‘Guardians of the Galaxy 2’: Superhero action with a ‘70s beat

Under James Gunn’s direction, the characters in the “Guardians” films convey the sense that nothing you see can be construed as normal. (Movie review: Part 2 of 2)

Baby Groot is back, voiced by Vin Diesel in "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2." (Still image taken from the YouTube video version of the film's final trailer)

WASHINGTON, July 2, 2017 – James Gunn, who thus far has directed both “Guardians” films, including “Vol. 2,” cut his directorial teeth by making low budget horror films, which often have a self-referential style that can borders on the wacky. Gunn doesn’t display these influences openly in his in his Marvel efforts. Yet under his direction, the characters in both films convey the sense that nothing you see can be construed as normal.

Read also: Why the ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ franchise is succeeding

Perhaps most prominently, it’s the music and soundtrack of both “Guardians” films where the distinctiveness of Gunn’s directorial approach is often most evident. That impeccably curated soundtrack – dominated by ‘70s pop music hits – was arguably the most enduring impression that lingered after a close encounter with the initial “Guardians” film. The music tied directly into the evolving character of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a confused, apparently wanna-be hero adrift in space.

Clinging to his fragile temporal existence, out of place and time, Quill finds grounding in the recordings of old hit tunes he carries around with him, as they seem to evoke fond memories from his past. Or at least the what past he can recall. In addition, the just-beneath-the-surface effect of this retro music vibe also plays into the outsider appeal gradually encompassing the rest of the team, providing, in a way, this odd band of super powered misfits its spiritual mission statement.

The musical motif extends to “Vol. 2,” where we get a new batch of ‘70s songs. Again, they directly reference the mix-tapes Quill holds as his most precious possessions, but take on a larger thematic role. Some tie-ins are quite explicit, as when Ego (Kurt Russell) explains to Peter how “Brandy” by Looking Glass directly relates to him, and by extension to Peter.

The musical selections themselves might not be as memorable in “Vol. 2” as they were in the first film, but they seem more purposeful. Instead of drifting through the background like random picks from FM rock radio, they tie in more directly into the narrative and action.

This is one aspect of the new film that underscores the increasing sophistication and growth of James Gunn as a filmmaker. In the original “Guardians,” any number of Gunn’s directorial choices involving music, camera shots, or the action scenes in general often felt as if Gunn chose them because the felt cool. This led to some dissonance in the final product. But “Vol. 2” feels like a more coherent whole, with the unfolding ‘70s pop rock track being just one example.

But Gunn’s evolution doesn’t just end with the music. Everything in “Vol. 2” is crisper than in the previous film. Scenes are rarely left hanging in the air, and the plot threads are woven more intricately. One senses this in the James Bond-like opening action scene of the film, which quickly reintroduces the characters, the opening credits, and the film’s first blast of adrenalin. As the Guardians go about dispatching a time-displaced monster, the fun, irreverent and action-packed tone of the film is set.

As the film gets underway, it’s clear that once again Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill is the center of the film, providing the plotline with sense and forward motion. Quill clearly views himself as a Harrison Ford-style leading man (or maybe David Hasselhoff, who gets a brief cameo). But it’s easy to see Quill inherently has more in common Michael Douglas in “Romancing the Stone” or Kurt Russell in “Big Trouble in Little China.”

Peter Quill is a goofball at his best and a creep at his worst. The film has trouble balancing the aspects of his personality at times, even though the story generally revolving around him.

Fortunately, this film works best during the moments it comes across as an ensemble film. Part of this might be because the highly-likeable Chris Pratt is an engaging actor, and it’s hard for a director or the camera not to focus on him. He can make even some of the most cringe-worthy situations and dialogue at least vaguely charming, as he did in “Passengers.”

Yet this also speaks to the fact that Marvel films often use the leading man concept as a crutch. This becomes fairly obvious in a film like “Vol. 2,” since the filmmakers have made a considerable effort to create an ensemble of dynamic characters to occupy the narrative.

This is odd, since this film creates a template for an alternate path. The initial focus of “Vol. 2” is on Gamora (Zoe Saldana). That opening sequence where the Guardians battle that inter-dimensional monster concludes when it’s dispatched largely due to Gamora’s heroics. The team’s reward from the Sovereign who hired them is the release of Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) into their custody. The film could easily have followed this route in more detail. But soon, the narrative is off and running somewhere else.

Even before they depart from the Sovereign’s throne room, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) reveals he stole a few of the batteries that had attracted the monster to begin with. As a result, the Sovereign shifts gears and pursues the Guardians, intent on killing them. But then, the previous set-ups are put on hold to deal with Peter’s issues, including the sudden appearance of his father, Ego, portrayed by a crusty Kurt Russell.

That’s not to say that the central interaction between Peter and Ego isn’t a powerful element in this film, which it is. It’s just that the path to getting there is so circuitous, while it misses other opportunities for character development along the way.

Whatever the case, the film finally chooses to focus most forcefully on Ego and Peter, and particularly on Ego’s intent to override Peter as a person. It is Ego’s desire to keep on living while implanting his banal personality in and on everything.

This seems to be a key metaphor in this film, speaking volumes about the current generational conflict between aging Baby Boomers who insist on remaining dominant and relevant at the cost of the generations that have followed them.

This narrative thread gains more poignancy as Yondu (Michael Rooker) takes a more prominent role, being cast as Peter’s surrogate father and the antithesis to Ego. The inevitable conflict that arises among the three draws a clear contrast between exactly who Peter is rather than who and what he should be. The problem is that this theme quickly overrides every other impulse driving the remaining characters when they willingly drop everything to give Peter a hand.

For the most part this actually works well for Rocket’s character development, which is somewhat analogous to Peter’s life story in a way. As a genetically altered raccoon – or a raccoon-like – possessing an advanced understanding of military thinking, Rocket has been left abandonment issues, too.

But the character who’s really left out here in the long run is Gamora.

We learn that both Gamora and her sister Nebula were the abused adoptive daughters of Thanos – the overarching villain in the first film and in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) narrative. Thanos does not appear in “Vol. 2” and is rarely even mentioned, meaning Gamora and Nebula have to work out their personal problems pretty much without a coherent backstory.

The disdain and confusion that overshadows the sisters’ relationship is palpable, but the film doesn’t go much deeper. The sisters don’t hate each other as much as they hate their miserable childhood to the point where neither of them can escape how hopelessly rooted they are in their respective pasts.

Yet this intriguing narrative line can’t become the main focus of the film, for Gamora is required to focus on her role with the Guardians. Her story becomes secondary, since Peter’s story is more important and there’s no other character that has been designated to serve as his life coach.

This is a problem that extends back to the first film, where Gamora must not only function as a character in her own right but also play the role of “the girl” in the group or “the mother” to Peter and the others, two fairly predictable character rooted in the Golden Age of comics and later in action films. In both genres, women were often token considerations, and in many ways, this rather archaic tradition still persists.

Fortunately, the diminishment of Gamora’s character is somewhat tempered in this film, given that Nebula having a decently-sized role opposite her sister. Better yet, there’s also the addition of Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a character who’s given some genuine depth in this plot thread. That said, much of the heavy lifting in the film still falls rather unfairly on Gamora, which becomes most obvious during her interactions with Peter. Some of this material could actually be cut without the movie losing any momentum, while also sparing Gamora from the girl/mother stereotype.

Actually, a steamier Peter/Gamora relationship wouldn’t be a detriment to either this movie or the franchise. There’s already some chemistry between the two characters, and Peter is the film’s leading man, so it seems natural that he should gain a romantic subplot. Logically, since Gamora is the only woman in the primary cast, that task would fall to her. But then, ironically, hers would become yet another stereotypical female role she’s forced to play. It will be interesting to see how, if ever, this matter is resolved in some future Guardians film.

Some of the issues holding “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” from true greatness existed in the first film as well. On the other hand, James Gunn as a filmmaker has demonstrated in this sequel that he’s moving away from some of the narrative crutches in his own storytelling and in the larger MCU as well.

On the plus side, “Vol. 2” is visually and structurally a step in the right direction. Despite the current film’s flaws, including some potentially great character development that was either cut from the script or left on the cutting room floor, it’s a movie that’s fun, energetic, and downright sincere in its objectives.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” gives this series enough room to start carving out its place among some of the better space opera films of our time.

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