Reviewed by Lesley Coffin
One of the major challenges a film sequel must confront is how to show the time which has lapses between the previous films. Relationships and events which have happened once the projector turned on must be accounted for in the characters relationships and interactions. Yet the director of these films must acknowledge that unlike other films, where we’re thrown into pre-existing relationships, the audience must come to accept the new relationships these characters have and feel the growth to be natural and realistic. It’s is one of the great challenges facing franchise directors, and unfortunately for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, is poorly executed in Marvel’s latest brightly colored space adventure.
In truth, I didn’t have the love for the first Guardians movie that the majority of others claimed to. I wasn’t won over by director James Gunn’s humor and in general disliked the look of the film, finding the neon color palette almost nauseating and overwhelming CGI look of everyone and everything unsettling. But I also didn’t hate the film and didn’t feel the movie was poorly made. As one of Marvel’s key franchise films, I appreciated the risk it took, steering away from the other films’ steadfast need to make direct connections to a growing shared universe. I marked it down as a movie that simply wasn’t “for me.” But my moderate feelings towards The Guardians of the Galaxy’s films have grown to increasing dislike since seeing the new film in the series. The problems I had with the first remain, and in more than a few cases, have grown.
A few areas of the film have shown a slight improvement over its predecessor. When the first Guardians premiered, even fans expressed disappointment that highly touted female characters Gamora and Nebula (CGI’s favorite actress Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan) were underwritten to the point of stereotypes. Hints of an interesting relationship between the two adopted sisters were sacrificed for more time with the films comic relief character. In this new film, by bringing Nebula into the Guardians world earlier, we are given far more time to see the sisters together. And both actress show identifiable emotion on screen (the benefit of having actors with a knowledge of acting through effects). It is by far the most compelling relationship Vol 2 offers.
Which makes one question why writer-director James Gunn feels obligated to rush this and every other story into a single movie. The film could easily have focused on the film’s initial villains (lead by a gold painted Elzabeth Debicki) and growing hostilities in Michael Rooker’s clan, allowing more time for audiences’ to connect to the Guardian’s familiar relationships (rather than be told in lazy exposition). Holding off on the introduction of Kurt Russell’s character of Ego (father of Peter Quill and god) until the family unit had been fully cemented would have made Peter Quill’s pull towards his father may feel more devastating. Marvel’s awareness of the financial success Guardians of the Galaxy arguably should motivate them to want to stretch these characters into smaller scale films, using the time to stress character relationships as opposed to bloated plots which sacrifice character development. Instead, director James Gunn has made a film on hyper-speed, rushing the relationships, story-lines, and characters to the very limit.
Gunn sees these characters as precious, and therefore assumes audiences have the same affection for them from the first film, and now takes a lazy approach in build on the characters and relationships from the previous film. We’re constantly told that these characters now are “like family,” but we’ve never witnessed such a connection. It’s telling that all the main characters have their most significant relationships with characters besides their fellow guardians in this film.
As for our hero, Peter Quill played by Chris Pratt is the most lacking in terms of character development and performance. Pratt was an actor I once considered an excellent character actor in Parks and Recreation and memorable turns in Zero Dark Thirty and Moneyball. But in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, his “hero” Peter Quill is simply an annoyance rather than an asset. Once a surprising choice on screen who brought a natural charm and boyish, joyful underpinning to the character which balanced out the snarky character traits as written, Pratt’s explosion as Hollywood It-boy is a detriment to his performance. His charisma’s been replaces with a cocky swagger which exaggerates Quill’s less engaging qualities, rather than providing a necessary contrast…and Pratt is no longer a good enough actor to put the character front and center. When I realized I would have been far happier if The Guardians of the Galaxy were not burdened with this character, I realized what a detriment Peter Quill as played by Pratt had become.
Much has been made of the fact that Pratt’s appeal in this space-opera parody was his close connection to Harrison Ford’s once refreshing Han Solo in Star Wars. I would argue his inspiration is really a far too liberal aping of the iconic character. But the problem with the use of Han Solo’s iconic “cool, cynicism” isn’t the presence of a character like Quill, but the overabundance of that cynicism permeating the entire project. Despite the bright colors suggesting differently, the entire project is done with a mean-spirited sensibility of ironic detachment, pop-culture commentary, and corporate obligation which makes the film exhausting to watch.
What is interesting is the fact that the few, refreshing moments of sincerity and joy are almost exclusively provided by new characters (or characters new to the Guardians crew). Baby Groot (a genuinely cute creation), Pom Klementieff’s empath Mantis, and Sean Gunn’s innocent sidekick Kraglin offer far more variety as personalities lacking the cynicism of Quill, Rocket, and Gamora. They after far more possibilities compelling relationship stories, should the focus stay on the dichotomy between the new and old guardians. Which is the primary reason that perhaps despite my better judgement, I have hope that there could be an enjoyable Guardians of the Galaxy film somewhere in the universe.
If James Gunn chilled out and toned down his cynical edge.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website)