The second volume of Guardians of the Galaxy was never going to surprise the way the first one did. By definition, you can’t expect a surprise, and this sequel came with a heap of expectations – something that didn’t weigh on Vol 1. The first film had its faults despite its freshness, so writer-director James Gunn worked on that by going bigger and better on nearly every aspect.
The opening dance number intro makes this immediately clear with the one-shot sequence fixed on Baby Groot jamming to ELO while the others battle a rainbow-spewing tentacle beast in the background. It’s reminding you that joy comes before drama, doing an even better job of that than Peter Quill grooving in a cave by himself.
Gunn and the crew also managed to make one of the best-looking films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe look even better, embracing the colour wheel like a kid embracing a castle made of sponge cakes. Everything from the set design of the golden Sovereign halls to the prog-rock explosion of psychedelia that is Ego the Living Planet treats the eyes like a Fruit Burst treats the tongue. (It also lends itself to a more creative climax.)
The cinematography impresses just as much, with the switch from Ben Davis (who shot Vol 1) to Henry Braham being evident. With the way they compose particular steady shots, Braham and Gunn make the most out of foreground and background elements. Perhaps they were taking 3D that seriously, but the sight of pirates falling slowly to Yondu’s arrow or Nebula slamming a ship into a cave looks glorious in 2D as well. They do a much better job of making a comic panel move than Ang Lee ever did with his Hulk gimmicks.
For the most part, Vol 2’s gags are solid rib-ticklers that cut off any dramatics daring to go too grim or grand. A vital galaxy-saving bomb is delayed in order to find some tape; a eulogy is conducted in the style of a David Hasselhoff metaphor; and a mass murderer is made to feel stupid for calling himself ‘Taser Face’.
The jokes that miss tend to revolve around how great someone’s penis is, how much they like to use their penis, how someone’s head looks like a scrotum… basically, the jokes that refer to male genitals. You can have a superhero pour on the dick jokes if those jokes are actually funny (see: Deadpool) but heaps of the diddle humour here is on a Two and a Half Men level.
It’s easily forgivable, however, when Vol 2 gets something triumphantly right – actual proper good villains. The Sovereign is one of my absolute favourite antagonists in the MCU, a race with such a high opinion of themselves that they probably shit gold. (That would explain their skin colour given how much time they spend up their own arses.) Their humorous hubris makes them a perfect pairing with the insecure Guardians of the Galaxy.
They’re also a great misdirect from the film’s main scoundrel – Kurt Russell’s Ego. It’s impressive enough they made a living planet work on film; it’s even more applause-worthy that they gave it charisma and a genuine love for his son Quill. When the film reveals his evilness as an intergalactic coloniser, it’s unsettling (“That was true… they never felt a thing”). It’s much more effective than being loud and literally blue.
Unfortunately, Ego is paired with one of Vol 2’s key weaknesses – Quill. Or, more precisely, Chris Pratt. The daddy issues trope already feels played out in this day and age, but the film’s attempts to get some genuine pathos out of this relationship feels kinda drab, and it’s mainly because of Pratt’s dramatic limitations as an actor (a wide-eyed frown is about the most he can muster).
Despite getting more screen time, Drax the Destroyer also feels held back in this. Mainly because he doesn’t get to do any destroying.
Fortunately, I could see a whole episode of Saturday Night Live if it only starred Dave Bautista, which is essentially Drax’s role here. The way he lovingly recalls his non-dancing wife is classic Drax, as is his conversation with Quill about the beauty of parental lovemaking. However, this socially evolved Drax understands – partly – what a joke is and it’s fun to see him express that (“I have famously huge turds”).
For me, however, the film’s sense of camaraderie is the most valuable improvement, even if it doesn’t quite achieve what it sets out to do. New character Mantis makes for a great socially-awkward match for Drax. Drax and Rocket share a good laugh at the Sovereign’s expense. Rocket and Yondu learn their spiritual bond as professional assholes. Yondu and Quill reunite in Shakespearean daddy-son tragedy. Quill and Gamora still have an unspoken thing going on. Gamora and Nebula find some truce as savage siblings. And everyone’s a parent to Baby Groot.
All these moments sell them as a team. Does it go far enough to justify the waterworks and Vin Diesel’s second favourite tagline “We’re family”? Probably not. Does it deserve a gorge of fireworks in space set to Cat Stevens? Hell yeah, it does.