The saddest thing about the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie, which carries the official title Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, is that it’s going to make a lot of people think they’re happy. “Hold on,” you say. “Think they’re happy? If they think they’re happy, then they are happy.” Which is often true, but not always. I think I’m happy eating a Quarter Pounder with Cheese and a large fries. But a few minutes later, when my salt/sugar/fat high has dissipated into self-disgust, I realize that what I’ve paid for is mainly bloat. The ruling aesthetic of the Marvel universe is now bloat.
Which isn’t to say that the first Guardians wasn’t fun. By Marvel standards, it was a modest affair, a goofy break from the dark nights of the soul/tortures of the damned experienced by Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, et al. (Never mind the kiddie Macbeths and Oedipuses in the even more grandiose DC universe.) Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord, was a likable screw-up; the wisecracking raccoon had some good comebacks; and there was a jolly, B-movie vibe that brought me back to the days of the old (admittedly terrible) Flash Gordon serial, as well as the first Star Wars movie and Joss Whedon’s much-missed Firefly. The Guardians might have been saving the galaxy but for once what was absent was the weight of the world.
This one is heavier, man. It has, Gods help us, a theme, not to mention a god — or demigod, the deistic hierarchy of the Marvel universe being opportunistically elastic. He is played by Kurt Russell and is first seen, in a prologue, as a computer-generated version of his smoother, younger self — an image that hovers eerily over the next two hours, the CGI recreations of Russell and of Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher in Rogue One being far more disturbing in their real-world implications than the fictional destruction of planets and galaxies. Russell later shows up in his current human form as “Ego,” who claims to be the father of Peter Quill and to possess vast knowledge and powers that he wishes to bestow upon his long-lost son.
This is what passes for drama in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Why, think his fellow Guardians, does Peter need his real father when he already has a surrogate family? Will he abandon Gamora (Zoe Saldana), muscleman Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket the raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (voiced, in a manner of speaking, by Vin Diesel)? What of his unresolved relationship with his volatile adopted father, the corrupt “Ranger,” Yondu (Michael Rooker)? Reinforcing the idea that biological fatherhood might be the galaxy’s greatest source of instability is the B plot, in which Gamora and her artificially enhanced sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), prepare for a final face-off. Nebula has never forgiven Gamora for allowing their draconian father to pit them against each other as girls. It’s practically a John Hughes movie up there in space: They’re all adolescents with crushed souls.
But it’s not the weighty emotions that drag Vol. 2 down. It’s the plot that chases its own tail and the cluttered visual palette. The labored first action scene features the Guardians fighting some sort of space squid while making jokes that don’t land. The director, James Gunn (who’s also the credited screenwriter), doesn’t seem to know his way around a storyboard: The sequence plays as if each team of computer artists worked in its own country. People and ships get zapped and stuff swirls around the screen — a near-constant visual and aural assault to compete with the smartphones attached to the target audience’s hands. When Rocket makes off with some sort of all-powerful bulb (it’s hard to keep track of the all-powerful orbs and weapons of galactic destruction in these movies) from a peculiar gold-hued race led by the beauteous Elizabeth Debicki, an armada of remotely piloted little ships shower the Guardians’ bigger, more ramshackle vessel with missiles. But there’s no suspense. It’s all just fodder.
Meanwhile, the ratio of laughs to one-liners is lower than in the first Guardians. Drax boasts of his “famously huge” turds. The raccoon, apart from a hilarious peroration on the lame nickname “Taser Face,” is an irritant. Moments of drama are regularly deflated — as in second-rate sitcoms — by lines like, “Excuse me, I gotta take a wiz.” You can almost hear the laugh track. What you hear instead are more cannibalized ‘70s hits, starting with one of my old guilty pleasures, Looking Glass’s “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” Now when I hear it I’ll think of Kurt Russell’s spookily computer-generated cheeks. And how about the dread spinoffs that litter Marvel movies like Drax’s famous turds — here Sylvester Stallone as “Stakar Ogord,” who leads a band of rangers played by actors palpably salivating for a Marvel paycheck?
No, it’s not all disposable. Little Groot — either the seed or the reincarnation of Big Groot — has a scene in which he’s dispatched by two imprisoned characters to retrieve a weapon that’s built like a series of silent comedy gags. There’s also a gorgeous shot of the little fella pressed against the window of a spaceship, staring with childlike wonder at a receding planet. A scene in which Pratt’s Peter and Russell’s Ego play catch with a magical glowing orb does just what it’s supposed to do: evoke the simplest father-son ritual. Although the core Guardians bring little that’s new to the party, three actors are impressive. Debicki’s childlike tantrums are in wonderful contrast to her imperial elegance. Rooker becomes more and more affecting as a man swamped by melancholy over a misspent life. Best by far is Karen Gillan, whose Nebula is anything but a cloud of gas. She has a core. Tall and slender, her face divided into human and artificial parts denoted by shades of gray, blue, and purple, she has a still but seething presence. And there’s fun in the performance, too. She can sling a Mae West come-on and follow through with a Clint Eastwood rasp. And while her character softens, her demeanor stays hard and feral.
To be fair to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the designers have made an attempt to give it a loopy, handmade feel, a touch of Tim Burton. One ship is like a white melon with a giant eyeball. When some characters are in the throes of multiple gravitational leaps, their eyes distend like Tex Avery cartoon characters. There’s a cute little Empath (Pom Klementieff) with black pupils and limp antennae who recalls grade-Z women-on-Mars movies. But the vibe is corporate, and of the most depressing kind: It’s not enough that you’ve paid for this product. You have to sit through commercials for the next one and the next and the next. (There are four — count ‘em — teasers during the credits.) The problem isn’t that I think this is empty-calorie junk food. It’s that, on the evidence, Marvel does, too.