Perhaps the finest, funniest moment in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the first action sequence. Or perhaps I should put quote marks around that: “action sequence.” Because for most of its duration, the action is strictly an afterthought. The titular supergroup has been enlisted to defeat a giant star-squid, and its smallest member, Baby Groot (the twig-like offshoot of last installment’s arboreal giant), is hooking up some equipment in the foreground as the fight commences behind him. What is Baby Groot fiddling with? Some kind of space cannon?
Of course not. It’s a sound system, and no sooner is it plugged in than the Electric Light Orchestra’s pop jingle “Mr. Blue Sky” bursts forth in all its giddy, meteorological splendor. As Baby Groot’s companions battle the tentacular horror in the background, we’re treated to the delightful spectacle of the mini-veggie juking his way through the opening credits. It is, in its way, the perfect deflation of the time-to-save-the-world-again bloat that has grown customary in the superhero genre, and a worthy successor to the loose, goofy vibe of the first Guardians: You guys deal with the Latest Threat to All Life over there; us, we’re going to hang here and groove to some oldies.
Alas, the magic can’t quite last. (As even the song warns, Mr. Blue, you did it right, but soon comes Mr. Night…) The Guardians sequel and latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe certainly has its moments—quite a few in fact—but too often it finds itself weighted down by just the kind of portentous themes and overwrought drama the first film was so careful to avoid.
The movie opens in early-1980s Missouri, with a young man and woman frolicking to “Brandy” by Looking Glass. (Have I mentioned that the soundtrack is, as before, a signal pleasure?) The woman is Meredith Quill, soon-to-be-mother of Peter Quill, a.k.a. Starlord (Chris Pratt). And the man is Kurt Russell. Or rather, circa 1980s Kurt Russell, his face impressively de-aged by a combination of makeup and light CGI. Russell plays Ego, the mysterious figure who will in short order be revealed to be Peter Quill’s extraterrestrial dad. (The interstellar hookup with Peter’s mom gives a clever undercurrent to the choice of “Brandy”—a song about a woman who loves a seldom-seen sailor—but later on the movie goes and ruins it by pedantically explaining this thematic connection.)
Cut to the Guardians—Quill, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel)—and their tussle with the star-squid, and “Mr. Blue Sky.” Following the mission, the group suffers an unfortunate misunderstanding with their clients, a race of golden, genetically perfected beings (led, appropriately enough, by the six-foot-two Elizabeth Debicki). Following a close-call escape, they run into Ego, and the plot begins in earnest.
It may seem a strange complaint, but one of the drawbacks of the sequel is that it has a plot at all. The original Guardians was a series of picaresque episodes loosely strung together by a Marvel McGuffin (one of the seemingly infinite supply of Infinity Stones) and an emphatically forgettable villain (Ronan the Accuser). The relaxed, haphazard structure perfectly suited the adventures of a gang that includes a talking raccoon and an ambulatory plant.
This time out, though, we’re offered meditations on fathers and sons (real and adopted: Michael Rooker’s Yondu, who raised Quill, is heavily featured) as well as on sisters (Karen Gillan’s Nebula makes a reappearance). There’s talk of grief and loss, the imminent threat of multiple planetary genocides (including good ol’ Earth), and a final revelation by Ego that is as distasteful as it is unnecessary.
Happily, this is all somewhat mediated by the cast, which is nearly as much fun as the last time out. Rocket the raccoon isn’t quite the same unanticipated pleasure, but Bautista’s literal-minded Drax is sharp enough even to overcome early lines as painful as “I have sensitive nipples” and “I have famously huge turds.” And Baby Groot is a nice reimagination of—and improvement over—his full-grown self. Pom Klementieff is a likable addition as an antenna’d empath named Mantis. But love him as I might, Kurt Russell is badly miscast, his customarily scruffy affect a poor fit for the godlike Ego.
There a few nice David Hasselhoff gags, and return cameos by Howard the Duck and Cosmo the Spacedog. Multiple new characters are briefly introduced from the “Marvel Cosmic Universe” (Marvel Studios evidently having decided that one universe is no longer enough), including one played by Sly Stallone. (Alas, he and Russell never appear onscreen together to catch up on what they’ve been up to since Tango & Cash.) And director James Gunn keeps things moving with the aid of the aforementioned soundtrack, which also features “My Sweet Lord,” “Bring It On Home to Me,” and fight sequences scored, improbably, to both “Come a Little Bit Closer” and “The Chain.”
It’s all enough to make one forgive—if not quite forget—the movie’s ponderous midsection and all its familial melodramas. This is especially true near the end, when Quill, whose beloved Walkman has been destroyed, hits play on his new state-of-the-art Zune, and the chords of Cat Stevens’s “Father and Son” spring to life. Quill shares an earbud with Baby Groot, we watch the latter’s curiosity turn into wonder, and all is right in the universe again.