.
Guardians Vol. 1 was undeniably a charming film, arriving after a summer of Transformers: Age of Extinction, X-Men: Days of Future Past and other such dull excuses for fun family entertainment, and seeming like a bloody good matinee release. Its soundtrack was killer (Bowie! Jackson 5! Joan Jett!), its central characters were a group of oddball misfits (“OMG is that a raccoon??”) and it had a certain zany sensibility crucially missing from previous Marvel Studios fare. But, in the 3 years since, we’ve seen half a dozen Guardians copycats — most recently, Star Trek Beyond, which shares significant DNA with Gunn’s Vol. 2 — and, more generally, the world has transformed in such a way that a film like Guardians of the Galaxy no longer feels like delightful frivolity; it sort of feels like a waste of our time.
Vol. 2, even more so than the original film, has no discernible plot; this makes The Fate of the Furious seem like Westworld in terms of narrative complexity. We’re merely offered a shell of a situation that our beloved Guardians must manage to successfully navigate, with sufficient wisecracks, until such time as Gunn gets bored with his expensive toys and throws on the end credits. And what expensive toys. This film, which reportedly features the most expensive single visual effect ever created, is the definition of CGI overindulgence: only a tiny proportion of any frame appears to have been filmed with actual cameras and feature actual people, yet — to the filmmakers’ credit — the gaudy graphics are consistently colourful and diverse; rather than the uniformly cold metals of Michael Bay’s Transformers. Gunn sprinkles more great music throughout (generally in the fizziest scenes; Tyler Bates’ generic score is saved for franchise-formula moments).
Gunn’s attempt at elevating his outer-space playworld by injecting Serious Human Drama into the Guardians’ world is odd, vaguely commendable and ultimately a disastrous decision. The Guardians — a group including a former sitcom bit-player, the least interesting cast member of Avatar and Star Trek, a wrestler who can’t act for his life, a small tree and the aforementioned raccoon — are not built to sustain feelings. The group dynamic begins to crack under the weight of Star-Lord (Chris Pratt)’s daddy issues, and crumbles completely once matters of paternal betrayal and non-familial parenting are introduced. What has a cynical talking raccoon got to offer on the thematic substance of “Cat’s In The Cradle”? The result of this unnatural conflict is the delegation of much of the ‘serious’ material to Michael Rooker, a longtime friend and collaborator of Gunn’s who — perhaps unsurprisingly — has been given a vastly increased role under the director’s greater creative control. Rooker steals every scene he appears in; toothy, untrustworthy and leading a thoroughly-amusing band of space pirates (think the customers of Spongebob’s Salty Spittoon), Rooker’s Yondu is the roguish antihero Guardians Vol. 2 needs, and he arguably saves the film from utter vapidity.
Gunn knows his film’s strengths, and makes Yondu the centre of the final act, which — deteriorating into visual incoherence — would otherwise prove unwatchable. Unlike Fate of the Furious (also starring Vin Diesel, and Kurt Russell — what a surprising career resurgence!), the action in Vol. 2 moves exactly as you’d expect; there are terribly few surprises (par one, near-plagiaristic copy of North by Northwest’s cropduster chase), there is very little tongue-in-cheek; Gunn is delivering what is expected of him, and the less said about it the better.
At least he manages to subvert tradition at the very start of the film, framing a big fight scene around Baby Groot’s dancing and providing what should prove an iconic opening credits sequence. Where the 80s cultural touchstones in the first Guardians felt like a somewhat new approach to nostalgia-baiting, the subsequent success of Netflix’s Stranger Things has given a stale quality to token mentions of Stephens King and Spielberg, while the Hasselhoff gag (culminating in a fun end credits disco anthem that features the immortal lyric “That weird thing by his side an infantilized sequoia”) just seems like a compromise between Gunn and Marvel: an 80s TV joke that the film’s massive, global, largely-very-young audience will all appreciate. The Leftovers’ uber-specific referencing of Perfect Strangers this certainly is not.
As sequels go, particularly as Marvel Studios sequels go, Guardians Vol. 2 is overwhelmingly successful; it retreads notes of the first film but with a new twist. It has more of the same one-note character gags (the tree says “I Am Groot” and nothing else; Drax takes everything literally) we all loved the first time. It has a tie-in soundtrack that’s sure to be a big hit. It’s relatively funny and relatively conservative in its running time. This film really isn’t worth complaining about. But while the Guardians seemed cool and wacky to 2014 Me, I now feel like I’ve spent far too much time in their company. I suppose I’m getting old. Sorry Guardians — it’s probably not you, it’s me.