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Fun for the Family: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ Is an Undeniable Mess

The sequel to Marvel’s 2014 surprise smash hit has just enough humor and wildly fun action set pieces to save it from drowning in daddy issues

(Marvel Studios)
(Marvel Studios)

There’s a fun mass murder in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 that I have to tell you about. It’s pretty funny and not at all incongruous. Murder is bad, but as anyone who saw the movie’s 2014 predecessor knows, this is a franchise in which bad guys — confirmed murderers and thieves — are actually good guys. Thus, doing bad things effectively means you’re doing good things — unless you’re an enemy of the good-bad guys, in which case, you’re just a bad guy. You follow?

Anyway, it turns out the only way to up the ante from there, for the sake of a sequel, is to reveal that even the bad-bad guys can do good things. They might even become good people. After all, this is Guardians of the Galaxy: All roads point to empathy, because everybody has a story. And if your story includes a mutiny by your crew because you chose, for once, to do the right thing, it’s only fair that you should get to mass-execute those people. All of them. About, let’s say, 30 of them. You should get to pierce their hearts, necks, and skulls with a telepathically controlled flying steel needle. You should get to blow them up — burn them alive — for daring to betray you. And you should get to do it with style, set to good music (Jay and the Americans’ "Come a Little Bit Closer"), because why not: You’re the hero. And they’re the enemy. That is, until the next movie.

All you need to know going into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is that Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who became a space orphan when his single mother died of brain cancer, finally finds his father, a handsomely majestic man called Ego (Kurt Russell) whose immense powers I won’t spoil. Suffice it to say the greatest power of all, in a movie like this, is love — so maybe being an absentee dad for most of Quill’s life was a bad idea. It’s the kind of thing a Guardians character would deliberately not get over. To top it off, the movie is full of side conflicts that amp up the sense of injury. The Guardians are the subjects of a bounty hunt after Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) needlessly steals a bunch of expensive toys, a transgression that drives a fraught wedge between Rocket and Quill, to say nothing of everyone else.

The presiding ethic of the Guardians universe seems to be: If you must exact your revenge, please at least be sure it’s because those who betrayed you really, really hurt your feelings. Even more than the first film, Vol. 2 is devoted to the idea that violence can be fun under the right circumstances (bright colors, cool tunes, and slow motion are also mitigating factors). That explains why the movie is so warm and fuzzy: an unceasing group hug that lasts for more than two hours. It likewise explains what’s so oddly funny about the movie and, on the other hand, a little grating. You know what you’re getting from the start: The movie opens with the tree-like humanoid named Groot dancing to Electric Light Orchestra’s "Mr. Blue Sky" as, all around him, the other Guardians — Quill, Rocket, the green alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) — engage in fiery battle with a flying octopus-like alien. It’s a scene that epitomizes the franchise. Groot, who was practically destroyed in the first movie, is a baby twig now, and his big eyes and smooth moves are engineered to elicit as many "awws" as the high-flying action does "oohs and aahs."

That ratio throughout Guardians is decidedly skewed compared with other Marvel movies, like Iron Man and The Avengers, which tend to play less on our feelings than on our all-consuming need to see the world on the brink of total destruction. Maybe that’s what makes Guardians feel sort of fresh, by comparison. Sure, it’s a bit manipulative, emotionally engineered and music-supervised to within an inch of its life. But in line with writer-director James Gunn’s vision of the Guardians as a merry band of lovable fools, the movie is just so damn sweet. Even as Vol. 2 proves to be overlong and needlessly complex, with a last act that doesn’t merely drive the point home so much as hold you hostage to it, the movie proves endearing.

That’s sort of due to the plot, but mostly in spite of it. Early on, a gold-skinned woman known as High Priestess of the Sovereign people suggests Quill’s "unorthodox genealogy" makes him a force to reckon with. Whatever those powers are almost don’t matter: It’s all an excuse to dredge up feelings about fathers and sons and, while we’re at it, to revel in mommy issues, and sister issues, and yeah, more daddy issues. Have I mentioned that this is a very emotional movie? It’s a movie in which a guy starts a mutiny and later tearfully apologizes for it. Even the feisty Nebula (Karen Gillan) — Gamora’s sister and rival, a bad-bad guy from the first movie — gets a painful backstory (filled with psychological manipulation at the hands of her father, of course), and a chance at reconciliation.

Is it not enough for bad guys to just be bad anymore? I guess this is not that kind of movie. And I appreciate the willingness to be corny. At the very least, the Guardians movies have a sense of humor — every action set piece is a punch line. I laughed more than once, such as the time that the Guardians, ostensibly on the brink of death during a battle they seem unlikely to win, stop to joke about the size of each others’ shit. Better for emotions to creep into the movie this way, amid verbal jousts and corny insults, than via a trembling piano score and a soaring monologue about a deadbeat dad. It’s an effective way to show camaraderie, especially in an action movie. And it’s a lot more fun than the weep fest that characterizes the worst parts of the movie. Guardians Vol. 2 is at its best when it cuts loose — thankfully, Peter Quill has a Walkman full of hits.