Released in 2014, “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a huge hit with fans of comic-book superheroes and the whole Marvel ramalama. But it also stood, and stands, as the best Marvel movie yet made for nonbelievers.
Scruffy, witty, fast, and almost pathologically irreverent, it pulled the rug out from under the self-seriousness of the whole “extended universe” franchise mythology and reminded you that these things are supposed to be fun. And in Chris Pratt, a human La-Z-Boy who seemed to be making it up as he went along, the first “Guardians” had a hero whose insouciance recalled the glory days of Harrison Ford.
Now we have a second “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and — surprise — it’s not as good. Well, it’s good enough to make obscene amounts of money for Disney and Marvel while successfully setting the table for a further outbreak of sequels. But the sharp comic timing and devil-may-care breeziness of the original only return intermittently, and the new film’s emphasis is on family feuds and forgiveness. It’s heavy on the feels. There are hugs.
Hugs!? Hugs aren’t why we go to a “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie. We go to see everything sacred in the superhero genre ruthlessly mocked. At least I do. But there’s enough riding on the property now, including Marvel’s next eight years of quarterly reports, that the filmmakers have to, you know, mean it. Even when meaninglessness was what made the original interesting in the first place.
So Pratt’s Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord, gets a daddy in Ego (Kurt Russell), an interstellar “celestial” with a sideline in planet building. And Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Quill’s badass green-skinned love interest, has to work out her issues, “Frozen” style, with her angry blue sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). And Quill’s other father figure, the cobalt-colored space-pirate Yondu (Michael Rooker), is in a funk after being exiled by his extended “family” of ravagers (led by Sylvester Stallone in a non-committal walk-on). And the hulking Drax (former pro wrestler Dave Bautista) has to learn to filter himself and say nice things to Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Ego’s pet empath and the sequel’s most intriguing new character.
And Rocket — oh dear, Rocket. The sentient raccoon with the voice of Bradley Cooper and the kind, caring attitude of the late Don Rickles was one of the anarchic high points of the first movie but here undergoes a series of emotional crises in which he has to accept his role in the Guardians’ makeshift family. This may be the first time a digital animal has been spayed.
Meanwhile, the walking tree named Groot has been downsized to a cute l’il shrub, the better to delight the kids and spur sales of the tie-in toys. The wall-to-wall soundtrack of 1970s oldies, cued to Quill’s keepsake Walkman, has returned, although the choices are more calculated and less iconically cheesy. The first “Guardians of the Galaxy” seemed like a wonderful mistake that had somehow managed to escape the Stan Lee factory — nothing about it felt market-tested. They won’t make that mistake twice.
In its defense, the movie improves as it goes along. Anytime Elizabeth Debicki (“The Great Gatsby”) turns up as the queen of a race of obnoxious golden-skinned snobs, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” gets a lift. The 3-D production design is almost painfully lush, with special mention going to Ego’s James Turrell-inspired spacecraft and Maxfield Parrish-on-steroids home planet. A trip through a series of space jumps becomes an exercise in riotous Looney Tunes surrealism. Russell is good company, but when is he not? Listening to him sedulously intone the lyrics of the 1972 Looking Glass hit “Brandy” is almost worth the ticket price alone.
Writer-director James Gunn was as responsible as anyone for the success of the original, and he gets some of the sass back whenever the characters stop yelling about how much they do and don’t mean to each other. But they rarely stop yelling; at times “Vol. 2” feels like the longest family car trip ever.
I haven’t said much about the plot because there really isn’t one, just a script that lays wisecracks and digital effects atop a soggy, obvious emotional subtext, complete with a doomsday countdown clock, the potential end of the universe as we know it (again), and a tidy message about appreciating the family you have, followed by end-credit sequences that set up the next 57 sequels.
They’ve made “Guardians of the Galaxy” matter, all right. But they’ve killed off what a lot of us liked about it in the first place.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2
Written and directed by James Gunn. Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Kurt Russell, Dave Bautista, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, the voice of Bradley Cooper. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Natick and Reading. 136 minutes. PG-13 (sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, brief suggestive content).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.