You were insufferable to start with,” groans Gamora, the badass green chick who should be the hero of the Guardians of the Galaxy series, but who must give way to Star-Lord, aka doofy Earther Peter Quill, because he’s the boy and the boy always gets to be the leader, even in space. She says this, rolling her eyes — and oh, I so sympathize with her, and no, that does not make this movie particularly “female friendly” — after a revelation about Peter’s parentage that is at the center of the tedious, been-there-bought-the-T-shirt plot of Vol. 2.
Peter, you see, has already been, since the first movie (and all the Marvel comics that spawned it), an embodiment of that fantasy that lots of kids have, girls as well as boys although girls never get to see it up on the screen, that we don’t belong in whatever dull place we’re stuck in, that nobody understands us, and that clearly we are destined for greatness, etc. Peter (Chris Pratt: Passengers, The Magnificent Seven) has been living the fulfillment of that dream, fully aware that even though he was born on 1980s Earth, his dad was a mysterious spaceman from some other planet, and now he lives and works out in the big wide galaxy, and hasn’t been back to his homeworld since he was snatched away by interstellar bad guys as a kid. Peter is the vindication of that childhood escapism: “See? His dad was from another planet! Maybe mine is too, and he’ll come and get me and we’ll have awesome adventures together.”
Now, you’d think it would be more than enough of a kickstart to an awesome adventure if you were merely a farmboy fed up with repairing moisture vaporators, or a hacker whose genius the world and its laws does not appreciate, or a kid whose dad really did turn out to be a spaceman. But that’s never enough, is that? You also have to be the last of the great warrior monks whose secret father rules the galaxy with an iron fist that only you can break, or a savior whose coming was prophesied as the only One who can free humanity from its digital shackles, or — in Peter’s case — as something even more pompously overblown. Peter’s space dad is played by Kurt Russell (The Fate of the Furious, Deepwater Horizon), and I won’t spoil what his big secret is (even though it was discussed at Comic-Con last summer!). It has nothing to do with the story of Peter’s parentage in the GotG comic, though it is something dragged in from elsewhere in the Marvel universe. Suffice to say that it is a ridiculous ego boost for Peter, and an even more, well, yes, insufferable and — worse — very familiar male fantasy.
And this is my overarching problem with Guardians of the Galaxy, which was somewhat true of the first movie but is really a problem with Vol. 2: it thinks it’s weird and edgy and transgressive and something like the punk little brother of all those other stodgy comic-book movies, but it isn’t. It may be slightly more candy-colored, but it’s just more of the same-old space battles and ravenous monsters and splosions and inexpressible manfeels (usually manifesting as splosions) and ironic posturing and monologuing villains and winking at its own presumed cleverness. It’s got poop jokes. It has tree-creature Groot, who is literally a one-note, one-joke character, who says nothing but “I am Groot” and has been newly recalibrated for manufactured cuteness and merch sales as Baby Groot. It has sexy sexbots, and suuuuure, women (or women-coded androids) as commodities is so unexpected. As a flight of fancy, Vol. 2 is shockingly limited in its imagination. This is true of so many movies that get labelled science fiction, but this one particularly wants us to buy it as fresh and different. It’s nothing of the sort.
Vol. 2 also seems to think it’s a comedy, but it just isn’t funny. It wants Fleetwood Mac songs scoring space battles to be amusing, or Cat Stevens song scoring sentimental moments to be touching, but that just feels like a way to sell, ahem, a compilation soundtrack. It’s got geeky cameos that are intended as surprising and clever, but they just feel like stunts. And all snarky references to cheesy 80s TV shows and retro technology feel like eating the pop-culture seed corn: if we don’t start telling some new stories that can become tomorrow’s nostalgia, what the hell are we going to make ironic snarky allusions to come the 2040s? “I am Groot” is only going to take us so far.
But another major facepalm of Vol. 2 is how writer-director James Gunn (Movie 43, Slither) has gone overboard and over-obvious in attempting to remedy the “it’s not about anything” problem of the first film. This one is all about family, and in case you forget, it will remind you every few minutes. To underscore the problem of Peter and the lack of a dad that so deeply impacted his life (“of course I have issues”) — even though he had a surrogate dad in criminal Yondu (Michael Rooker: The Belko Experiment, Jumper) — Peter will get to play space catch with his space dad after he was just saying how left out he felt, back on Earth before Yondu whisked him away, when all the other boys got to play regular Earth catch with their Earth dads. (Bring Kleenex. No, not really.)
In case you missed that Peter and his team — Gamora (Zoe Saldana: Live by Night, Star Trek Beyond), Rocket the cyborg raccoon (CGI with the voice of Bradley Cooper: War Dogs, 10 Cloverfield Lane), muscleman Drax (Dave Bautista: The Boss, Spectre), and Groot (CGI with the voice of Vin Diesel: The Last Witch Hunter, Find Me Guilty) — are an ad hoc family, someone will be there to remind us. (Funny how Luke and Han and Leia and Chewie and the droids never felt the need to keep telling one another how they were just one big family. Neo and Trinity and Morpheus and Switch and Apoc and Tank never needed to keep reminding themselves how they were just one big family. The Fast & Furious movies are guilty of the same thing. This is a bad storytelling trend that needs to die. Show, don’t tell!) It starts to sound a bit ominous and creepy, like when Don Corleone says “family.” Family. Except for Peter’s dead Earth mom. She’s still dead.
The trying-too-hard extends to the five — count ’em — mid- and postcredits scenes. If one or two is good, five must be better, right?
Of course mega-budget blockbuster movies like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 are carefully calculated and constructed, but they shouldn’t feel like they are. We shouldn’t see the puppet strings tugging on all the characters. We don’t need to have the themes explained to us. For all the monster ichor and alien gardens and quite a bit of human(oid) blood flying around, nothing here feels very organic.