Sunday, May 7, 2017

Daddy Issues - Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Reviewed

Here's the thing: conventional wisdom says that sequels, for the most part, are not as good or engaging as their predecessors. There are a few exceptions, (Empire Strikes Back, Godfather Part II), but they tend to be exceptions that prove the rule, standouts.

Comic book movies have suggested they might have a smidgen more immunity to conventional wisdom, however: Winter Soldier was just as good as Captain America, and very few people would argue that Batman begins was a better movie than The Dark Knight. Maybe this means  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has a statistically higher chance of being as good and entertaining as the original GotG. After all, it is helmed by James Gunn, the same writer-director that directed Vol. 1, Marvel Studios' biggest surprise hit to date in 2014.

For my two cents, though, it couldn't possibly surpass its predecessor. How could it? Three years ago, pundits were lining up to say studio head Kevin Feige had lost his mind making a movie about a C-level comic book no one had heard about. Marvel seemed to be betting the farm on a goofy-looking Star Wars-styled pastiche that featured a walking tree and a talking raccoon. Now? "I am Groot" is the new "May the Force be with you."

The best thing about the first Guardians movie was what a delightful surprise it was. No one really knew what to expect, even those of us who (like myself) were familiar with the comics. The imaginative visuals, great use of humour and unconventional characters made a deep impression on moviegoers, making it one of the year's most talked about films. And it was fun!

Now, full disclosure: in addition to being one of those few who had read the comic well before the movie came out, I just finished sharing a DQ 'Awesome Mix' Blizzard with Audrey that we picked up with dinner on the way home from Vol. 2 while while wearing a Rocket Raccoon t-shirt. So I guess what I'm saying is that I am probably not the most objective viewer there ever was, but let's take a whirl at it.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an uneven but thoroughly entertaining return to the 'cosmic' side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe which focuses less on story and more on character than the first film.

As a fan, I feel comfortable saying that the plot was not Vol. 1's strongest suit, so I think Gunn made the right call playing to the team's strengths here. The end result is an intriguing, if sentimental look at relationships, growing up, and the families of choice we create around ourselves. And also massive spaceship fights and a planet which is not only alive but also Kurt Russell.

There is a short prologue foreshadowing Peter Quill/Star-Lord's (Chris Pratt) conception, and then it is straight to a Bond-style cold open pitting the Guardians against a toothy, squiggly interdimensional monster straight from the latter issues of the comics. Opening with a boss fight while the credits roll and the camera follows an adorable Baby Groot around instead of focusing on the action was a bold choice, since I had assumed from the trailers that it was probably from the climax of the film, so that was a nice surprise.

There are some great visual gags and sarcastic dialogue here, and it sets the story off on the right foot. Shortly after this though, there is a bit of a crash, harsh words exchanged, and the team gets split up into smaller chunks after meeting a swaggering Kurt Russell, who introduces himself as Peter's father, Ego (not just a shot, Ego The Living Planet is a canonical character).

After the spectacle, laughs and action of the first third, the middle lags a little bit so some character development can be added to the mix, which is fine, but the pacing pays the price. On the plus side though, they reintroduce Michael Rooker as Quill's outlaw pseudo-father Yondu, and he is brilliant, giving us a little insight into his motivations and some Ravager backstory as well.

We also get to meet Mantis, Ego's antennaed, empathic helpmate, played with delightful awkwardness by the exotic-looking Pom Klementieff. Her interactions with Drax (Dave Bautista), who finds her repulsive, provide most of the humour in the second act. Actually, Bautista does a lot of the heavy lifting, laugh-wise, throughout the film. I can remember far more of Drax's quotes than I can of  Star Lord's, and his booming laugh is truly a thing of joy.

After Gamora (Zoe Saldana) gets a handle on her relationship with her sister Nebula, Quill wraps his head around his daddy and abandonment issues and Yondu explains to Rocket how much they are alike, it is time to bring everyone together for the final set-piece, which is well handled and borderline psychedelic.

The jokes and quotes and action are good, but without an emotional hook to hang things on, they can come away empty. There are probably those who will feel Guardians Vol. 2 is treacly and overly sentimental (and truth be told, even I had trouble telling if a scene where Star-Lord plays catch with Ego using a ball of energy was meant to be serious or not), but I have always found the theme of family connections particularly compelling. As a result. the second act's focus on perceived betrayal, paternal power structures and the importance of defining families operationally and not just biologically really worked for me. And made me wish I could have seen it with my own dad, frankly.

All in all, I don't think Vol. 2 is quite as strong a movie as the first Guardians, despite having a bit more depth and and just as many laughs, but without the element of surprise, I don't see how it could have been. If you liked the first movie, odds are you will enjoy this one too, and if you didn't, there might even be enough additional depth here to make a favourable impression this time around. In terms of quality, I would say it is just good as the first one, but in a slightly deeper way.

As far as enjoyment goes (independent of quality), for my two cents, GotG Vol. 2 is worth seeing for great characters, imaginative settings, a brilliant soundtrack, and genuine emotinal heft. There are also a handful  mittload of easter eggs and great callbacks to the wider Marvel Universe(s), including a Stan Lee cameo that provides a surprising amount of context to his previous appearances!

Oh, and unsurprisingly, you will probably want to stick around to the very end of the credits.

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