Thursday, July 27, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 (2017)

There are two types of beings in the universe...
Those who dance, and those who do not.

This damn Marvel Cinematic Universe.  So many films to keep track of, it's a wonder it works at all.  The model seems functional enough; release origin stories and team-ups regularly, each one expanding the universe in some way, setting up future films while also telling internally satisfying stories.  The first Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) movie is the crowning example of this; a great cast of characters, a fun McGuffin-centric adventure story in space, a killer soundtrack, and some of the best comedy writing in the whole of the MCU.  It was, however, lightning in a bottle.  So many things went uncharacteristically right at once, and I was absolutely certain that it couldn't be repeated.  I assumed a sequel would focus on trying to replicate that same lightning, and would be a vastly inferior film as a result.  Written and Directed by James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 is, thankfully, a worthy sequel to the first.  It may not be as light on its feet, but it gets points for coming close.

You "Earthers" have hang-ups...

We regroup with the Guardians by way of an action scene set to the tune of Electric Light Orchestra's "Mr. Blue Sky," wherein the regrown Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) dances his little heart out as the others struggle to take down a tentacled monster.  Midway through this sequence, I knew I was in good hands.  The film centers around Peter Quill / Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) as he meets a god-like alien named Ego (Kurt Russell), who claims to be his father.  The group is skeptical, especially Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who has feelings for Quill but can't process them due to the horrific childhood she shared with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan).  All the while, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) steals highly valuable batteries from an exceptionally snobby race of golden-skinned aliens, which puts the Guardians on the run from Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his crew, who were hired to capture them.  While on Ego's planet, the group meets Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who is something of a servant to Ego and has empathic powers that Drax (Dave Bautista), having learned to embrace humor and joy, finds endlessly amusing.

I've never felt such humor...

The script finds a very good balance of tone, keeping the humor character-driven and never pulling punches with its darker material.  One scene in particular, which involves Rocket, Baby Groot, and Yondu slaughtering dozens of people set to Jay and the Americans' "Come a Little Bit Closer," is probably the most darkly humorous scene in the whole MCU.  I welcome it, to be sure, but the casual violence, if often bloodless, does become numbing after a while.  This doesn't prevent the finale from reaching some high emotional points, and even managed to eek a surprise tear out of me, but some of the action goes on a bit too long and loses its sense of tension.  The plot is relatively thin, as it was with the first film, but there are enough twists and turns to keep things interesting.  The point of this series isn't necessarily to tell a complicated story, but to let us spend time with these characters.  Volume 2 excels at that.

We can jack up our prices if we're two-time galaxy savers!

I appreciated the visual inventiveness of the film; rather than generic space battles or typical 2010s future designs, we are treated to drones remotely piloted by machines that resemble 80s arcade games, the painterly planet created by Ego, and countless alien designs that are distinctive and full of character.  In fact, I was often frustrated that the film favored close-ups, obscuring the gorgeous production design and relegating the hard work of the make-up artists to fuzzy background details.  We've given the characters plenty of time to breathe and become developed, now we need to do the same for the world-building.  The practical effects are stunning, but they're far and few in-between; CGI is king here, and it has inconsistent results.  The designs are stellar, but the actual rendering of much of the animation isn't quite as sharp as it was in the first film.  Rocket, in particular, felt so tangible last time but now tends to float a bit more.  This is, of course, nitpicky as hell and hardly dethrones him from being my favorite character.  Plus, look at all the color! This is a movie that's not afraid to be pretty.

Die, spaceship!

The soundtrack continues to be an important part of what makes these movies so much fun (and good God, after Suicide Squad I can really appreciate when it's done right).  "Brandy" actually becomes an important metaphor for the main villain, and in a surprising turn of events, I really liked the way the villain was handled.  It could have been better;  there was a moment where the film squanders the potential for an "Evil Star-Lord," but the matter resolves too quickly.  But compared to the villains from the first film?  This is ten times better.  Yondu and Nebula walk a nice tightrope between being villains and heroes throughout the film, and their development is handled excellently.  Performances from the cast are generally great, especially when it comes to the comedic beats, but I think Pratt struggles a bit toward the end with what's supposed to be a dramatic moment (and I can't confirm this, but I do believe CGI tears were added to his eyes for added effect, which does not sit right with me at all).

Nobody has any tape...

While the comedy can be on par with the original, there are still duds here and there. Thankfully, the film moves fast enough to make you laugh again (and forget that the "Kurt Russell says he has to pee" joke even happened).  That's partially why this sequel isn't quite as nimble as the first; a few more jokes feel forced, the effects are a bit more cartoonish, and the pacing could be better.  Otherwise it's a good time; it's got a great soundtrack, tons of 80s nostalgic references (the PacMan scene had me dying), great use of color, surprising violence to go along with its charm (Baby Groot is so cute... Holy shit, he just killed a guy!), and good character development.  It's probably the strongest series in the MCU, maybe besides the Captain America movies, and I eagerly await Volume 3.

We are Groot.