Watching Marvel nowadays is an act that carries with it a certain sense of ennui.
The modern Marvel movie is the entertainment world’s equivalent of a bottle of Soylent – it has all the ingredients of a summer blockbuster, it goes down smooth, and it makes you satiated by its potent cocktail of humor and action. But it also lacks texture and grit.
The Marvel movie is at best, inoffensive, because it is so carefully blended into a mass-market appeal paste. It is candy for the lizard brain. And yet, I keep watching, and I keep wanting to watch, even though I know the next one is going to evoke that feeling of drinking an over-engineered high octane slurry.
Guardians Vol #2 is a carefully-made composite of everything that made the first one such a breakout hit. It’s got the 80s music, it’s got the wacky oddball characters, and it has Baby Groot, who was very early on identified as Marvel’s next great adorable mascot figure, which the film amps up to a barely tolerable eleven. Marvel, as I never tire of explaining, has this down to an exact science.
This time, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) meets his estranged dad, the mysterious and powerful Ego (Kurt Russell), who wants to reconnect with Peter for reasons of his own. Suffice to say, things don’t work out and Peter starts to discover the true meaning of fatherhood. Hint: it’s not expecting your son to follow your plans for galactic domination after 27 years of neglect (this lesson was also learned in Star Wars).
The movie is chock-full of the requisite nostalgia, hijinks, prissy alien races that look like regular people painted different colors, impossible planetary configurations, plot contrivances, and paeans about the importance of family. Of which the Guardians are one, albeit, a snarling, ever-at-loggerheads one. And the jokes, of course, of which Guardians has an ample amount, although most of the good ones are pretty much in the trailer and involve Drax. Other notables include a race of gold-skinned aliens called the Sovereign whose pomposity is the butt of many jokes. There are the baby Groot jokes that feature baby Groot being adorably silly. Then there’s one joke that involves a ravager with the unfortunate name of Taserface that goes on a little too long for its own good, and one featuring Nebula eating an alien horseradish – some of these jokes telegraph themselves a bit too much, in a laughtrack sitcom sort of way – the equivalent of the film trying to tell you I just made a funny joke! Laugh at me! Then there’s the Peter-Gamorra romance, perhaps one of the most unconvincing in MCU canon – but then again, romance isn’t Marvel’s strong suit, really.
The good-vs-bad plot is pure pulp sf cliche, and not really in a good way – featuring villains with simplistic, all-consuming ambitions that don’t betray any human motivations. It really serves as a vehicle for the Guardians to go on that extended find-thyself pilgrimage through a tightly choreographed dance of spaceships and explosions.
Oddly enough, the most compelling character is Yondu, the blue-skinned ravager of somewhat ambiguous morals who altercated with Peter in a kind of half-friendly way in the first movie. Yondu is a child-trafficking, mass murdering ravager, but he is in many ways the character who receives the most development and serves as the emotional crux of the movie as a kind of tragic figure when he’s not busily massacring people with his telepathic arrow. Although he is the unfortunate subject of one of those contrived moral conundrums – the kind where you have to make a Hobson’s choice between two extremes with no possibility for a win-win improvisation – played for emotional effect, a trope that always gets to me when poorly thought through.
Ultimately, though, jokes and Yondu aside, the chief feeling I could muster when I left the theatre was a sense of great emptiness. Maybe because I had to work the next day, but probably more because Guardians, like many Marvel movies, got it backwards – it built an edifice of entertainment so crowd-friendly that it kind of diffuses into a general kind of ennui-laden satiety. The kind you feel after eating a tubful of Ben & Jerry’s. The movie has its entertaining moments and even its emotional kicks, but at the end of the day, it can’t hide the fact that it’s a loud flashing money-making machine. It just compensates for it better than most other action fare.
I give this: 3.5 Anulax batteries