Friday, 28 April 2017

Film Review: With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Marvel bid farewell to their balanced sincerity

When Marvel dropped Guardians of the Galaxy back in 2014 it was the breath of fresh air the franchise needed. Sure it wasn't perfect, but it found plenty of new elements: a solo origin story was pushed aside for a team dynamic; tiresome action genre conventions were eliminated in favour of something a bit more retro; weighty emotions took a back seat to a delirious sense of fun. Vol.2, however, simply slaps Fleetwood Mac over a space battle and calls it a day. Sure, it's pretty cool, but it's hardly anything to write home about.

The issue comes from writer/director James Gunn trying to take his film in two opposing directions at once. Vol.2 is more intimate in its look at Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) via the return of his father (Kurt Russell), but it also has an even larger character roster and, by splitting everyone up, there's a much bigger geographical canvas to cover. The film is trying to be both bigger and smaller than what came before and, by pulling itself in two different directions so violently, everything falls apart.

So yeah, Peter Quill has found his dad, Ego. Or, more rather, his dad has found him. They spend some quality time together, play catch and talk about Peter's mother before she died. Meanwhile, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista) hang out with Quill's father's pet Mantis (Pom Klementieff), all while Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) run into trouble while guarding the ship.

As you can probably see, there's too much going on. As a kind of paradoxical result of there being too much going on, not a lot really happens. Rocket, Baby Groot and, for a while, Nebula's subplot is essentially derivative. The only purpose it serves is to spend time with Yondu (Michael Rooker), because he's probably going to be important in the final act, and also to give Baby Groot something to do because, let's face it, a tiny tree person who can only say three squeaky words can't really be a particularly worthwhile character to the overall plot. 

When we aren't killing precious screen time with these guys, we're on Ego's planet with everyone else. The first Guardians film found brilliance in its character dynamics between the main five, so it's frustrating that everyone is split up for such a long period of this sequel. Nebula remains an unbearably dull character despite this film's efforts to flesh out her backstory, so when she arrives back on Ego's planet and swoops Gamora away from the main plot, it's more of an inconvenience than a dramatic showdown.

There's some fun to be found between Drax and Mantis, but their relationship is fairly one note and it's a note that grows tiring very quickly - Mantis is essentially the film's saving grace, so watching her get insulted in every scene stops being funny very quickly. Her ability to read and feel people's emotions rather than their thoughts is endlessly fascinating but, bar one scene between her and Drax, it's mostly used for cheap laughs that we've already seen in the trailers. Watching a potentially interesting character diminished in favour of giving Drax something to do - it wouldn't take much plot shifting to render his presence here entirely pointless - doesn't make for very compelling nor funny viewing.

So this leaves us with Peter Quill and his father, and the film doesn't fare much better here. Their dynamic is initially interesting, but it soon gives way to more obvious dramatic beats. Out of nowhere, though, it eventually lands on a huge character plot twist. And I'm talking huge. My heart jumped, people around me gasped. Nothing would ever be the same again. Thirty seconds later it's turned into a joke and the film rarely mentions it again after that. Well, it was nice while it lasted, I guess.

I'm sorry if this review sounds sarcastic, but it's tough not to respond like this to such a phoned in, lazy attempt for a sequel. Almost every joke Vol. 2 throws at us can probably be found in any other comedy from the last few years, every emotional beat either falls flat or is awkwardly laughed off within moments and every action scene is overloaded with CGI to the point of incomprehension.

James Gunn's script is the film's biggest issue. Every theme is over explained - really, these people, are they...a family? - and, if the film didn't throw them at you so bombastically, you could probably predict a good 90% of the punchlines to each joke Gunn puts on screen. Franchise film making is always more mechanical than others, but it shouldn't feel this way. You can practically see the cogs turning for the film to reach its logical and predictable end point, nothing in the final act comes as a surprise.

Vol.2 works occasionally, mostly due to the results achieved by its predecessor. These are great characters to hang around with, and the early moments when they're all together recapture that feeling nicely. Most of the performances are great - though the usually reliable Chris Pratt feels disappointingly held back, here - and the CGI, while overbearing, is admittedly stunning. There's also a handful of beautiful sets on display, the inside of Ego's ship is particularly elegant.

But Vol.2 loses every ounce of personality and infectious likeability crafted by the first film. Where Vol.1 had humour and heart and fun, Vol.2 has laboured jokes and flat emotions and tiresome action scenes. In other words, film one found a new path for Marvel features but film two represents everything that this studio does wrong. Just why did it have to happen to these guys?

In A Sentence
The visual palette is as dazzling as ever, but Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 can't escape its scattershot narrative, forced humour and frustrating emotional immaturity.

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