It will be very strange when the Guardians of the Galaxy show up, as promised, in the upcoming third Avengers film, tagged Infinity War. I offer that observation as acknowledgment of the uniqueness of writer-director James Gunn’s contribution to the swelling Marvel Cinematic Universe. The revolution of the Marvel movie model is the transference of the interconnectedness of comic book sagas to the big screen, and the studio has been hitting that hard in recent efforts. Each separate movie has its own strengths and weaknesses, but a significant part of what defines them is their placement in the bigger pictures. Individual tiles in a mosaic can be pretty, but their purpose is to serve the whole.
Even more than the first film in the franchise, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 disrupts the model. There is barely any acknowledgement of stories that exist in tandem with the plot presented in the film. Even then, the context is held tightly to the characters. Major villain Thanos, for existence, isn’t presented with tremulous foreshadowing of cataclysmic doings to come. He’s invoked as the despotic parent of two of the characters that figure prominently here. The purpose is to add context to this film, not to stir imaginings for future offerings. That makes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 the rare Marvel film that doesn’t feel like a coming attraction backing its way into maybe-kinda-sorta being a real movie. (And I write that with the full concession that I like a lot of those other movies, in part because it’s a reaction to which I’m sadly predisposed.)
In a way, then, it’s almost a perverse triumph that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 falls prey to some of the most common flaws of a standard blockbuster sequel. Gunn works a little too hard at repeating comedic and action elements that worked terrifically in the previous installment. Lacking the spark of unexpected discovery, those bits and gimmicks don’t work quite as well. Finding a perfectly logical — even emotionally satisfying — way to justify the inclusion of classic pop-rock songs in an outer space saga in the first film was borderline genius. When mimeographed for a second outing, the trick isn’t as winning. Indiana Jones can’t just pull out his gun and shoot an intimidating swordsman a second time.
If the pieces don’t seem as novel, they’re still pretty fun pieces. Clearly given unqualified trust by the Marvel corporate overseers, Gunn has a romping good time. He clearly likes working with these characters and this sprawling world, where there’s a constant undermining of the grave pomposity of classic science fiction and action movie tropes. The movie gets better as it goes along, as if Gunn himself gives in to the momentum he’s built up. Sometimes it takes a lot of pushing of the sled before it’s time to ride it, careening wildly down a hill steep enough to induce vertigo. The actors are engaging enough, though almost incidental (with the arguable exception of Dave Bautista, whose is the stealth MVP of the series). Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 might not be beholden to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, but everyone within its frames is clearly there to be a part of the Guardians team, just one more bat in the lineup. In the grinding machinery of modern moviemaking, it’s not a bad approach.