Shuffling out of the cinema after “Guardians of the Galaxy,” my fingers lubed up with popcorn butter, someone behind me muttered, “That’s going to be hard to top.” Though rare, sequels have been known to surpass their predecessors. “Aliens” remains one of the greatest sequels of all time. Sci-fi action flick “Terminator 2” topped “The Terminator.” Even in the comic book realm, entries like “Blade II,” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” proved that a follow up could excel. Unfortunately, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” does not. It’s forced, cliche, and lacks the character that made “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1” such a delight.
As “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” opens, Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) battle an inter-dimensional creature. The now-lauded Guardians of the Galaxy were contracted by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) of the Soverign race to protect incredible valuable batteries from from this malevolent being. This battle, which the Guardians handily win, serves as a neat opening credits sequence.
Moreover, it illustrates where how far the Guardians have progressed. Whereas in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1” the group formed out of necessity, a ragtag team of misfits, they’re more polished. Still, there’s loads of competition and wisecracking. Unfortunately, Rocket acts like, well, Rocket. His actions enrage Ayesha who sets the entirety of the Sovereign fleet upon them. Ayesha in turn hires the Ravager crew led by Yondu (Michael Rooker) to hunt them. Meanwhile, Quill meets his father, Ego (Kurt Russell), a Celestial, where he finds temporary solace.
The first half of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” feels decidedly disjointed. Several concurrent subplots eventually converge. But I found myself wondering where the narrative was going. Unlike “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1,” the second series entry focuses increasingly on characters and relationships.
While I normally appreciate character studies, “Vol. 2” is dreadfully cliche. The onus on feelings appears forced. Adding to this sentiment, there’s an emotional plot thread with pretty much every character: Quill meeting his father, Gamora and Quill’s budding romance, Drax’s deceased family, Rocket’s soft side, and Youndu caring for Quill.
What came so naturally to “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1” is noticeably less organic in “Vol. 2.” The exceptional soundtrack in “Vol. 1” seamlessly oozes in and out of the film. Whereas in the sequel, it’s overtly referenced as if to remind the audience that the mix of oldies is a characteristic of a “Guardians of the Galaxy” film. It’s impossible to discuss “Guardians of the Galaxy” without touching on its soundtrack. While not nearly as solid, the second “Awesome Mix” is still pretty enjoyable.
Yet “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” does have its moments of brilliance. Kurt Russell notably steals each scene he’s in. The highlight of the film may be Russell delivering a spoken word rendition of the song “Brandy.” Pom Klementieff joins the cast as Mantis, an inventive and well-acted character. Nebula (Karen Gillian) returns and gets increased screen-time.Quill continues spouting pop culture references, this time with throwbacks to “Cheers” and David Hasselhoff.
Possibly my favorite part was the ending which comes as a genuine surprise. Although most Marvel Studios films play it fairly safe, there’s an unforeseen twist which occurs. Again, this event illustrates “Vol. 2” and its lack of direction. The dark ending doesn’t quite match up to its majority which remains pretty lighthearted.
While I did appreciate the idea of complexity and character depth, the execution was lacking. Instead of multi-faceted characters, “Vol. 2” suffers from trite plot and character development. Sure, it’s pretty dark, an aspect I rather enjoyed. Sadly, this bleak vibe often comes across as forced. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” occasionally shines, capturing once again the rogue epic of its predecessor. But absent is the free-flowing, fresh vibe. What once felt novel feels overdone, like it’s trying too hard. It’s still a visually stunning, fun movie. However “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is not the awesome mix it could be.