The opening credit sequence of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is affable and adorable – and a serviceable metaphor for not only Gunn’s films, but the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. It goes like this: as the rest of the GotGs battle a giant beast of numerous tentacles and rows of teeth, little Baby Groot plugs in the speakers and dances to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” Questions of cinematic ownership aside (“Mr. Blue Sky” is a needle drop that belongs to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and there will be no further discussion on the matter), it’s a charming little scene, and there’s something momentarily subversive about the way Gunn positions the giant CGI action sequence in the blurry background and edges of the frame for the comic set piece. But eventually, the diversion must end, and our attention must turn to the matter at hand, and said space battle invades the frame and the sequence, and the fun stops.
Pretty much every Marvel movie to date asks the discerning viewer to play a similar game of selective focus. We may find ourselves diverted by the character comedy of The Avengers, the self-aware wit of Iron Man 3, the heist-flick fun of Ant-Man, the trippy weirdness of Doctor Strange, and the hip silliness of Guardians. But eventually, the bills must be paid, and the flourishes of personality must yield the screen to the painstakingly pre-visualized CGI battles. It’s as predetermined as the groan-worthy Stan Lee cameo.
There are, to be fair, plenty of worthwhile distractions this time around. Kurt Russell, as you’ve probably heard, shows up as the father of Chris Pratt’s Star Lord, laying on the Russell charm thick; there’s a great moment of father and son playing catch that’s sold entirely by his big grin, and he appears in the prologue de-aged to his iconic circa-1980 self, which is a CG technology this viewer is not yet tired of. (Sylvester Stallone also appears in a supporting role – though they share no scenes, meaning Marvel missed out on creating the Tango & Cash reunion we’ve been waiting 28 years for.)
There are plenty of honest laughs (and also plenty of cheap, bodily function-based ones, which should prove a big hit with the 14-year-old demo): a running bit with Rocket Raccoon’s wink, Pratt’s skill at passive-aggressive mumbling, another Howard the Duck cameo. But it also leans too heavily on the big comic masterstroke of the first movie, over and over again, and sorry, how many times is it funny or unexpected to score an action/sci-fi set piece with an incongruent ‘70s pop song? In the first film, it was a novelty, but nothing kills novelty like monotony, and by the fifth or sixth such sequence in Vol. 2, it’s fair to say the joke has lost its luster.
And, as per usual, the third act gives way to special effects orgies and forced pathos; there are enough solemn references to the value of the Guardians’ makeshift family to make you think Kinko’s accidentally mixed in some of Vin Diesel’s Fate of the Furious pages when they were making script copies. Yes, we get a very funny climactic detour with Rocket attempting to show Baby Groot how to trigger an explosive device; you’ve seen it in the previews, as the raccoon asks, “Does anybody have any tape? I wanna put some tape over the death button” and then goes hunting for some. But when the bit’s over, it’s still in service of the most tired of climactic devices — a bomb countdown clock, which ticks down during the film’s de rigueur VFX takeover. I’m sure some audiences find these sequences thrilling and involving; I realized, at one point, that my mind had wandered from the events onscreen entirely. God, I’m tired of these climaxes.
Guardians Vol. 2 is enjoyable enough, I suppose – in the realm of comic book movies, it could demonstrably be far, far worse. But near the film’s end, before it resigns itself with a sigh to the franchise set-up and maintenance of its five closing credit scenes, there’s a lovely sequence whose content I won’t give away. You’ll know it, though, by the Cat Stevens cue. There, and there alone, this viewer was jolted upright in the theater seat; it’s not a scene that does anything particularly spectacular, but it tingles with the thrill of being something we haven’t seen in these movies before. I’m sure Guardians will make metric shit-tons of money, as will the next of these movies, and the next. But eventually, audiences are going to grow tired of the same emotional beats and the same interchangeable action, and if Marvel and their ilk want to keep this thing going as long as they’ve indicated, that feeling, of excitement for the new, is what they have to pursue.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is out Friday.