The opening set piece to Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is a battle for the ages with a giant octopod, slug thing. But distracting our attention is Baby Groot plugging in an amplifier to blare “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra.
Now, if you need a reminder of who Groot is, in the last “Guardians of the Galaxy,” he was a sentient tree being that only ever spoke three words, “I Am Groot.” Now he’s a baby. Clear?
But fear not: age differences aside, he and the Guardians still have the same taste in ‘70s AM radio. And apparently more interesting than another CGI battle is watching this four-inch-high Chia pet shimmy its hips. Director James Gunn seems to know we’ve grown desensitized to whatever mayhem is going on behind Baby Groot, and at this point American audiences would still pay hundreds of millions of dollars even if it meant we were placated for something mindless and cute for just a few moments.
That’s what “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2” has come to. It’s ridiculous there are people honestly writing about this with any degree of seriousness, let alone even calling it a movie. It’s explosively colorful, filled with endless inane chatter, heavy on catchy pop songs used as superhero music videos, and littered with enough made up space words to convince someone there’s a plot, characters and stakes here.
Gunn jams “Guardians 2” with gigantic space opera moments and activity, but at every turn he shoe horns in a joke to lighten the mood and remind everyone this is all just mindless entertainment. The details don’t matter, because we’re just moments away from another shot of Baby Groot eating M&Ms as the world explodes around him.
What are these five creatures even doing together anyway? Will Peter (Chris Pratt) and the foul-mouthed raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper set their egos aside and learn to get along? Will Peter and the green alien woman Gamora (Zoe Saldana) get together as a couple? Will the super literal, hulking golem Drax (Dave Bautista) find romance with a woman with antennas? Will the blue guy Yondu (Michael Rooker) earn the respect of Sylvester Stallone? Who honestly cares?
The real plot concerns Peter’s father, Ego (Kurt Russell). He materializes into their lives and reveals that he is a “celestial,” or a God. His home planet is a kids coloring book of the Garden of Eden. It’s beyond shimmering in gold and purple and contains endless swaths of lush vibrancy. In fact it’s one of several impeccably rendered landscapes, from the all-golden palace of a race of people infected by Midas’s touch, to a space ship that looks like the inside of a Cadbury crème-egg. It’s as if the whole movie were made up of Internet concept art.
“Guardians” gives off the appearance of conflict and stakes, but everything that happens is aimless and adrift in space. It’s all an empty vehicle for more jokes, more action, more music, and its actual themes about friendship are entirely anodyne, even for a Marvel movie. There’s a scene of Peter and Rocket shouting insults at one another as they evade an asteroid field. There’s Baby Groot misunderstanding simple instructions and instead presenting Rocket with a severed toe. There’s Yondu simply whistling as a single arrow zips around the room and impales everyone standing. What reason is there for this to exist other than to see him and Rocket walking in slow motion as countless bodies fall to their deaths behind him?
Most frustrating about a scene like this is Gunn’s tacit expectation that everything we’re seeing at any moment is unbelievably cool. The first “Guardians” was legitimately an experiment; Marvel had to make us wholeheartedly believe that these five, misfit toys strutting to ‘70s rock was actually awesome, and in a lot ways it worked. Now it’s an expectation.
But when exactly did Fleetwood Mac become cool? ELO? “Brandy?” A huge selling point of “Guardians” is in its soundtrack, and Gunn plays each of these songs as prominent set pieces and demonstrates great skill in arranging his score to the action. But the use of these pop hits ranges from ridiculous to horribly cloying. The ending scene tries to pack a heavy-handed emotional wallop, but there’s no universe in which a raccoon shedding a single tear is sincere.
Lately it’s been fashionable to pile on DC and movies like “Batman v. Superman” and “Suicide Squad.” Those films are miscalculated disasters, overlong, overly ambitious and absolutely erratic and tone and direction. But none of those things apply to “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” This is exactly the movie Marvel and Gunn envisioned. It’s everything a Marvel movie strives to be, and yet it’s still insufferable and ridiculous.