Guardians of the Galaxy has always been in a class apart from the other films of the Marvel stable. Some fans and writers claim that this is because of its outer space setting, and the unique set pieces it provides. Others cite the films’ skillful use of sarcasm and self-aware skewering of superhero movie tropes as what make it different.
What I find appealing about the first Guardians film, however, is the sensitivity it shows in its characters. Marvel’s ensemble movies have always been about the creation and sustainment of community. But where the Avengers films are about learning to compromise and working together, the first Guardians movie — despite its prickly exterior — is about building community by learning emotional vulnerability.
In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, out this weekend, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) are still learning lessons in openness and humility. But oddly, the film they’re in needs help maintaining emotional honesty, too. Where the first movie kept a fine balance of pathos and jokes, the second Guardians film is almost caustically cynical. The film is so preoccupied with witty banter that it misses nearly every opportunity to plumb the depths of the themes it presents, until finally pulling it together at the very end.
In an opening that’s not all that different from Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, we first see the Guardians on the job, hired by a condescending race of aliens called the Sovereigns to protect their power source from a giant space monster. After they succeed, Rocket steals a cache of valuable batteries from the Guardians’ employers, causing an intergalactic chase involving the Sovereigns and the first film’s Ravagers, led by Michael Rooker’s Yondu.
While on the run, an argument between Peter and Rocket causes the Guardians’ ship to crash-land, whichleads to an encounter with Peter’s long absent father, Ego (Kurt Russell) and his empathic assistant, Mantis (Pom Klementieff). For Peter, the reunion seems like a dream come true, but all is not as it appears to be (without spoiling too much, it turns out that Ego is aptly named).
The movie is full of emotionally resonant themes — the danger of selfishness and arrogance, fathers and sons, families (both the ones we’re born into and the ones we create for ourselves) — in addition to continuing the themes of emotional vulnerability that appear in the first movie. But in the interest of avoiding cliché, returning writer and director James Gunn chooses to downplay most moments of genuine emotion by capping them off with a joke, as when Ego announces, just after his reunion with Peter, “I’ve gotta take a whizz.” In a later scene, where Yondu accurately identifies Rocket’s sarcasm as an emotional defense mechanism, it’s hard not to feel that the movie is doing the same thing, keeping audiences plied with humor for fear that actual drama might turn them off.
Guardians Vol. 2 does eventually let loose with a climax that is truly touching and lets its characters say what they feel without making a joke out of it. But given that these films have always had a soft center to them, it seems odd that it takes so long for us to get to that point. The result is that this new film is plenty entertaining, but lacks the complexity of its predecessor. For a movie that’s about growth and relationships, it still feels like this sequel has a bit of growing up to do.