Warning: This review may contain minor spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy 2.
People loved Guardians of the Galaxy because it felt fresh and fun. It was unselfconsciously weird, improving on Marvel‘s formula with gorgeous sci-fi visuals and a kick-ass soundtrack. And because the first movie was a hit, Marvel engineered the sequel to follow in its footsteps. Vol. 2 takes everything you loved about Guardians of the Galaxy, and repeats it all over again.
This time around, your enjoyment depends on what you thought of the original. If you just want more of the same, you’re in luck. Otherwise, you may be bored by the lack of new ideas.
Guardians of the Galaxy introduced Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as a childish but lovable jerk with a cool spaceship. Born on Earth but kidnapped by the space pirate Yondu (Michael Rooker), Peter grew up to build a new family with the Guardians of the Galaxy, a team of bounty hunters. Things get complicated in Vol. 2 when Peter’s father Ego (Kurt Russell) shows up, forcing Peter to choose between his teammates, and his father’s alien legacy. In other words, it’s a conflict between two very popular blockbuster themes: daddy issues vs. families of choice.
Writer/director James Gunn positions the Guardians team as an unlikely family unit. They’re alien outlaws, they bicker constantly, and the four adults co-parent a talking baby tree. (Baby Groot is easily the best part of the movie, superhumanly adorable and often more engaging than the live-action characters.) Yet while Vol. 2 loves the idea of nontraditional families, it has a weirdly regressive attitude to gender roles.
Like so many superhero movies, GotG Vol. 2 is obsessed with father figures (Ego, Yondu, Thanos), while mothers are either dead or nonexistent. This kind of insidious sexism is why I can’t take James Gunn’s feminist assertions very seriously. He’s proud of passing the Bechdel Test, but his female characters are all bogged down in sexist tropes.
Gamora (Zoe Saldana) provides emotional support and mediates arguments between her male teammates. Mantis (Pom Klementieff) has empathic powers, and there’s a running joke about Drax finding her hideously ugly. (The joke is that she’s actually hot.) Nebula (Karen Gillan) hates Gamora because Gamora got more attention from their father, which is actually one of best emotional arcs in the movie. The problem is, it highlights Nebula and Gamora’s threadbare characterization. They’re basically Black Widow composites: a pair of emotionally closed-off assassins, raised by an abusive mentor who mutilated their bodies so they could become perfect warriors. There’s even a scene where Nebula shoots someone and quips, “Hello, boys,” a line that fits better with Whedon-era Black Widow than the otherwise humorless Nebula.
By leaning so heavily on its theme of family, Vol. 2 opens itself up to this kind of criticism. The whole story is based around love and loyalty, without the emotional depth of Thor or Captain America to back it up. At 138 minutes long, why spend so much time on CGI space battles when what we really needed was more time exploring the characters? The only new role that feels fully developed is Baby Groot.
Groot easily could’ve been a gimmick, but Vol. 2 does a great job of illustrating his new place in the team. As a former adult who got de-aged to infancy (whatever that means for a sentient tree), he performs adult tasks while also being raised like a child. There’s an innocent, silly kind of humor about a cute baby tree who beats people up and plants bombs, and it’s genuinely sweet to see him taking a nap on someone’s shoulder. You even get the impression that the Guardians are trying to be good parents, like when Gamora stops mid-battle to give Baby Groot an uncharacteristic smile as positive reinforcement.
Marvel movies usually follow a strict formula, but that only matters when the cracks begin to show. For most viewers, this wasn’t a concern with Guardians of the Galaxy. Good music and a fun attitude go a long way, and Guardians had both. Unfortunately, that formula is a lot closer to the surface in the sequel.
Vol. 2 uses the Big Bang Theory strategy of barraging the audience with pop-culture references, distracting attention from the patchy quality of the actual jokes. We get cameos from Sylvester Stallone and Ving Rhames, Cheers references, and more ’80s pop songs. But does this movie bring anything new, either artistically or emotionally? Not really. If you want to watch an expensive action sequel about a ragtag family of criminal superheroes, you’re better off with Fast & Furious 8.