This article originally ran April 24.
Guardians of the Galaxy 2 opens, as it is wont to do, with a dance number obscuring the rote action set piece that kicks off most summer blockbusters these days. Conventional wisdom in sequels also demands that we catch up with our heroes while they’re saving the world in style — a brief respite of joy before their world is torn apart thanks to a mustache-twirling villain who may or may not be biologically related to the hero. Writer/director James Gunn made the first Guardians a huge hit by affectionately circumventing many of those annoying tropes through self-aware humor, '70s adult contemporary music, and a color palette that could be best described as “bowling alley chic.” He doubles down on that by making this new film a feature-length conversation between an angry child and his deadbeat dad.
Kurt Russell joins the cast this time out as Ego, a sentient planet that fashioned himself a human body so that he might go out and have sex with women across the universe. That this sleazeball one-night stand drifter drives a souped up muscle car and is played by '70s dreamboat Russell only adds to the familiar dynamic. An early flashback of Peter Quill’s parents on a date sports some of the best CGI de-aging yet committed to the screen, and some truly luxurious feathered hair to boot.
When Ego finally tracks down Quill and the Guardians, his long mane has gone gray and he’s grown a bushy beard. It’s hard not to think about classic Old Testament depictions of a wrathful, jealous, but ultimately loving God when you see Ego. Just like the Almighty, Ego is mostly absent from his offspring’s life, leaving Quill in the custody of the loveable mercenary Yondu (played with typical aplomb by the great Michael Rooker). After a breathless first act, Guardians 2 settles into family melodrama — teary monologues, bitter goodbyes, and sibling rivalry. This middle section drags at times, sacrificing narrative tension for exposition. There’s a great scene where Rocket gets to show off his tactical ingenuity and yet another prison break sequence, but Gunn mostly uses this second act to set the stage for a world-shattering finale that ranks with the best climaxes in Marvel’s oeuvre.
This is not to say that Guardians 2 refrains from indulging in cosmic violence for the sake of Star-Lord playing catch with his old man, it’s just that maybe our filmmaker is more interested in the talking tree baby and David Hasselhoff than the dripping slug monster from the opening scene that’s 75 percent teeth and 25 percent orifice. This is a movie made by people with an explicit affinity for the characters and the world being portrayed, not just with the gadgets and flights of fancy (though there is plenty of care put into both of those elements anyway). Each and every principal cast member gets a satisfying arc and they come out of this adventure changed in some way. Even a character as seemingly one-note as the unwaveringly literal strongman Drax the Destroyer gets a subplot weighted in real emotion. Thankfully, Gunn and Marvel wisely limited any clumsy efforts to set up Avengers: Infinity War (sorry, folks) in favor of a satisfying, self-contained series installment. Let’s just say if you took a drink every time someone mentioned Infinity Stones, you’d have no problem operating heavy machinery afterward.
As proudly unconventional as these films have been up to this point, they remain genre entertainment, with all the expectations and cliches implied by that distinction. Yes, there’s a doomsday countdown clock at the end. They make light of it, but it’s still there. You get your sarcasm and winking at the audience yet again, but just like the first Guardians, this sequel still adheres to the Marvel house style — superheroics with a smile and a sincere admiration for the mythic nature of the comic book passion play. The original thrust a collection of misfits into an intergalactic drama for which they were, on the surface, ill equipped. But, of course, Quill, Gamora, Rocket, Drax, and Groot all had greatness inside them that would come out if they just believed. Whether you’re a cocksure prince of the realm, a perpetually drunk billionaire genius, or a scrawny kid from Brooklyn, you can be somebody special. Chances are good you also have a serious problem with your father.
The dads of DC Comics tend to be idealized wellsprings of sage wisdom that are also usually dead. Thomas Wayne, Jor-El, Henry Allen (who was such a martyr that he went to jail for a crime he didn’t commit). Of course, Wonder Woman doesn’t have a dad, but…you know. Marvel dads are shady war profiteers, mad scientists, or, in the case of Star-Lord, living planets. In this Marvel Cinematic Universe, your parents will probably disappoint you in some way, forcing you to atone for their sins. You can see this trope at play outside of Marvel — in the Star Wars films, Blade Runner, Game of Thrones, and numerous other examples.
Guardians 2 has quite a bit in common with the much-maligned 2010 sequel TRON Legacy — a film where a hubristic, single-minded, emotionally (and physically) unavailable father reveals himself to a pissed-off kid. In both films, a Baby Boomer icon (Russell here and Jeff Bridges in TRON) is given his youth back through computer wizardry, though results vary. Where these parents end up at the end isn’t the same either, but it’s indicative of some kind of generational frustration with the state our parents are choosing to leave the world when they’re deceased.
Once again, Chris Pratt asserts himself as a perfect avatar for the ascendant demographic of moviegoers — nailing the wise-cracking, stunted man-child figure who just wants a father to tell him he did well. He plays vulnerability and guilelessness better than most of his contemporaries in the leading man category, and that pays off here. Imagining charming, slightly daffy Pratt in place of concrete slab Garrett Hedlund in TRON Legacy is one of my most painful pastimes.
It should be said that these movies would not work half as well without the talents of the rest of the cast. Zoe Saldana as Gamora and Karen Gillan as Nebula play out a sisterly feud that has nothing to do with the typical reasons why women fight in movies. Refreshingly, it’s about respect, and a shitty dad (of course)— topics often reserved for the men in genre entertainment. Dave Batista’s consistently hilarious work as Drax nearly upstages the bigger names in the group, and I still find it remarkable that a talking raccoon and a tree that only knows three words can engender as much sympathy from me as Rocket and Groot do.
The conspicuous presence of Sylvester Stallone — in his first sci-fi film since the wretched Judge Dredd, unless you’d like to count Spy Kids 3: Game Over as sci-fi — is brief and carries the promise of more to come. Stallone does his best to chew on the wordy, esoteric dialogue, comes close to pulling you out of the film with his iconic presence, but deftly finds emotional resonance in the short amount of screen time he’s given. That Tango and Cash can be in the same movie, yet share no scenes together is surely a missed opportunity, but for as much nostalgia as the Guardians movies deal in, Gunn is smart enough to not bury his work in it.
Guardians of the Galaxy 2 takes great care to remind its audience that idealizing the past can be a dangerous thing, even if it’s great fun. Both of these films are a curious melding of the modern, ironic vibe that made Marvel the biggest thing in cinema with a wistful remembrance of the very childhood that forged our collective love for this form of storytelling. They are, in a small way, an attempt to reconcile who we are with what we were and where we thought we’d be by now. In our own way, we’re all a bunch of weirdoes on a spaceship with no direction home, just trying our best to get by.