Let’s get something out of the way first: Baby Groot sucks and completely overstays his welcome in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2.
I promise you, every reviewer has probably thought this, I’m probably the only one reckless enough to say it, but, damn it, Groot’s gotta go. He started as a fun diversion, but his inclusion quickly became forced, onerous, and outright annoying. James Gunn (writer, director) seems overconfident in how he wrote Groot’s scenes, resorting to the same punchlines on multiple occasions, and just can’t recreate the iconoclastic fervor that made the talking tree a pop-culture phenomenon in the first Guardians Of The Galaxy. This Groot problem is representative of many of the film’s drawbacks, but more on that later.
Aside from that, though, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 is a welcome return for Peter Quill aka Star-Lord and company that boasts arguably the best villains, character arcs, and third act of any Marvel Studios movie to date.
Story wise, Guardians Vol. 2 plays out like the second arc of any given team comic book. It’s the “cool down” arc after the team comes together, wallops on their first big bad, and gets matching uniforms that the writer uses to explore the psyche of the characters, establish some interpersonal dynamics, and lay the groundwork for the arcs left to come. Volume 2 is a roaring success in that respect! Quill (Chris Pratt) gets a chance to probe his parental issues, Drax (Dave Bautista) puts some substance behind his tough guy shtick, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) wonders why he’s such an asshole, while Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) low-key give us the most emotionally powerful scene in all of the MCU. Spoiler, Karen Gillan will no longer be referred to “oh that blue girl!” after this movie.
This isn’t just a big budget therapy session though. Gunn directs this cavalcade of emotions in the context of a delightfully manic hurricane of action sequences, breathtaking CGI backdrops, and David Hasselhoff references. There’s a giant tentacle monster, a race of golden aliens, sentient planets, and a lovingly rendered young, CGI Kurt Russel that made my mom yell “oh shit!” in the middle of the theater.
The movie is truly a 2 hour and 17 minute masterclass of how to incorporate CGI into films, but, again, what elevates the movie is Gunn’s writing and direction. With all that Disney money funding the movie, it would have been very easy for Gunn to just throw together a long string of CGI set pieces to dazzle the audience a la Doctor Strange, but Gunn is able to leash that impulse and let the character drama drive the story. Gunn ensures that the visual effects are nothing more than an outward extension of our heroes internal conflicts; external crucibles that allow them to rationalize their internal struggles. In other words, it’s not spectacle for spectacle’s sake and is incredibly more insightful than many of Hollywood’s more recent CGI-fests.
Nothing better edifies that than the film’s villains and third act. I’m no snitch and I’m not going to spoil anything about the movie, but in my vaguest and most loving terms, Gunn gives us the best MCU villain since Loki. The villain is expertly crafted, completely rationalized, and is a profound and grave challenge that our heroes must overcome in order to better themselves and the world around them. Granted, that’s a basic competency that any villain in any type of fiction should meet, but also remember we’ve had to live through Ivan Vanko and his bird in Iron Man 2. The drama, the action, and the villain then bring the film to a fearless, awe-inspiring, emotionally battering crescendo that truly solidifies the Guardians Of The Galaxy films among the superhero genre;s finest.
So, why was I so mad at Groot in the first paragraph? Well, everything I’ve mentioned so fills up about two-thirds of the movie and it’s phenomenal. But that last third is littered with flat, pointless jokes that seemingly only James Gunn and maybe Kevin Feige thought were funny. I’ve already alluded to the Baby Groot stuff, but that’s just skimming the surface. There are a great many instances of James Gunn trying to trying so damn hard to catch lightning in a bottle again that he lost sight of his own comedic sensibilities and timing.
For example, there’s a joke about a background Ravager’s name that is only barely amusing, but it gets about five minutes of screen time. The name is constantly brought up over the course of the second act and prompting not a single chuckle from my opening night theater crowd. The comedy in first was effortless, organic, and viral. So much of the comedy in Vol. 2 was overthought, manufactured, and borderline arrogant in thinking it would suffice.
Volume 2 has many fantastic performances, character moments, and intentions and will stand alongside Marvel’s best. However, the humor isn’t nearly as strong as it was in the first and often feels awkward and forced. Still, it does set the stage for Vol. 3 very well and I am very excited to see where the franchise goes from here.