I wanted to like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I really did. And I enjoyed it enough when I was watching it at the theater. But moments after the credits rolled (and I’d sat through all the mid and post-credit scenes), I left feeling empty.
Guardians Vol. 2 is visually stunning, with bright colors and careful attention to costume design. It’s funny at times, executing both witty banter and slapstick well. Most notably, it uses CGI to create scenes that capture the physical comedy of children’s cartoons. But ultimately, Guardians Vol. 2 is a plodding mess rife with cliché, sprinkled with only a few genuinely heartwarming or funny moments.
The film pairs neon pink, lime green and canary yellow against the dark skies of outer space. This juxtaposition allows the colors to stand out, embracing the property’s comic book origins and aesthetic. It’s a welcome change from the washed out palettes of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Age of Ultron (Marvel seems to be breaking this visual lag with Doctor Strange and the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok). An opening scene finds the Guardians — Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Groot (Vin Diesel) — protecting a cache of batteries owned by the Sovereign, a powerful and snobbish alien race resembling humans doused in gold body paint. The crew successfully defends the items from a giant interdimensional space slug with tentacles, gaping mouth and rows upon rows of shark teeth in a sequence of pure visual splendor.
Those eye-popping joys can’t hide some unsavory political undertones, however. In an early sequence, Quill flirts with the Sovereign’s golden high priestess, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), and she is receptive to his advances. The script seems to position this as an establishment of Quill’s rugged bad boy charms, but it makes no sense that the leader of a race birthed through pods would even tolerate him. Ayesha’s not a sympathetic or morally righteous character—she’s a classist ruling a militaristic, eugenics-based society—but the choice to have her tolerate and even appreciate sexual advances during a business meeting exemplifies the movie’s casual misogyny.
The Guardians eventually meet Quill’s father, Ego (Kurt Russell), and journey with him to his home planet, lousy with lush terrain and airy blue skies. The landscape’s color-scheme and the fractal design of Ego’s palace suggest an homage to psychedelic art of the 1970s. This is also apparent in the movie’s soundtrack, which features songs like “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison and “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac.
The use of yellow carries its own particular significance; usually a symbol for optimism, yellow in the Guardians franchise seems to stand for imperialism. Recall the gold warships of the Nova Corps, the yellow liquid pools in Knowhere, the yellow prison jumpsuits in the first film or the gold-toned skin of the Sovereign. Even the fluorescent jaundice of the sleep pods in Ego’s spaceship foreshadow unpleasant motivations.
Guardians frequently explores adults navigating the pain of childhoods with absentee or abusive father figures, occasionally to heartrending effect. Writer/director James Gunn spends much time on Quill’s relationship with his father as their relationship progress from skepticism, to doting adoration, to a more realistic understanding — flaws and all. We learn more about the harsh childhoods of Gamora and Nebula and their ensuing sibling rivalry. We learn a young Quill saw Yondu as a father figure despite Yondu’s brazen attitude toward him as a child.
We also see how the Guardians have come to care for one another like family. In the opening scene, Rocket tries to get a stereo system to work mid-battle because baby Groot loves music. Quill is comfortable enough with Gamora to open up about how nervous he is to finally get to meet his father. These threads help them stick together despite how much they all annoy each other. Guardians Vol. 2 successfully weaves these tender moments into its freewheeling plot.
But the emotional beats that work are overshadowed by those that don’t. Gamora and Quill’s relationship is supposed to have progressed from reluctant collaborators to team members beginning to acknowledge mutual romantic feelings. But Gamora is continually reduced to the exasperated nagging woman in the relationship, yelling at the boys to cut out their antics while providing the brunt of emotional support to Quill. We don’t see Quill returning that support when Gamora deals with the long-standing rivalry between her and Nebula. As much as I love Gamora, at times her character is too emblematic of both the action girl and the women are wiser tropes — two character beats all too common for women in action movies.
Contrast her story with Quill’s. He’s a bullied kid turned hunky rogue, loved by the hottest woman in the cast despite his man-child tendencies. He adores a particular kind of music that his friends don’t quite “get” (but the audience does), giving him some hipster charm. He checks nearly all the schlubby power fantasy boxes.
Quill is another white boy in space surrounded by aliens of literally every color, while actual human characters of color remain absent. Yes, Zoe Saldana plays Gamora and Pom Klementieff plays Mantis, but their identities are erased by virtue of their characters’ alien-ness. In terms of superhero movies, Quill’s slightly nerdy traditionally masculine white lead is nothing new.
Don’t get me wrong. There were things about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 that I loved. But despite how stunning it looks, or how funny it is, or its attempts at character development, the movie misses the chance to provide a nuanced portrayal of superheroes in space. In a story spanning light years, its tired material stays frustratingly earthbound.
Verdict: Movie Fail