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About two-thirds of the way through Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (★★★½), there’s a moment that perfectly sums up the highly anticipated sequel. Nebula (Karen Gillan) has tracked down her sister Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and, with the aid of a giant ship and a hefty cannon, attempts to kill her sibling. What follows is a spectacular sequence as the pair battle into the caverns of a planet, eventually ending in a giant explosion and a strained, emotional fistfight. It’s here, as the pair lie in the aftermath, that Nebula reveals why she harbors such hatred, such murderous intent. It’s a genuinely moving revelation. But what it also does is highlight Guardians‘ biggest strengths and most apparent flaws.
The sequence, like most of the 136 minutes that the film runs for, is utterly dazzling to behold. Writer-director James Gunn has a command of CGI-laden action that is almost effortless, while Marvel’s animators have truly excelled themselves at bringing to life this far-flung section of the universe. Guardians stuns at a frame-by-frame level, each scene bringing some new thing to ogle, some wondrous explosion to recoil from, some fantastical planet to be in awe of. The fight is also laced with Marvel’s trademark humor, puncturing the darkness as we watch one sibling try to kill another.
Unfortunately, Gillan is trying to emote through layers of makeup that, while as arresting to behold as the rest of the film, rob the actress of much of her emotional range. As we listen to the pain and suffering she endured as the adopted daughter of supervillain Thanos, the visual splendor overrules the depth the moment requires. It’s polish over performance, something Gunn consistently gets wrong throughout the film.
That’s not to say that this is a bad film. Far from it, in fact. Guardians maintains the scrappy, jokesy, lovable nature that made the first film such a huge success — and such a breath of fresh air compared with the slightly stale, formulaic nature of Marvel’s other franchises. With its bold colors, brilliant soundtrack and wonderful array of performances, it was a necessary jolt of adrenaline to the cinematic superhero canon. But three years and a bigger budget later, the originality has diminished. What’s here isn’t fresh, though it’s still very palatable.
Right from the get-go, it’s clear that Gunn and co. aren’t straying from what worked last time. The film opens on a beautifully choreographed battle, as Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora, Drax (Dave Bautista), and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) fight an interdimensional monster. But it takes place in the background, with focus instead on Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), who dances around the action to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” It’s fun, it’s wacky, it’s gorgeous, it’s Guardians.
After the Guardians claim their reward, the plot kicks into motion. Rocket steals from the Sovereigns — an arrogant race of supposedly genetically perfect beings — leading to a chase that sees the Guardians crash on a nearby planet. Here, Ego (Kurt Russell) descends, proclaiming himself to be Quill’s father. What follows is two hours of daddy issues, in essence, as Quill struggles between the joy of finding his father and the hurt he causes the Guardians, his true family.
Pratt is as lovably goofy and ruggedly handsome as Quill as he was in the first installment. He’s an everyday hero, someone balancing his power and responsibility with the every comic book dream he had as a kid. But he’s also something of a bit player in this installment. His part of the tale, his desire to learn about his father — portrayed with appropriate swagger by Russell — his quarrels with Rocket, his will they/won’t they relationship with Gomora are among the movie’s least interesting aspects.
Instead, it’s the other characters who shine: Rocket, aided by Cooper’s stellar voice-acting, is struggling to figure out his place in the Guardians — does he create artificial distance or accept that he truly loves the group? Bautista’s Drax again provides most of the film’s laugh-out-loud moments, invariably as he himself laughs out loud at something that most wouldn’t find particularly amusing. His interactions with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an empathic being kept by Ego to help him sleep, are among the film’s funniest and most heartfelt moments. Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), the leader of the Ravagers, returns in a subplot that is at times rather harrowing, and further complicates Quill’s family dynamic.
Still, it’s Gunn who shoulders most of the blame for the problems. He clearly wanted to create a more intimate film, one exploring the family dynamics of the group amid a number of outside influences. But his tendency for excess, the need to have another “THIS ISSUE COULD DESTROY THE WHOLE UNIVERSE” setup for the final battle, the clunky dialogue during some of the more emotion-heavy scenes all help to strip the sheen away. The emotional moments are invariably overruled by the desire for bigger, better visuals and even the music — excellent as it is — feels like a crutch to be relied upon.
And that, really, is the conundrum. Guardians Vol. 2 isn’t as good as the original. It couldn’t be. It isn’t as fresh or exciting. Its tropes are now familiar. But it remains a thoroughly enjoyable film. It may be a little less special, a little more forgettable, but you’ll still leave satisfied.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opens Friday, May 5 at area theaters. For tickets visit fandango.com.
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