James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy was a stock ragtag superhero movie with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and a hearty dose of nostalgia, but its sequel is something a little smoother. One might chalk it up to the Marvel Studios house style’s recent embrace of the stranger legacies of comics artists Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, or to the fact that Gunn has doubled down on nostalgia, repainting the outer space setting in a Skittles color palette while drawing quotations of ’80s pop culture (video arcades, snobs vs. slobs comedies, flirting TV couples in the Moonlighting and Cheers vein, David Hasselhoff) directly into the plot. To some degree, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 is a more offbeat film than the original, with better gags, better (and more cartoonish) action, and more visual variety. But like its predecessor, it is hamstrung by the fact that it exists in part to smirk at its own corniness and space opera trappings. “You suck, Zylak”—a line that’s earns a good laugh in context—sums it up. Vol. 2 can only be as irreverent as it is broadly and shamelessly derivative.
But, being one of the few Marvel films to have a solo writing-directing credit, it’s far from impersonal. Much of what makes Vol. 2 so enjoyable stems from Gunn’s very consistent movie taste (basically, anything from the era when Hollywood movies had opening credits and special effects were supposed to look cool) and the wackier side of his imagination, which conjures up yo-ho-ho space pirates, face-stretching hyperspace jumps, and the most meta of Stan Lee cameos. As before, Chris Pratt plays Peter Quill, alias “Star-Lord,” a half-alien who was abducted from the Earth as a child in the late 1980s and raised by extraterrestrial rogues. He is the leader of the Guardians Of The Galaxy, a motley crew of quasi-antiheroes: the green-skinned killing machine Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the warlike and pathologically literal Drax The Destroyer (Dave Bautista, the film’s comedic MVP), the raccoonoid dirtbag Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and the sentient tree-thing Groot (Vin Diesel), currently a shin-high sapling with the intelligence of a toddler.
After a brief prologue set in Missouri in the early 1980s, the story jumps forward to shortly after the events of the first film, which found Quill and company saving the galaxy from generic cataclysm. Hired by a golden-skinned species of prissy space elitists to vanquish a toothy, Lovecraftian tentacle monster, the Guardians end up getting on their clients’ bad side, only to be rescued by Quill’s long absent alien father, who turns out be the human form of Ego The Living Planet (Kurt Russell). A quintessential Jack Kirby creation, Ego is depicted in comics as a purple planetoid with an old man’s face. Gunn’s version is a little more relatable (and harbors much more of a personal relationship to the lyrics of Looking Glass’ 1972 hit “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)”), but he also travels the galaxy astride a big white space egg, which seems in keeping with the spirit of the loonier Kirby style. Like Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange, Vol. 2 actually tries to have some fun with its production design and effects budget—especially when it comes to the tiny Groot, who takes the spotlight in the movie’s best extended gags.
Some of the movie’s more inspired sequences are visually indulgent: a video-game-quoting chase through an Asteroids-esque “quantum asteroid field”; Rocket having sadistic fun laying traps for armed goons in a forest; the blue-skinned Yondu (Michael Rooker) cutting through the corridors of a spaceship with a whistle-controlled arrow; little Groot dancing to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” during the opening credits, unaware of the elaborate battle raging directly behind him, out of focus. There are ornate palaces, reddish-pink deserts, snow-covered galactic frontier towns, and galleys full of fearsome pirates who cradle teddy bears and suck on their thumbs as they sleep. (Compare this with the original Thor, which introduced the most bizarre set of characters that the Marvel-verse had offered to date, only to plummet them into a familiar, dusty Marvel Studios dull-scape.) But while it’s always good to see a comic-book movie that believes that color isn’t just for costumes, one can’t shake the feeling that the movie relies too much on shtick, or that its plot resembles a sitcom episode—specifically, the Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air episode where Ben Vereen guest-stars as Will Smith’s dad.
It even has corny character subplots: the unspoken attraction between Quill and Gamora; a nascent romance between Drax and the antennaed empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff); the antagonism between Gamora and her evil cyborg sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan). One of the many things that has made the recent Logan feel like such a breath of fresh air is how it holds up a fat middle finger to the wussy, TV-inspired style of character development that has become the genre-dominating Marvel’s default storytelling mode: Planets may be imperiled on a regular basis, but major characters grow only a little. In another “You suck, Zylak”-ism, Gunn even has Quill proclaim that his “unspoken thing” with Gamora will never be resolved, because that’s what a TV show would do to fix sagging ratings. And again, the exchange is funny, because Quill’s personal mythology of dated pop culture references and oldies radio staples (perennially lost on the other characters) is a reliable running gag and because Pratt owns the character’s mix of charm and overgrown kid-hood.
That’s Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 in a nutshell: likable and irreverently funny for what it is. What it is, though, is a generic over-stuffed world-saving adventure with zinger-laced dialogue and more Easter eggs and in-universe references than dramatic stakes. (At least they’re not fighting a hole in the sky.) There’s an awful lot of these movies around nowadays, though few of them look as eclectic, earn as many genuine laughs, or have such a clear personality. In a blockbuster factory like the Marvel-Disney machine, such values have to be drawn within a template.