The second installment of the Guardians series is nearly critic-proof. At this point, the franchise has a life of its own, and is successful enough at entertaining that snipes are harmless to the films and serious analysis is nearly pointless. Truth be told, Vol. 2 holds together—barely, but it finally does. It’s less a sequel than the second installment, with some emphasis on “stall.” It’s at least the middle of three films, and as other space franchises have shown, could be the second of many.
Nothing, nothing can replace the freshness of the first, which was, with lead Chris Pratt, the main reason for the first film’s success. Few expected that a film focusing on minor players in the Marvel universe could produce such a success. But the utter insouciance of the plot, the film’s attitude, and the main players was so unexpected–so different from the seriousness of the other Marvel entries, and so much silly fun—that it made for such a refreshingly enjoyable film that became the top box office film of 2014.
The first film flowed, and created a new world that was both down to earth (Pratt) and otherworldly (Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, Bradley Cooper’s Rocket, and Vin Diesel’s Groot). This one feels assembled, as if they pulled out the bits and pieces that apparently made for success, and then stitched them together. All the elements are there; the flow is gone. There are the same snarky jokes and similar action sequences, but the film feels bumpy.
There is a definite story to this one, but it tends to tear at the fabric of the action world the first film created. The father issues that Peter/Star-Lord struggled with are brought to the surface with a vengeance, and then those issues take over the film. That and the script’s tendency to separate our central characters into subgroups both tend to rob the film of the energy and dynamic created by the group when they are together—either arguing and threatened to be pulled apart, or when they pull together to accomplish a task. [Spoiler alert] Kurt Russell as Ego is the perfect choice to play Peter’s father, but casting such a strong presence in that role fairly demands that the paternal subplot become the plot, and that happens to the film’s detriment.
As many have noted, the family theme extends to Gamora and her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). The push-and-pull of that relationship seems to promise a bit more than it delivers, and it appears that any real resolution (either way) is being pushed to the next film.
Perhaps the biggest flaw of the film is the level of violence, and the amount of it. It seems as if every battle, large or small, has to be a set piece of some kind, and the balance between violence and humor is often awkward and uncomfortable. These action scenes seem less of a piece with the film itself, and more like standalone battles that wear out their welcome quickly.
The true strength of these films, of course, is this group of characters, not so much what they are tasked with. Rocket is still there with his sharp humor, and it seems that the filmmakers have learned to trust Dave Bautista as Dax with more lines and a greater role in the plotline. He’s much less the strong and silent type here, but it appears that the filmmakers haven’t quite nailed down what his character should be. He’s as funny as in the first film, but is used in more ways in this second one, some of which work and some of which don’t.
The film goes quite sentimental at times, and gets downright squishy at the end. But in the middle of all that not-always-earned emotion is Baby Groot, perhaps the most adorable character since Olaf in Frozen. He couldn’t possibly be any cuter, and if the end-credit previews are any indication, we will lose him to Adolescent Groot in the next film. That should have its own teenage brand of humor surrounding the character, but I will miss this little bugger. He is also more expressive here, with “I am Groot” apparently meaning more words and thoughts than we ever knew.
Then there is the one thing that holds everything together, and for which the film’s producers must give thanks every day—and that’s Chris Pratt. Looking at The Hunger Games films in contrast (and I’m sure I’m in the minority here), the greatly talented Jennifer Lawrence never quite seemed a good fit as Katniss, and as a member of the world of the film. In the Guardian films, Pratt is a near-perfect fit. He’s ruggedly handsome, and fulfills that Clark Gable popularity description—men wanted to either be him or hang out with him, and women wanted to be with him. Pratt is more of a comic figure than Gable, of course, but his shoulders carry these films with ease. He effortlessly handles both action and comedy, especially the singular brand of humor belonging to these films.
Pratt’s acting chops are still undetermined, however, and his work in Passengers didn’t stretch him too much. I noticed that the scenes in Vol. 2 where he might have gone deeply emotional, even into tears, showed him from a distance and more from the back than the front. (Perhaps he can’t do believable tears yet, or the filmmakers didn’t want Star-Lord to show that much naked emotion.) However, when I apply the “What other actor could do this?” test to the character of Peter Quill, I come up short. He’s in the Robert Downey, Jr./Iron Man and Tom Hiddleston/Loki category. It’s impossible to imagine someone else doing this, or doing this as well.
Peter’s relationship with Gamora was a great and growing tease of the first film, and the second gives us a nod to the romantic tension there. The best part of that story is the “empath” that can read emotion’s, including Peter’s for Gamora. But this is the part where the “stall” in installment comes in, as any serious development of the relationship is pushed to the end of the film, and then put in place rather quickly and thinly. We’re going to have to wait a few years for a satisfactory conclusion to that romance.
In short, Vol. 2 contains enough of the successful elements of the first film to be fun, if not fresh. It’s to be hoped that the demands for various layers of resolution in the next film will provide more coherence for its action, humor, characters and those characters’ challenges.