The Diminishing Returns Of “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2”

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s cute Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). Marvel/Disney

At various points during Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) wields a gun the size of a tree trunk, Yondu (Michael Rooker) slaughters dozens upon dozens with his whistle-controlled arrow, and high priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) presides over a legion of pilots controlling droids like the manager of a deadly arcade. But no weapon can compete with the small, shining eyes of Baby Groot, a creation whose immaculately crafted adorableness could level cities and sink small-to-medium continents.

Holy fuck, is Baby Groot cute.

He’s somewhere between a kitten, a toddler, and a collectible figurine that’s been brought to life. His minuscule smiles are irresistible, but his miniature scowls are just as winning. The fact that Baby Groot is a transparently ruthless merchandising opportunity in no way diminishes his “awww”-inducing capabilities, resent them as you eventually might — he even pukes delightfully. With exacting awareness and only a slight edge of shame, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 deploys its newfound mascot whenever the movie, a much shaggier and less honed creation than the first, needs a boost.

It’s Baby Groot who opens the film, dancing to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” under the opening credits while the rest of the Guardians battle a squid monster in the background, pausing occasionally to make sure their tiny charge isn’t eating something he shouldn’t. Having heroically sacrificed himself to protect his friends in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, the reborn trisyllabic tree creature (voiced by Vin Diesel) has been transformed from the group’s muscle to the shared child they take turns parenting. He’s not just around because of his highly designed lovableness — he’s a symbol of the message Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 sells hard but doesn’t entirely seem to be buying itself: that its collection of oddballs share a deeper connection than friends, that they’re family.

It may seem strange to note that James Gunn’s sequel is as reminiscent of the latest installment of the Fast & Furious franchise as it is the first Guardians of the Galaxy, which is still the best thing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And not just in their shared bold assertions about familial strength. The Guardians are, like the Fasties, a ragtag group of former criminals who’ve found themselves semi-accidentally on the side of saving the day.

They, too, enjoy the company of Diesel, they travel through space (where Fast & Furious is clearly headed, don’t @ me), and they enlist their most enjoyable former foes as allies. They’ve also acquired a kid, and unlike the letdown that was The Fate of the Furious, they didn’t have to fridge a female character in order to add him to their mix, just revamp an existing (vegetal) one.

Unlike the recent vehicular extravaganza, however, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 carves out a lot of downtime between set pieces. The Guardians movies have an effervescent sense of freedom and a personal stamp like none of the other MCU installments to date — they’re distinctive and largely self-contained, unfolding far away from the crisscrossing dramas of the series’ other characters. But Gunn’s decision to further break from expectation and have Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 be as much an intergalactic hangout dramedy as a rollicking space adventure, while surprising, doesn’t end up doing justice to the characters.

The film instead plays like a grand version of the sort of sitcom episode in which it looks like someone might leave the show, and then of course they do not. Testing the strength of the Guardians’ connections would come across as more meaningful if it felt like they’d actually spent enough time together to cement them.

What triggers this trauma is an encounter from Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) past. The mysterious long-lost father Quill’s been wondering about turns up and reveals himself to be the godlike Ego (a forever-welcome Kurt Russell). Ego, who claims to have been searching for his son for years, is a sentient planet who sprouted a human-shaped tendril to explore the galaxy and ultimately romance Quill’s mother in 1980 Missouri.

Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Groot, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Marvel/Disney

They cross paths when the Guardians are fleeing a job gone wrong, and before you know it, Ego’s teaching Quill about his heritage and helping him exorcise his abandonment hang-ups with a game of power-enabled catch. Peter’s home! Or not — but Ego is never a convincing threat to Quill’s recently assembled family of choice.

That Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 attempts to tell a funny, heartfelt story about identity, loneliness, and belonging by way of a planet that has a face on it is ambitious. And it’s not because of Ego’s weirdness that it doesn’t work — it’s because of the overwhelming way the film goes back to the well for its various character arcs, as well as the music choices it leans so heavily on.

The first Guardians of the Galaxy was an ensemble movie, a getting-the-team-together story, but at its core was Quill running away from his mother’s death as a boy. He kept running until he was light-years away, disappearing impossibly into a space opera that could have been lifted from the ’80s pop culture he adores. It was self-referential escapism that blended its central character’s realistic childhood trauma with the goofy galactic dirtbag fantasies he managed to manifest in miraculous ways.

It was a sci-fi story orbited by rings of earthly detritus, most significantly the mixtape filled with ’60s and ’70s tunes that form the soundtrack, but Quill had no interest in going back. Why would he, when his existence as a pirate-turned-superhero had turned out so cool?

In flipping from that deftly handled maternal grieving to a dose of daddy issues, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 goes from being a story about emotional avoidance to one that hinges on a character who just feels emotionally stuck. Pratt’s reliably charismatic, but he’s coasting on his appeal in this installment, plodding through beats that you can see coming from the stratosphere. Gamora, too, feels like she’s in stasis, in both her not-quite-romance with Quill and her combative relationship with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan).

The lab-engineered raccoon, Rocket (Bradley Cooper), acts even pricklier than usual in a backhanded request for reassurance. But the brawny literalist Drax (Dave Bautista) gets a better showcase, positioned as an observer of the other characters, offering filterless and often inadvertently insulting thoughts to whoever he’s with, and playing especially well off Ego’s naive servant Mantis (Pom Klementieff).

They’re all convincingly wounded and unfulfilled alone, the Guardians. What they’re not is conclusively better together, at least until Yondu arrives to give the film the jolt of momentum and genuine feeling it had been missing. Rooker’s bright blue, extremely dangerous, disgraced Ravager is an unexpected figure of emotional significance.

Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper). Marvel/Disney

With his air of weathered cynicism, he helps Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 finally locate the sweet spot between outrageous and sincere it’s spent the previous hour-plus searching for. Yondu’s not nearly as nuclear-level cute as Baby Groot — he’s not cute at all, he kills so many people, and also has a worrying habit of (maybe) joking about eating children. Which makes his place as the gradual MVP all the more telling. His presence kicks the idling movie into gear, and into a final third act for which all of the previous meandering can be forgiven — and the talk of family finally accrues the weight the film has been trying to put on it.

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