REVIEW: Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2

A planet-sized disappointment.

The Han and Leia of the Guardians franchise.

The sentient tree and gun-toting raccoon film that could, it can’t be underestimated, three years on, just how surprising it was to see Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy catch on in the mainstream. It was simply an unknown quantity, and wildly different from that year’s Marvel sibling Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film more comfortable in the mould of Bourne than the cover of a Yes album. Yet, its irreverent mix of ’70s tunes, wacky cosmic backdrops and loveable rogues sold Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot to audiences who, some two hours earlier, had never even heard of them. Almost $800 million and a Saturday-morning cartoon later, it seems mad we ever doubted them.

This time around, however, the sequel — which we now know, in yet another example of its fetish for all things retro, as Vol. 2 — carries a new weight of expectations on its shoulders, and, despite upping the drama, the laughs and apparently the budget, struggles to know what to do with it.

Vol. 2 finds the Guardians back in the throes of scum and villainy, crash-landing on a nearby world after a deal gone wrong. Pursued by The Sovereign, the team’s half-human/half-alien leader Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) re-connects with his long-lost father, the Celestial god Ego (Kurt Russell). With Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) captured by mutineering space-pirates the Ravagers, the two are forced to work with the pirates’ ousted leader Yondu (Michael Rooker) if they are to reach Quill, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista) in time to warn them of the galaxy’s greatest threat yet.

It’s a film that gives everyone something interesting to do, be it Gamora’s affecting (if underwritten) relationship with her damaged sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) or Yondu’s uncermonious exiling from his band of mercenaries — but none of which conceal its maddening near-plotlessness. Starved of momentum or threat for almost 90 minutes, Vol. 2 is worse for the absence of its predecessor’s relentless drive and laser-focus. Luckily then, with character taking centre-stage, writer/director James Gunn has jokes in abundance, underscored by moments of genuine tenderness — especially between Drax and Ego’s doe-eyed companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff). The gang’s all here, just not the underdogs you remember, and surrounded by a plot that seems inflicted upon its passive cast.

Even the soundtrack, coming off the back of the record-breaking first volume, feels compensatory and overbearing. Like imitators Suicide Squad and Kong: Skull Island before it (and unlike the original film), Vol. 2 frontloads its ’70s bangers with eye-rolling slavishness, before ultimately finding their organic function in the plot just soon enough to be forgiven. An adorable CG rendering of Baby Groot can’t dispel the uncanny fakery of its distracting blue-screen surroundings. Attack of the Clones comparisons abound, with practical, lived-in spaceships left looking downright authentic in comparison to the weightless muddle of a final showdown —something which has become commonplace on the lower-end of the Marvel Studios slate, and definitely not something you’d expect to show up here.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an acceptable, occasionally thrilling follow-up to a near-perfect original, but heartbreaking in its complacency and vapid plotting, trading the first film’s surprising freshness for an ultimately benign, forgettable experience.