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Let’s be honest: “Guardians of the Galaxy” was pretty mediocre, even by the bland standards of Marvel Studios. So I was surprised to find that “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is, well, genuinely enjoyable and actually improves on the original. A little.
We shouldn’t trick ourselves into thinking that Marvel and writer/director James Gunn have finally delivered a good movie, but at least they’ve made an entertaining one that understands how to make a movie feel complete, discrete and engaging. For the first time in a while, I felt like a Marvel movie took me on a ride and told a story that was mostly pretty fun. And if that’s all the movie needs to be, than we can call it a success. But it also raises an interesting question about what we find fun and how that fun gets generated.
Picking up not long after the end of “Guardians,” the sequel finds it’s titular intergalactic superhero team causing almost as many problems as they are solving. Then they run into Ego (Kurt Russell), the physical, humanoid manifestation of a planet-sized consciousness and the father of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, much better here than in other recent roles, finding a better balance between Harrison Ford-esque roguishness and his natural goofball tendencies). The Guardians’ ship crashes on a deserted planet, and Ego offers to show Peter, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista) his planet while Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) and Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) stay behind to repair the ship.
The movie doesn’t feel as far-fetched as it sounds, at least emotionally. And it’s not because we’ve become so accustomed to outlandish space fantasies thanks to the likes of “Star Wars.” Gunn takes the time to make the characters feel like people, their motivations consistent and the events (relatively) plausible. Each character has a moment in the film that grounds them and allows them to come alive, unlike in the previous film, where they all felt like lazy archetypes and cartoons.
Gunn has also improved his comic sensibilities. Sure, there are still some jokes that are so cliché or heavy-handed that they’re annoying rather than amusing. But the film embraces a goofiness that helps it feel distinct in the vast comedic wasteland that is blockbuster movie “humor,” a place where making condescending, macho “quips” constitutes being funny. And it’s refreshing to see the unlimited CGI resources Marvel has at its disposal used for a few clever visual gags only achievable through a battalion of VFX wizards, rather than just for mindless spectacle (though there is plenty of that).
But the film is of two minds about where it wants land on the tonal scale and runs into issues as to where it finds its thrills and laughs. Some of the humor is downright mean-spirited and nasty, especially jokes made at the expense of female characters like Nebula and Mantis (Pom Klementieff). And there’s a sequence involving an escape from a hostile spaceship that starts off over-long and unfunny and devolves into moral repugnancy by making the mass murder of dozens of bad guys feel like an uproarious party scene.
This would be off-putting enough, but it also runs counter to the film’s — likely Disney mandated — sweet, family-friendly vibe that’s evident in other moments. Marvel finally gave a director’s personality some visibility but still imposed mainstream four-quadrant pandering in an attempt to appeal to everyone. Gunn’s sensibilities, regardless of your opinion on them, make an impression, but it clashes with Marvel’s. It feels like a Frankenstein’s Monster of a film at times, a hodgepodge cobbled together with parts of another movie. And it’s too easy to see the seams.