REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Comic books really have a problem with parents. They’re usually dead. Sometimes they get off easy by just being ambiguously gone, often as the missing key to the hero’s destiny. Parental trauma has inadvertently spawned more superheroes than toxic waste spills.

It’s always treated as an insatiable quest for closure. Batman can never truly avenge his parents. Spider-man can never truly save Uncle Ben. Howard the Duck can never truly do whatever the hell it is that made him a miserable, anthropomorphic duck.

That’s not how it works off the page. With few exceptions, people move on. Decide the unanswered questions are better off unasked. Find a lesson, make peace and proceed. That’s how it’s supposed to work, if there can be any standardized procedure to navigating life with conspicuous absences in family portraits.

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But what if Batman suddenly played by real-world rules? And what if he actually did avenge his parents, brought them back to life and faced the possibility of returning to life as normal, before he made a nightly habit of brutalizing the criminal underworld?

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 takes the baton its predecessor so successfully ran with and keeps running – family is what you make it. Everything you’d expect from the original is carried over and doubled down. The neon-Skittle color palette is brighter. The heroes take more shots at each other than the bad guys. The cassette-ready soundtrack has two more tracks and 100% more Fleetwood Mac than its predecessor. Instead of waiting until the end credits, Groot dances in the very first scene.

However you felt about the first Guardians, you’re going to feel similarly about the second. It’s an easy-going, weirdo space opera with a loving eye on its characters and a joke always in the chamber, even if they don’t all hit the target.

I’ve seen a lot of folks comparing it to Empire Strikes Back, and that’s fair, if a bit easy – writer-director James Gunn openly admits the influence. It goes to darker places. Deep-seated conflict breaks up the gang. There’s an asteroid field with odds of survival best left untold.

Guardians Vol. 2 tells a smaller story than Empire, and not as well, but where it most resembles that better sequel is in its emotional punch.

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If the first movie pushed the team together and made them a surrogate family, this one splits them apart and makes them realize just how little they have without each other.  The central thread, which drives almost too much of the plot, involves Peter Quill meeting his deadbeat dad for the first time.

It’s a moment of that impossible Batman closure that few superhero movies ever slow down enough to handle. The hero meets the man who ditched him and his mom, setting up his entire haphazard life from then on. And they play catch.

Peter Quill and his long-lost father play catch.

It’s a silly moment. The audience laughed. But for someone with that particular absence in the family portraits, it’s pure and earnest wish-fulfillment. The movie won me over in that little scene, but I wouldn’t remembered much by the time I hit the parking lot if it didn’t provide a surprisingly mature payoff.

It may be a frequent fantasy, to see that dearly departed or never-arrived fill-in-the-blank again, to play catch with them. But Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 reminds that it’s probably best to remember them as they were or as imagined, rather than get the answers to those questions better left unasked. The pain of ambiguity doesn’t matter as much as the people still around to ease it.

While the movie may not read as deeply as I just did into the linked concepts of family and loss, it still gets heavier than you’d expect from a movie stolen by a talking root.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is far from perfect – it takes a while for the plot to kick in and when it does, the stakes don’t stack up past the personal – but it gets more right than it gets wrong. The cast is undeniably charming. It’s a true joy to see Kurt Russell having a ball in movies with explosions again. The action is ingeniously clever. The soundtrack is put to near-perfect use. The five post-credit scenes are almost all decent.

I’d call it pure, crowd-pleasing entertainment, but most crowd-pleasing entertainment doesn’t have the heart or the chutzpah to tackle what this movie tackles. It may not handle it flawlessly, but that alone hews it closer to Empire Strikes Back than its tone or structure – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a special kind of sequel.

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