There is an “I am your father” moment, but as far as science fiction sequels go, there’s not a lot of Empire Strikes Back in the DNA of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. Instead this cartoonishly fun, if a bit labored, comic book adaptation sticks to a familiar formula for blockbuster part twos: “Here’s everything you liked about the first movie, only more.”
This ethos, for better or worse, becomes clear in the opening title sequence, as the guardians team up against a giant space squid that looks significantly more expensive than anything they’ve fought before. Here’s the ’70s playlist, starting with ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” Here are our dysfunctional heroes, including the rakish human Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the tough but tender Gamora (Zoe Saldana, again in green), the scene-stealing warrior and accidental comedian Drax (Dave Bautista), and the CGI tandem of a gun nut raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and baby tree, voiced by Vin Diesel.
Welcome back Michael Rooker, as Quill’s blue-painted and lovably mean surrogate father, and introduce Kurt Russell as Quill’s kinder but forebodingly mysterious real father. Throw splashes of radioactive neon onto the film’s color palette. The stage is now set for witty banter, computer-choreographed bloodless violence, and the sympathetic pull of our heroes growing closer together despite their differences. Repeat for 90 minutes.
What worked in the first film, something of a surprise hit in 2014, works again here. The story is a mix of comic book mumbo jumbo and your standard adventure fare, but the stars have genuine chemistry and good comedic timing, helping most of the many one-liners land. James Gunn, the writer of those one-liners, also manages to direct some creative action set-pieces, and has cooked up a handful of “wow” moments at strange planets and bizarre aliens.
By the time the required universe-threatening disaster is at last averted, however, the remaining “wow” has been sapped by an onslaught of frictionless fighting and consequence-free explosions, and most of the dialogue has lost its punch. Using “more” as a guiding principle is exhausting.
At least some of the positive reaction to the first film featuring these characters stemmed from the relative novelty of a superhero movie that managed to swerve away from many of the genre’s pitfalls. It had a cheerful momentum that was hard to resist. In Vol. 2, the wheels are starting to spin. And it’s only so long before the gravitational pull of the Marvel universe begins to exert its influence.
As the smart-alecky interstellar stepchild of the Marvel film empire, the original Guardians of the Galaxy had room to create its own playground unbeholden to the demands of cross-promotion and continuity with the rest of an inflating universe. Signs during the sequel and in its four—I think, although it’s possible I lost count—post-credits sequences hint at a collision with Marvel’s Earthbound heroes in future movies, and while that may thrill some longtime comic book fans, its inevitability feels constricting. It’s a big galaxy, but the walls are closing in.
Regardless, allowed as it is to (mostly, for now) make its own rules while playing with a Disney budget, Vol. 2 is more original than much of what’s likely to come in its wake at this year’s summer box office. There are worse corners of this universe to spend a couple hours in.