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No Risk, No Reward | Marvel's 'Guardians Vol. 2' Review
The fact that the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie was a success is still somewhat unbelievable. The sci-fi action comedy featuring a raccoon and a tree was the biggest risk Marvel had taken on their path to Infinity War. It seemed that Guardians of the Galaxy was more of a chore that Marvel and Disney had to check off the list so they could set up their cosmic level story. But instead, the movie ended up being a witty and irreverent homage to the Marvel cosmic comics and 80s filmmaking. The visual spectacle, and unique tone, of Guardians of the Galaxy, compared to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, primed audiences everywhere for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Unfortunately, Marvel and James Gunn seem to have learned the wrong lessons from the success they found with the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 doubles down on the parts of the first movie that were best in small doses. On top of that, they seem to forget, ignore, or reject the aspects of the first film that were most enjoyable. By insisting that everyone's favorite heroes remain as reluctant as they were in the first film while also saving the galaxy again, Starlord, Gamora, Drax, Groot, and Rocket feel more petulant and immature than heroic or inspiring.
A Team of Heroes
Obviously, part of the appeal of the first Guardians of the Galaxy was that the characters were petulant and immature. In that movie, each of the titular Guardians began the film with no interest in the Galaxy. They were outlaws. Every member of the team's roster started the movie wanted for one crime or another. They only came together out of sheer necessity. As Chris Pratt's Starlord memorably told Bradly Cooper's Rocket Racoon in the first movie, he only cares about the Galaxy because he's "one of the idiots who lives in it."
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 begins with the premise that each of these team members is now a hero. The team is traveling the cosmos, taking jobs to protect and defend people. They have built reputations and careers out of bettering peoples' lives. The first movie gave us a team forced together by life-or-death circumstances. This film shows us a team that we are supposed to believe has decided to stay together. And whose heroics are so noteworthy that they are hired to protect entire planets.
But the substance is not there to back up the assertion. Out of all the characters, Zoe Saldana's Gamora is the only one who seems to have grown at all by the time Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is starting. Gamora was suspicious and brash in the first movie. In Vol. 2 she is more protective of the close bonds she has formed. The best parts of the film are when Saldana and Karen Gillan's Nebula are on their own. The two women explore a range of emotional substance we rarely see in Marvel movies when they have time away from the rest of the team.
As for the remainder of that team? Pratt's Peter Quill and Cooper's Rocket are all style and no substance. Each of them has the promise of a deeper level, but Gunn's screenplay does not put in the work to explore either to a satisfying conclusion. And while those two characters stall out, Bautista's Drax the Destroyer has regressed since the first movie. His character's literal interpretation quirk, which was played for laughs to grand effect in the first film, has become so funny to Drax himself that it is insufferable to audiences. Last, but not least, there is Baby Groot, a character who exists to pad the film for time and double the amount of money Disney makes on toys this year.
Learning The Wrong Lessons
Marvel seems to have learned in Guardians of the Galaxy that people loved the use of classic music in the movie. Here, they aren't as off base as they are with the characterization issues. But they apply the lesson all wrong. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does not have any musical score. Nor does it have very many minutes that are free of music. Instead, the film goes from start to finish packing in as many late 70s rock-pop hits as possible.
The musical decision wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing except for what it highlights. The scenes where there is no music playing seem static, and weirdly out of place. The film appears to drag at times just because there's no poppy synth melody backing the scene. Like many other things from the first movie, Awesome Mixtape Vol. 2 just seems gimmicky and overplayed.
Finally, Gunn and Marvel fail most egregiously when they are borrowing their sense of humor from the first movie. In Guardians of the Galaxy, the heroes didn't spend much of the movie caring about what happened to anyone else. After all, they were self-interested criminals for about three-quarters of it.
But in Vol. 2 they are supposed to be superheroes from the jump. By using the same sense of humor that won audiences over in Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn forces us to question how brave his heroes are. For example, in the middle of the movie's climax, when Rocket and Starlord spend several minutes looking for tape instead of trying to defeat the villain, we are forced to consider if they want to beat the villain. If they don't care, why should we?
And, to be honest, should we? We already know our heroes will be all right and dandy by the time Infinity War or Vol. 3 rolls around. Undercutting any dramatic tension that does exist isn't a great move.
None of this is to say that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is a bad movie. It's not bad, not even bad for Marvel. Just more of the same. And that is disappointing for the sequel to a movie that was so brazenly different. Guardians of the Galaxy was a risk in 2014. The only risky thing about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was asking Sylvester Stalone to deliver sci-fi dialogue.