Monday, May 8, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Directed by: James Gunn
Runtime: 2hr, 16mins
Action, Adventure, Comedy, Sci-fi

One of the problems with sequels is their tendency to rely on audience nostalgia for characters jokes and settings. Many times they get bogged down in callbacks to the first movie without pushing the characters forward in interesting ways or introducing new characters that have interesting arcs of their own and have an impact on the established characters. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 begins by falling into some of these traps, but thankfully manages to do some interesting things with the second half of the film.

The first Guardians film stood out in the world of superhero films because of its comedy first approach. They were finally willing make a hero film that wasn’t a super serious action/drama whose humor never went beyond a handful of quips. However, since that first film, Deadpool has come out with a very similar comedy-bordering-on-parody approach. Even the first trailer for Thor: Ragnarok (directed by notable comedy director Taika Waititi) has a somewhat more light-hearted, comedic tone that’s enhanced by an upbeat classic rock song. So the first Guardians clearly changed the landscape of superhero films, and set expectations fairly high for the follow up. And for the most part this film rises to the occasion and makes a few attempts to one up the level of comedy from the first film. Yet at times that works to the film’s detriment.

The first half does get bogged down by repetition of comedic bits - again there is an introduction that involves a character dancing across the screen to a classic rock song - and enough returning jokes that the film starts feeling like a parody of the first film. Some of the jokes are very transparent callbacks to the first film meant to remind us of these character’s personalities while others are penis jokes that started feeling very awkward when I remembered the number of young children that parents brought to this movie. That isn’t to say the film doesn’t have a good sense of humor. I laughed quite frequently, but it does try noticeably hard to earn its laughs from time to time.

Nevertheless, what won me over about Guardians 2 was the way it weaved so many different character arcs together - all of them having to do with family. There’s Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) attempts to connect with his father Ego (Kurt Russell) - on top of his further attempts to form a romantic relationship with Gamora (Zoe Saldana). There’s also an expanded role for Yondu (Michael Rooker), who played a significant paternal role in Peter’s formative years. There’s Gamora’s relationship with her vengeful sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). There’s also newcomer Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who possess an empathetic ability to share emotions with anyone she physically touches. It’s used as a clever means of befriending Drax (Dave Bautista), who is the type of character with whom it may have been hard to illustrate inner feelings otherwise. There’s even a budding friendship between Yondu and Rocket (Bradley Cooper), who are such similar people that Yondu is able to call Rocket out on his insecurity that tends make him push people away. And finally there’s baby Groot (Vin Diesel), who is as adorable as you expect him to be throughout. It’s charming to see all the adult guardians looking after him like equal parents in the relationship, passing him back and forth, and coddling him like a baby. The real shame is that we’ll only get one film with him at this age.

It’s worth noting, Peter’s father’s name, Ego, is not an insignificant detail - as on the nose as it may be - but I'll leave it at that. Perhaps writer/director James Gunn is borrowing from The Fast and the Furious series by making such a significant point about family not always being biological, but the emotional connection the characters share in this series allows it to rise above a lot of its counterparts.

The difficulty in utilizing this many characters, giving them each their due, and still managing to give most of them compelling character arcs cannot be overstated. Yet James Gunn navigates it like a master. For some, the odd tonal shift from broad comedy in the beginning to heartfelt drama toward the end may not mesh, but it worked on me. It takes a deft touch to successfully pair comedy and characters dealing with pain and strained relationships in this way, and pull it off this well. And while I give Gunn a lot of the credit for his role as writer and director, the cast is excellent from top to bottom. While Gunn could lean heavily on his more established actors like Saldana, Pratt and Cooper, he gives equal footing to Bautista’s Drax and Gillian’s Nebula, who both manage to give their respective characters enough depth that we both care about them and enjoy every time they appear on screen. It really wouldn’t surprise me if this cast were the preferred Marvel ensemble.

The art design here also deserves special recognition. It's some of the best in the Marvel canon. It may just be CGI everything, but it’s so well done and so artfully crafted, the amount of CGI won’t bother most viewers. Unlike a certain other hero cinematic universe dominated by a dark, near colorless visual style, the overall aesthetic here is as bright and colorful as its unique characters. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the excellent soundtrack of the first film is followed up with another excellent mixtape of classic hits sure to be on everyone’s favorite playlist for the rest of the summer.

Despite some of the film’s flaws, Guardians 2 is a thoroughly enjoyable action/comedy that is every bit as fun as the first. It’s a great way to kick off the summer movie season, and likely one of the most fun films you’ll see at the theater this year.

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