‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’: Entertaining pop culture references help to alleviate James Gunn’s ‘weight of obligation’
Pull up a chair, gather your friends, and warm up those texting thumbs: the hour is nigh for our biannual ritual of packing ourselves into theaters and watching the ultra-caffeinated exploits of whichever Marvel superheroes we’re obligated to obsess over this time. Punishment for non-compliance is harsh; your Facebook feed will be clogged with posts about a topic to which you are indifferent, the modern definition of social pariah.
This time, it’s Guardians of the Galaxy, a second-tier Marvel property whose refreshingly saucy first film, released in 2014, earned $773 million worldwide. Now its sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, is guaranteed to be a worldwide hit.
How Marvel has managed to generate undiminished excitement over the course of 14 previous films in such a short amount of time (Iron Man was only nine years ago, yet seems like forever) is something that will be studied by future generations of the entertainment intelligentsia, or possibly sociologists studying the effects of mass hysteria.
At Marvel Studios, one can imagine, the pressure to be good isn’t as intense as the pressure to not be bad, lest the House of Ideas starts resembling a house of cards. That burden can be felt in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2.
Indeed, it’s not only excitement that’s pinning you to your seat. It’s the weight of obligation, the filmmakers’ responsibility to give you exactly what you loved about the first one, plus even more noise, more phaser blasts, and more bickering. The Guardians of the Galaxy films, though, have something the other Marvel films don’t: an organizing comedic principle both cheap and effective – i.e., pop culture references from the ’70s and ’80s.
‘Cheeky bastard’ James Gunn
Blame it on director James Gunn, the cheeky bastard behind both films. He’s in his mid-40s, the perfect age to appreciate the value of a David Hasselhoff cameo or a fleeting close-up of a Mattel Electronics Football handheld game.
He especially knows a good ’70s pop tune when he hears it. So many, in fact, that much of our enjoyment of the Guardians of the Galaxy films depends on our reaction to the songs and the other bits of nostalgia. A solid Cheers reference is an easy shortcut to the heart of any Gen X’er. Remove them from Vol. 2 and we’re left with five characters whose squabbling is starting to sound forced and a climax that manages to be even longer, louder, and more confusing than the climax of the previous installment.
Kurt Russell in space
But why complain about a film compelled to stuff an exhaustive amount of visual gags, one-liners, and Fleetwood Mac tunes into 138 generally enjoyable minutes? The Guardians of the Galaxy franchise has found its little, expletive-inflected corner of the Marvel universe and it frolics there, shooting down its enemies and shooting off its mouth.
It’s a niche that even makes room for national nerd treasure, Kurt Russell, who starred in three of the great genre films of the ’80s (Escape from New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China, all from director John Carpenter).
Russell plays the man who may or may not be the father of Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt, charming, rakish, and approachable as ever). His name is Ego, which, as it happens, tells you all you need to know about him. He is first seen as a younger, bell-bottom-clad young man, which is the 66-year-old Russell de-aged by computer. His entrance is accompanied by the 1972 Looking Glass hit “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” which is to say, we like him already.
Later, as Peter wonders if he has truly found his father, the action moves to Ego’s home planet, which looks like every acid-inspired prog rock album cover of the era. It’s here, on a planet Ego named after himself that Peter hashes out his daddy issues. Sure, conflict and resolution have the depth of a season three episode of Star Trek: TOS, but when Ego and Peter play a long-overdue game of catch (with a ball of light), don’t be surprised if your chuckle is accompanied by a slightly moist eye.
Sisterly rivalry + Howard the Duck & Sylvester Stallone
Since daddy issues don’t satisfy the female demo, there’s something for the ladies: the green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana) seems perpetually pissed this time, mostly because her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) is still trying to kill her. Nebula, she of the metallic, hairless head and permanent, aggrieved scowl, has her reasons and it’s a credit to screenwriter Gunn (taking sole ownership) that he gifts the film’s biggest character arcs to minor players, like Nebula and Yondu (Michael Rooker). The latter, an ornery sort in need of a new coat of blue paint, abducted young Peter from Earth in the first film and leads a band of grungy, vaguely inept space pirates called Ravagers.
Yondu’s fate is a surprise, even though Marvel has made such manipulations a key component of their formula. They hedge fatigue by cannily introducing new characters and conflicts. Captain America and Iron Man will no doubt partake of shawarma again, but the internecine clash that exploded in Captain America: Civil War makes battling the villain du jour a little easier to take. And in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 we wonder, if not assume, those fleeting shots of Howard the Duck and Sylvester Stallone will pay off someday.
Rocket Raccoon vs. the supercilious Sovereign
It’s a lot to keep track of and two films in, Guardians is the only Marvel series where the juggling of action, character, effects, jokes, and story can feel assaultive. At times, it melts into shtick.
The story proper begins when Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) steals a bag of batteries from a race of golden-skinned, supercilious humanoids called The Sovereign. The resulting endless, tiresome dogfight between the Guardians’ ship and an armada of remote-controlled pods features an endless, tiresome quarrel between Rocket and Peter. They’re becoming a vaudeville duo whose routine is starting to get a little moldy.
The funniest characters are the ones who don’t realize they’re being funny. Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) gets laughs by virtue of being so damn cute, as well as too young, innocent, and inexperienced to understand the dire nature of his predicament. Drax (David Bautista), cement-colored and muscle-bound, possesses no senses of irony or humor. “You need to find a woman who’s pathetic, like you,” he tells Peter in a flat, informational nod to the tentatively blossoming love between Peter and Gamora. Drax, whose “turds are famously large,” gets his own tentatively blossoming love with Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Sensitive, doe-eyed, and equipped with two antennae protruding from her forehead, Mantis stays in the game although Drax, lacking any social graces, continually calls her ugly.
In future sequels, what exactly will the Guardians be guarding?
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the work of a corporation that has assessed the feasibility of a nuttier, more impertinent superhero series and proclaimed it good for business. That decision doesn’t come without risks.
What once felt invigorating and a bit dangerous might, with successive sequels, begin to feel stagnant. That’s where Guardians finds itself now. Vol. 2 is, on a whole, a winner. But when Vol. 3 is released, let’s see if Star-Lord and his friends are guarding the galaxy or Disney’s bottom line.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Dir. & Scr.: James Gunn.
Based on the Marvel comics by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning.
Star-lord created by Steve Englehart and Steve Gan. Gamora and Drax created by Jim Starlin. Groot created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby. Rocket Raccoon created by Bill Mantlo and Keith Giffen.
Cast: Chris Pratt. Zoe Saldana. Michael Rooker. Karen Gillan. Pom Klementieff. Sylvester Stallone. Kurt Russell. Elizabeth Debicki. Chris Sullivan.
Sean Gunn. Tommy Flanagan. Laura Haddock. Aaron Schwartz. Alex Klein. Luke Cook. Joe Fria. Stephen Blackehart. Rob Zombie. Elizabeth Ludlow. Michelle Yeoh.
Michael Rosenbaum. David Hasselhoff. Ving Rhames. Jeff Goldblum. Kelly Richardson. Stan Lee.
Voice Cast: Bradley Cooper. Dave Bautista. Vin Diesel. Seth Green. Miley Cyrus.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 trailer: Marvel Pictures / Walt Disney Pictures.
Info re: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 cast and other credits via the IMDb.
Images of Chris Pratt as Star-Lord a.k.a. Peter Quill, Michael Rooker as Yondu, Rocket Raccoon, and Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Marvel Pictures / Walt Disney Pictures.