Director: James Gunn
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Kurt Russell, Michael Rooker
I remember watching James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014, and enjoying it quite a bit. The movie was like one giant wink emoticon brandishing an animated cape. And it counted on us noticing the fake cape. I remember chuckling at its irreverence and walking out a happier man.
Except, I don’t remember the jokes anymore. Not a single one. Hell, I can’t recollect a thing about the plot, or any of the flashy space set pieces, except that one of the intergalactic misfits from the all-star team named Groot was a monosyllabic tree trunk, ironically accommodating Vin Diesel’s most emotive (voice) performance. And probably the funky 1980s soundtrack, and the fact that leader Peter Quill (an omnipresent, rogue-ish Chris Pratt) loved his Walkman and mixed tapes. It was so much fun, and just as forgettable.
I suspect I’m going to forget everything about this sequel, too. I don’t think it’s built to be memorable. An intermittent experience for sure, and an entertaining one, like those glow-in-the-dark bands meant to sparkle only until the sun comes up. But that’s all. If you ask me why it’s worth watching, I’d probably reply with the ever-informative “because it’s cool, man.”
And it is cool, in an outlaw-ish non-R-rated way. Again, the specifics are incidental, meant to perhaps be acknowledged only because movie characters need to have some purpose. Though I can’t help but sense that Gunn’s characters behave like they’re in a live-action movie just by chance. They’d much rather be sledging one another at a drunken community wedding.
We’re introduced to Baby Groot, who dances like Christopher Walken over the opening credits in one interminable shot, while the others battle an Octopus-like alien monster in the background to protect some special batteries. They’re, of course, heroes for hire now. This virtually plays out like the end of a film, with the writers almost daring us to wonder how the Guardians will occupy an entire saga after this. The hallowed importance of cinematic “conflict” is scoffed upon, as the raccoon-ish Rocket (Bradley Cooper) decides to steal the batteries on a whim, pissing off their clients and kickstarting a chaotic chase across galaxies. Any other film would have had to carefully construct a sequence of logical motives for Rocket’s actions. But not this one. Rocket has grouchy issues, and they’re all just one dysfunctional family. Everything happens for the heck of it.
The plot can go in virtually any direction it wants, subject to the moods of these guys. Soon, this descends into a quasi-existential father-son tale. Without giving away too much, let’s just say that Quinn is torn between his biological father (Kurt Russell, as Ego) and his convict daddy (Michael Rooker, as exiled Ravager, Yondu). Everyone else is equipped with a resolution partner, too: the eccentric Drax (Dave Bautista) with new entry Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) with ‘evil’ sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), and the unlikeliest of them all, Rocket with Yondu.
Gunn seems to know exactly why the first film stood out in the bloated Marvel Cinematic Universe – he takes all the tonal coolness, the hipster pop nostalgia, the self-depreciatory quirk, the outlandish physicality, the musical money shots, the parody-meets-kitsch self-awareness, and then triples the dose, almost overcooking his golden goose in the process. Each moment is designed to be the superhero template’s awkward cousin – the cinematic equivalent of awing us with Superman’s awesome splendor, only to naughtily snap us out of our reverie and laugh at us for not figuring out that he was Clarke Kent all along.
The filmmaker spoofs the material as he makes it, with witty punch lines and cricket-chirping silences following almost every extravagant sequence. He thrives in puncturing the ‘seriousness’ of heroism by consistently showing it a goofy mirror. For instance, a Queen emphatically arrives on a planet while her minions roll out a red carpet for her airy strides; midway through, the dramatic score stops abruptly while the carpet gets stuck. Similarly, Nebula announces her intentions with a lethal assassination, and then seductively bites into a fruit; she immediately spits it out, modestly muttering, “It’s not ripe”.
The filmmaker spoofs the material as he makes it, with witty punch lines and cricket-chirping silences following almost every extravagant sequence
After a while, this easy skit-like humour becomes a bit predictable. Yet, the sheer unpredictability and political incorrectness of their personalities make for a curious combination; heroes acting like buffoons, as if to tell us that they’re made by humans after all.
Even the mechanically deafening and typically Marvel climax, involving loud and blinding annihilation, incoherent stunts and multiple rescue tracks, is made a little more bearable by scattered gags involving duck-tape to mark a bomb button (!) and a tragically funny Mary Poppins tribute.
All in all, for someone notoriously wary of contemporary superhero franchises, I came out the hall a relatively unoffended viewer. Gunn’s style just about supersedes the zip-zap-zoom, space-heavy heritage of the comic material he adapts. There’s a Vol. 3 on its way, too, and he must remember that even his relentless pursuit of unpretentiousness can acquire a slightly pretentious “effort-based” tone. The novelty is more of a trademark now.
Either way, I’m going to watch the next one with a fresh mind – with literally no memory of why I thought this was a decent, pop-corny night at the movies.