The only thing I knew about Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 before viewing it was that Kurt Russell was joining the cast. This news, I admit, was tremendous and encouraging. Watching the first Guardians, I thought more than once about how much Chris Pratt’s Starlord owed to his cinematic progenitor, Jack Burton.
If you don’t know the name, Jack Burton is the driver of the big rig known as the Porkchop Express, who gets himself tangled up in an adventure far beyond his ability to comprehend, in John Carpenter’s 1986 film Big Trouble in Little China. Burton’s machismo/uselessness is played with great bravado and humor by Kurt Russell, and it seemed at the time that James Gunn must have had Jack Burton in mind at least as much as Indiana Jones when he created Starlord.
The decision to bring Russell into the cast, then, made me very happy. He’s an old pro when it comes to exciting and weird and funny genre pictures, and he brought with him all the gravitas and capriciousness one expects from Jack Burton. It’s really too bad that Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2 has almost nothing to offer Kurt Russell in return.
Capricious is a word that is unlikely to get attached to a Marvel film, these days. Russell, Pratt, Zoe Saldana, everyone on camera here does what we think they will do at any given moment, because we know the characters and the kind of movie they’re in.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. It’s true that Kurt Russell was underserved, but I was happy to see the film find more to offer Karen Gillan, whose value in the first Guardians was undersold to almost criminal proportions. This time Gillan and Zoe Saldana are allowed the space to interact as sisters, and that pays meaningful dividends for Marvel, a company that finds little use in writing women with depth.
I was also quite impressed by unending commitment Vol. 2 takes to paying off its gags. This movie is funny. Big budget sci-fi comedy has been rare since the 1980s, and James Gunn harkens to that era with gleeful, if obvious, nostalgic charm. There’s also great music, used effectively, and a cute little tree.
So, yeah. Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 was pretty good. You know. Charming, affable, lacking depth but making up for it in quirk. It looks stunning in its visual effects and has some original concept art. It was, frankly, the film that I expected it to be. Which is strange because I must also admit that I am very let down by Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2.
This movie cost $200 Million to make. And for all that money, Marvel provided… exactly what I expected. From now on, I think we should consider that a failure.
GOTG Volume 2 is a symptom of a systemic failure caused, strangely enough, by unmitigated success. Marvel Studios, under the leadership of Kevin Feige, has created a system of film development that is more like a factory than a film company. Every year, multiple Marvel films arrive in our theaters, and every year movie-goers tend to agree that all of these movies are pretty good. Some of them are very good (Guardians 1, Captain America 2), and some of them are quite bad (Thor, Iron Man 2), but by and large, the Marvel manufacturing process produces above average, if uniform, pop entertainment. Feige’s model has proven successful beyond what Marvel (and later, Disney) could have expected back in 2008, when MCU’s first film, Iron Man, hit theaters. Since then, Marvel has become the most successful franchise of all time, grossing more than $10 Billion at the box office in its 15 film run. That they have another 10 films already in development is a sign that the Marvel mill will be open for many years to come.
The thing about that level of popular success, as a business, is that it requires Marvel’s artists–it’s writers, directors, actors, producers, everyone–to participate in an obvious, and increasingly painful deterioration of originality in Marvel’s films. What minor changes Feige allowed James Gunn to make in Guardians 2 are welcome. The film is wandering, for instance, and the movie looks to character more than plot for its emotion. But these changes are easy to make in a sequel with an opening weekend box office that is already being reported at $150 Million before the film has even opened to the public. You can’t predict box-office smashes by making something different than exactly what audiences expect.
The steady drumbeat of Marvel Cinematic Universe films (Guardians 2 is the first of three in 2017) are all fairly solid, but they are al solid in almost exactly the same ways (to continue the factory metaphor, you might call it the model of interchangeable parts). Sure, there are variations. Guardians and Ant-Man are light and comedic, Captain America and Iron Man are serious and dour. But the necessary components of a Marvel film are now well known to audiences everywhere. They know it works, they know audiences like, and audiences continue paying for it. As a result, they keep doing it. Why wouldn’t they?
So why am I writing all this here, in what should be a review of Guardians of the Galaxy 2? Because, if someone were to argue that an outlier in Marvel’s monolithic franchise machine existed, the only place to look would be 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Guardians was funny and touching; it felt fresh and alive in a way that no other Marvel film had previously or since. While it didn’t have much new to offer in its plot (group of outcasts must learn to work as a team to achieve goals, thus becoming an unusual family of no-good do-gooders), it brought a charismatic sense of humor, moving performances, and even a visual sensibility that had been missing (Marvel’s opposition to brightness and color is a mystery).
Hoping that Marvel would use its most unique film to bounce out something unexpected in the sequel seemed like a real possibility. But as it stands, not even Kurt Russell could inspire Marvel to live up to that task. You should go see Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. It is pretty good. But don’t expect any surprises. After all, it’s a Marvel movie.