Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is one of the most likeable films in recent years. It’s definitely the most purely fun film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) since, well, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1. It is funny, it has personality, and it is eminently quotable. Almost every scene has at least one great line, and that’s not even mentioning the visual humour the film excels at. It’s almost impossible not to like the movie.
Reader, I liked it – but I wanted to love it, and I didn’t.
Guardians Vol. 2 does so many things right. It takes the fun ensemble of the first film and builds on it – and this extends to some of the henchmen, sidekicks and minor characters from the first film. It avoids the mistake common to the MCU of generic villains who are uninteresting as characters and who don’t reveal anything about the protagonists either (even if Marvel does return to the well of daddy issues a bit too often, perhaps). Visually it continues the trend of Dr. Strange of making these films look good instead of mediocre and blandly competent, and there’s genuine wit to some of the film’s humour.
At the same time, at least for me the movie’s immense charm and sense of fun is somewhat undercut by how hard it works at being likeable. Guardians Vol. 2 is a film that comes across as needing to be liked. It is so intent on being quotable and meme-tastic, its every scene seems to be going, “Wasn’t that fun? And here’s another one that’s even more fun! Did you like it? Huh?” It rarely relaxes enough to give itself time to develop especially its core cast of characters – which is a shame, because with the Guardians Marvel has one of the potentially best ensembles in the entire franchise.
The film’s need to be liked restricts what can be done with the main characters because, even though they squabble all the time, there is little in the way of real conflict between them. There is lip service to Rocket Raccoon’s rivalry with Star-Lord and to the furry one’s self-destructive tendencies, but these rarely ring true as anything other than aggressive banter. The audience is never supposed to think, “Yeah, actually, he is something of an arsehole.” Similarly, while they go through the motions of having Gamora clash with Peter Quill in their Moonlighting light “Will they or won’t they?” sparring, it remains a superficial exercise in genre conventions, because if the conflict went any deeper the filmmakers seem to think that we might like the film and its colourful cast of scoundrels less.
The result is that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 feels decidedly like a sitcom, Friends in Space perhaps or How I Met My Father (He Turned Out To Be A Planet). A funny, visually inventive and undoubtedly charming sitcom – but for me there’s a reason why sitcoms usually come in servings of little more than twenty minutes. It is amazing that the film supports itself as well as it does for the whole duration, but at this point I very much want this motley crew to stretch itself, to do something other than go through its sitcom motions, even if they do this with aplomb. I’m thinking especially of what the MCU has done with Tony Stark – Robert Downey Jr. is an actor of considerable charisma and his Iron Man is one of the most consistently enjoyable characters in the franchise – but they have developed him to a point where he can practically be the villain of the piece, or at least vastly compromised, without needing to immediately reset this to the previous status quo. By Civil War the films had become comfortable enough to let us dislike Tony (or Captain America, or even both). The conflict isn’t just generically sprinkled on top of the stories, it comes from the characters having the potential to grow and change. By comparison, characters like Rocket Raccoon or Star-Lord have never even hinted at going beyond “He may be a dick, but he’s our dick!” The Guardians of the Galaxy films are visually dynamic and fun, but their characters are stuck in stasis. Ironically, the characters that do develop, and that have potential for genuine pathos, aren’t our heroes but minor former villains given space to become something more than joke delivery machines.
Perhaps this is reflective of how most superhero comics work, perhaps most comic book fans want stasis in seriality: they want the ever-same comfort foodof tropes and clichés. Nevertheless, I think there’s potential for more. I don’t need Kenneth Lonergan’s Guardians of the Galaxy, a complex and deeply human sci-fi drama where the space raccoon’s plight makes you cry copiously, but I want the series to be less eager to have fan service as its foremost and perhaps only objective. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is as cute and adorable as a basket of puppies, but after a couple of two-hour sugar rushes of cuteness and likeability, I want to see a hint at least that these puppies may also have teeth.
You can find my thoughts on the first Guardians of the Galaxy here.