By Preston Wilder
Nothing this year is likely to top the opening credits of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, in which the titular space mercenaries battle a giant squid-monster – but that’s only in the background, the foreground being taken up with Groot the tree (now re-imagined as a tiny, squeaky-voiced ‘Baby Groot’) boogieing on down to ELO’s ‘Mr. Blue Sky’. It’s a fittingly breezy, audacious start for this very welcome sequel, putting the ‘comic’ back into ‘comic-book franchise’. Then again, few things this year are likely to be as dispiriting as the final caption warning/informing us that “The Guardians of the Galaxy Will Return”, underlining the ‘franchise’ part.
I suppose it’s inevitable. The first Guardians was a massive hit, shocking studio heads with the news that people – beyond a hard core of Comic Con-attending faithful – don’t really take comic-book movies all that seriously. This one, offering more of the same, is also likely to do well, and I assume will be followed by others, at least till we start getting fed up of Quill the Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), lime-green Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the tactless, socially inappropriate warrior (Dave Bautista) and Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), the bad-tempered, in-denial raccoon who hates everyone, including himself. Even when the day comes when it starts getting stale and profits plummet, I suspect we’ll still get a few attempted reboots – or at least a spin-off called ‘Rocket & Groot: Mask of the Golden Raccoon’ – milking this cash-cow for every drop they can get.
That day isn’t here yet, though the gaudy-looking Vol. 2 is a lot more self-conscious than the original – the 70s tunes in particular have become a fetish – and I’m pretty sure the first film didn’t lean quite so hard on the ‘dysfunctional families’ angle. The Guardians are one such family (they all “have issues”, and are always yelling at each other), but still nothing compared to Gamora’s sister Nebula, who wants to kill her, or the girls’ father Thanos who made them fight when they were children, tearing bits out of the loser (invariably Nebula) and replacing them with machine parts – or indeed Quill’s own long-lost father Ego (Kurt Russell), who turns out to be a god. The good news is that Quill is also a god, having inherited Dad’s immortality genes. The bad news is that Dad is a psycho who plans to destroy the universe, leading our heroes to try and stop him. Rocket: “So we’re saving the Galaxy again?”; Quill: “I guess…”
The tone is scrappy, the Guardians imperfect and proud of it. Writer-director James Gunn – who made two terrific mid-budget films in Slither (2006) and Super (2010), and will hopefully make some more once this franchise winds down – mistrusts perfection, associating it with arrogance and lack of compassion. Ego (note the name) is one such godlike monster, so is the unseen Thanos whose cruel treatment of Nebula might be seen as a pitiless quest for perfection; so indeed are the Sovereign, a race of genetically “impeccable” beings who are golden-skinned and unfortunately also very thin-skinned. The villains of the piece all fancy themselves as creators; our heroes are deliberately messy, from Rocket who’s pure id (“I did it,” he explains of some highly irresponsible action, “because I wanted to!”) to Quill, whose childhood was so messed-up he fantasised about David Hasselhoff – in his Knight Rider days – being his father.
The sequel’s greatest triumph is Baby Groot, wandering obliviously through the mayhem – even the baddies agree he’s “too adorable to kill” – and getting the film’s funniest scene when Rocket and Yondu (Michael Rooker) enlist his help to get them out of jail. All he has to do is bring back Yondu’s fin-shaped helmet – but communication is awkward (Groot can only say “I am Groot”) so instead he brings back a live animal, a severed thumb and a large metal desk, among other irrelevant objects. (A conversation about hats also ensues; Gunn does great non-sequitur.) The biggest disappointment may be Drax, whose hilariously bumptious character seems a little played-out here, and the film’s relentless sarcasm also tends to get a bit unproductive, as it did in Deadpool; it’s amusing when the Guardians bicker in the midst of a space battle – but why is the battle even there, if they (and presumably we) care so little about it?
This is a strangely schizophrenic sensibility; in the 80s, it appeared as knowing pastiche in Flash Gordon (1980) or The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984) – but those films were clearly tongue-in-cheek whereas GotG is a big-studio behemoth that’s intended to keep going, winning a place in our hearts even as we keep being urged not to take it seriously. The only real issue with this sequel is that it’s a sequel, and what may have seemed like light relief from the Marvel assembly line is now officially a ‘product’ – yet the epilogue (set to Cat Stevens’ ‘Father and Son’) is lovely, and the dance to Sam Cooke is lovely, and Gunn’s roguish spirit still resonates. “Spacesuits for Emergency” reads a sign below racks of suits in a corner of the spaceship; “… or for Fun” one of our misfit heroes has scrawled underneath. Franchise or not, Guardians of the Galaxy is still fun.
DIRECTED BY James Gunn
STARRING Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Kurt Russell
US 2017 137 mins