After The Fate of the Furious premiered, talk of that franchise's ever slicker, more over-the-top future turned to the promise (and hope) of F&F jumping the shark right into space. But what if it was already there? And it was named, instead, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2?
In this follow-up to the tongue-in-cheek Marvel original that put the fun back into comic-book adaptations, the gang — Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), now a sapling — battle space aliens together like a rock-solid family unit right out of the Fast films. The importance of family was already in the spotlight in the first film, which saw Quinn yearning to meet his mysterious father and Gamora grappling with her role in turning her sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), into a homicidal robot (they battled for dad's attention as kids). In Vol. 2, that fascination slides into overdrive, swallowing the plot line when Kurt Russell shows up as Ego, Quill's powerful god father; will Quill give up his new family when his old one shows up?
Just like Fast, Vol. 2 aims to please with breathtaking set pieces that'll convince you to delete all your old diatribes about CGI ruining the movies. But no matter how funny writer-director James Gunn wants this film to be — the one-liners move at lightspeed — too many of the punch lines are referential; how much comedy can you milk from the mere mention of David Hasselhoff? Gunn's on a mission to find out.
The opening scene doubles as a spectacular credits sequence: Baby Groot discos obliviously around a space battlefield to “Mr. Blue Sky” while the rest of the team wrassles with a tentacled glob monster that has stolen priceless batteries from a race of genetically perfected golden people. The comedy comes from the Guardians continually interrupting the battle to take turns saving the boogieing baby, who chokes, trips and picks the wrong fights with little lizards. The scene hits all the right notes yet still feels derivative; it reminded me immediately of Ally McBeal and her dancing baby, an 8-bit animated infant that primly gyrates to Blue Suede's “ooga-chaka” hit “Hooked on a Feeling” to warn Ally of her ticking biological clock. The concept is the same: nostalgic song paired with irresistible cute in a purportedly wised-up entertainment. And Baby Groot is irresistible — if Marvel hasn't made a dancing Baby Groot doll that plays ELO songs, it's blowing a major opportunity.
Monster dispatched, the team collects its reward: Nebula. Gamora is hell-bent on turning her vengeful sister in to the space authorities for her crimes, but Rocket's more interested in stealing those batteries himself. The golden folks don't take kindly to this and sic a fleet of battleships on the Guardians. These warmongering, self-important glowing narcissists — who are so precious that they all remotely control their battleships to nonchalantly murder people from the comfort of their own homes — are the source of the film's most inventive and unexplored ideas; we get an unnerving scene of these beings treating the whole battle against the Guardians as if they're playing an arcade game. The topics of genetic perfection and a ruling class that disposes of its enemies with a merciless technology seem worthy of inspection if only for the sly social criticism of drones, but that would have to come from another film. This one is stiflingly FAMILY ONLY.
Out of nowhere, Russell's Ego saves the day and entices Quill and Gamora to come to his planet while Rocket repairs the ship and looks after Groot and Nebula. Ego's more powerful than anything they've ever seen, a builder of planets, including his own, which is like a Technicolor Shangri-La, with many-spired castles and luscious flora and waterfalls dripping from every structure. But Ego's too good to be true. And Russell's too good for this movie. His easy shifts from humor to Acting (with a capital A) highlight by contrast how little substance Pratt brings to his role (and his reliance on Pac-Man jokes). Even supporting actors like Michael Rooker, playing disgraced villain Yondu, show up the young actor. Pratt comes off like the bratty suburban imitation of Russell, a child in a man's body, which seems indicative of our cultural arrested adolescence — and becomes all the more annoying as Gunn pushes the Quill-Gamora romance. Quill, of course, refers to them as “Sam and Diane.”
God, I wish Gamora were Diane. Because Shelley Long's Diane was funny and stupid and interesting and flawed. Why in these blockbuster adventures — outside of the new Star Wars — does the woman character always have to be the mother hen: the most talented, the smartest on the team, the one who sacrifices intimacy for her career; the killjoy sold as “strong” but curiously lacking in dimensionality and humor, even as she runs in heels and is treated as “the girl.”
With Baby Groot around, the nuclear family structure is further honored: Here's harpy mom and fun dad. That grates more as the film goes on. Baby Groot only says the words “I am Groot,” yet the writers manage to set up huge laughs for him. The only memorable line Gamora gets is when, frustrated by Quill's advances, she bellows, “I don't know who Sam and Diane are!” It might make you wish the director didn't either, because the next film seems to promise even more will-they-won't-they sexual pseudo-tension.