Guardians of the Galaxy was like a really good party, in that I remember almost nothing about it except that it was great fun.
It arrived mercifully unburdened by an arcane, Talmudic comic book mythology, and instead offered wisecracks, a wrestler in a key role, talking raccoons, and green women -- the latter has been an interest of mine since Yvonne Craig guest-starred on Star Trek.
It was with growing alarm, then, that I watched Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 expend so much time and energy reminding everyone what happened in the original -- Gamora (Zoe Saldana) has a beef with her sister (Karen Gillan), Rocket the raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) has personality problems, and Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) has daddy issues.
Part two spends the better part of two hours examining the story behind Quill’s parentage – the Earth mother he knew growing up, the mystery father he didn’t know at all.
Dad turns out to be Kurt Russell, and this seems promising – certainly it’s in keeping with the sentiment in Guardians that all that is good and right with the universe derives from pop culture available in the U.S. circa 1970s/1980s – "Brandy" by Looking Glass, Knight Rider starring David Hasselhoff, etc.
Russell is both a working actor and a treasured artifact. The star of Big Trouble in Little China is the perfect thing to add to the cultural mix-tape here – in fact, with another supporting appearance by Sylvester Stallone, this sequel offers both Tango and Cash.
And the sequel does retain some of the humor and visual inventiveness of the original. The plot has the Guardians gang running afoul of a race of snobby space aristocrats – gold-plated, they look like bathroom fixtures from Mar-A-Lago.
The Guardians find refuge on the planet of Peter’s father. His name is Ego, and it suits him – he’s a powerful galactic being who has designed his own planet. After a while, though, it becomes evident that Russell has not been brought in to add retro B-movie fun. Ego is a humorless pontificator, a gasbag, and a bore. Darth Vader is funnier.
Meanwhile, the bickering of the Guardians becomes elevated to a Big Theme. Peter and Gamora squabble, She continues fighting with her sister, the raccoon fights with everybody – we’re told it’s because deep down he doesn’t like himself.
If that sounds like more than you want to know about Rocket’s personal psychology, you get an idea of the problem here. The underdog panache of the original has ebbed, and now begins the tedious world-building and brand-building that becomes necessary when you make $700 million at the box office.
Guardians has corporate responsibilities, and exhibits the story problems that often come with it. One is Peter’s, well, emasculation. The universe’s wisecracker-in-chief is reduced here to a puddle of sincerity, toddling after pops, emoting about his two decades as an orphan.
During the effects-driven, ten-ending Return of the King finale, Pratt is forced to wear an expression of extreme and unrelenting earnestness while shafts of light shoot out of his face for 10 minutes.
In the end, the Guardians declare their love for each other, and the CGI raccoon is called upon to cry.
I don’t know where Vol. 3 will go, but a return to the up-yours energy of the original would be most welcome. We need to get some Ramones on that mix tape.