SDG Reviews ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’

Victory-lap stumble: The much-anticipated follow-up to Marvel’s whimsical space fantasy is a canny, queasy mess.

(photo: Marvel)

Here’s the thing: You haven’t even seen Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 yet, but you’re already an incipient fan, aren’t you?

I’m no different. The original (retroactively Vol. 1) had us (most of us) from the unexpectedly exuberant opening credits, with Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill, or Star-Lord, casually strutting and grooving to Redbone’s Come and Get Your Love. Or, if it didn’t grab you, then this sequel isn’t for you, and neither is this review.

And if it did, and if you thought Baby Groot was adorable in the post-credits sequence of the original, then you’ll be rooting for Vol. 2 and grinning in anticipation as Baby Groot jams through the opening credits to ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky, the joke being that Groot’s dancing is foregrounded while in the background the remaining Guardians are engaged in a pitched battle that we don’t quite see all of, with some extremely large extraterrestrial Cthulhu-ish beastie. You see, you already want it to be awesome, right?

Returning director James Gunn clearly knows which side his bread is buttered on. If Groot was the muscle the first time out, Baby Groot is the cuteness (again voiced by Vin Diesel, this time on digital helium rather than the opposite), with everyone smiling and cooing over him, even heavies.

Audiences loved Dave Bautista’s socially oblivious Drax blithely uttering inappropriate things and the misanthropic trash-talking of Bradley Cooper’s Rocket, so there’s plenty more where that came from. (Oddly, Drax’s literalism, a reliable source of humor in Vol. 1, has fallen by the wayside.)

There are expanded roles for popular supporting characters, notably two blue-skinned (but unrelated) aliens who are each a dysfunctional foster family of sorts to two of the main cast: Michael Rooker’s space buccaneer Yondu, an antagonistic father figure to Peter, and Karen Gillan’s cyborg Nebula, an even more hostile foster sister to green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana).

Of course there are lots of nostalgic cultural references, from Cheers to Knight Rider, and mostly apt musical choices, from Fleetwood Mac’s iconic The Chain to Jay and the Americans’ Come a Little Bit Closer.

And there’s lots of crude humor and vulgarity, which was true of the original, though it’s worse here. Vol. 1 could be viewed as a sort of superhero counterpart of the crude romantic comedies of Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) and the Farrelly brothers (There’s Something About Mary), whom Stephen Whitty dubbed the “Crude Romanticists” — films that use dirty jokes as a foil to smuggle a sincere longing for true love and happily ever after past viewers’ cynicism.

Vol. 1’s sincerity was embodied by a minor character played by John C. Reilly: a Nova Corps officer named Rhomann Dey who arrests our outlaw heroes in an early scene on Xandar, but winds up fighting on the same side as them, even going to bat for them with Glenn Close’s Nova Prime.

In the end Dey gratefully thanks the Guardians, telling them, “I have a family who are alive because of you.” We even see him reuniting with his wife and children. Reilly’s small but telling part plays an important role in anchoring the film’s flights of fancy to the stuff of ordinary life.

Alas, Reilly doesn’t reprise his role — nor is there any comparable figure with a similar function of grounding the story in emotional reality.

Vol. 2 still shoots for sincerity, and sometimes it works. Gamora and Nebula’s relationship is poignant, and there’s an unexpectedly moving denouement that brought tears to my eyes (no great feat, my children will be happy to tell you).

What doesn’t work, alas, are the big things: the main story involving Peter and his real space dad, played by Kurt Russell, and the romantic “unspoken thing” between Peter and Gamora.

We’re meant to root for Peter and Gamora as a couple, but the writers haven’t bothered to define her character or his arc in such a way that he has anything to offer her. Their relationship coasts on the first film, in which Peter saved Gamora’s life in prison shortly after she tried to rob him and later almost died saving her from death in space.

In Vol. 2, Gamora gives to Peter, encouraging him to pursue the possibility of reconnecting with his real dad — a leap of faith on her part, considering her crushing issues with her own quasi-demonic foster father, Thanos.

Peter, though, is wrapped up in his own affairs; his interest in Gamora is basically selfish. He doesn’t even apologize for not listening to her entirely justified concerns and calling her a jerk.

Then there’s Peter’s dad, whom Peter’s dying mother, Meredith (Laura Haddock), pronounced “an angel composed of pure light,” but whom Yondu called something much less flattering. Vol. 2’s drawn-out middle act turns on the question of who was right about Peter’s father, Meredith or Yondu.

A being of seemingly godlike power, Peter’s father calls himself “Ego” and says he’s a “Celestial,” which will confuse no one except comics fans who know who Ego is and who the Celestials are, and for that matter who Peter’s father is in the comics, none of which matters here.

Ego almost seems like he could be a counterpoint to Thanos: a divinely powerful but kindly patriarch of a world as paradisiacal — part Maxfield Parrish, part Salvador Dalí — as Thanos’ world is bleak and lifeless. (Soundtrack selection for Ego’s planet: George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord, early verses with Hallelujah and not Hare Krishna, etc. Is Ego really a god? “Small g,” he smiles self-deprecatingly, “at least when I’m feeling humble.”)

But if Peter’s mother was right and Ego is an “angel,” then why was he absent for all that time? The longing for an absent father and the wish for a happy reunion is a powerful fantasy, but is it one to celebrate and affirm? Do we want to make a quasi-divine figure of a man who fathers a child and then disappears until the child is grown a role model?

But if Yondu was right and Ego is the other thing, then that casts a far more tragic and pathetic shadow over the memory of Peter’s mother, whom Peter remembers as “the most wonderful woman in the world.” Do we want her to become just another female victim of a powerful, abusive man? It’s becoming a hallmark of this franchise.

Both Gamora and Nebula grew up brutalized and tortured by Thanos. In Vol. 1 there was Carina, the red-skinned, emotionally battered slave girl of Benicio del Toro’s Collector (and her predecessor). (Perhaps we might also add Peter’s one-night stand, whose name he couldn’t even remember.)

Spoiler alert: Vol. 2 adds at least two more to this list. One is the naive alien empath Mantis (French actress Pom Klementieff), who in some ways evokes the slave girl Carina. Like Carina, Mantis is terrified of her master, but must behave as if she isn’t. The first time we see her Mantis even strikes a pose similar to Carina’s hand-wringing stance. Both also share a certain little-girl quality, Carina because of her pigtails and Mantis because of her naivety. (There’s even a visual echo between Carina’s pigtails and Mantis’ antennae.)

Of course this means (still spoiler alert) that the other is Peter’s mother and that Ego is another evil father-god, like Thanos. In Vol. 1 Peter’s bond with Gamora was explicitly tied to his longing for his dead mother. Now Peter’s father must be destroyed — his real father and his sky father. How much more Freudian can you get?

Well, you could add a lot of phallic symbolism and below-the-belt jokes, I guess. In Vol. 1, the crudest jokes were oblique enough to go over kids’ heads. Here anatomical and sexual references are a lot more direct.

Along with all of the crudeness is a queasy backbeat of misogyny going beyond sexist elements in Vol. 1. In addition to the theme of used and abused women noted above, consider the unfunny running gag involving Drax harping on how physically repulsive he finds Mantis. At one point he even begins physically retching at the thought of intimacy with her, which he gratuitously assumes she wants one night when she wakens him.

Despite this, these two socially graceless outcasts form a bond of sorts, and in the end Drax generously tells Mantis that she is beautiful — on the inside. Is all this a reflection of the PUA (pick-up artist) technique of insulting a woman to hook her interest?

Along with the vulgarity, there are also elevated levels of violence. A couple of space battles are reduced to video-game stakes by making the enemy ships remote-controlled, but a long, artfully shot set piece in which Yondu savors the orchestrated killing of scores of mutineers is all about bullet-time shots of his arrow piercing bodies and corpses falling like hailstones around him. Another scene celebrates Rocket’s technical problem-solving genius by having him play with hired guns coming for him like a boy pulling wings off flies.

I must admit, having said all that, that Vol. 2 is still fitfully entertaining, often visually appealing and well-designed, sometimes funny and occasionally stirring. Themes of loyalty and sacrifice are, if anything, more movingly done here, and goodwill from the first film carried me through a lot of the weaknesses in this one.

But the spell is broken. Vol. 1 was one of the brighter spots in the Marvel universe, and I hoped that Gunn would compound his success into a model for how Marvel could avoid the tyranny of the rut. Alas, this time the rut wins.

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

Follow him on Twitter.

Caveat Spectator: Much intense sci-fi action violence; crude and sexually themed language and humor. Older teens and up.