SPOILER WARNING: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (James Gunn, 2017)
Few summer blockbusters can succeed without humor. In many cases this humor comes in the form of levity, as the films do not wish to raise the stakes so much that their audience begins to feel uncomfortable. And while this is almost certainly harmful to the overall film in terms of it actually having a sense of consequence, if handled properly the humor will not interfere with the narrative elements so much that they seem inconsequential. Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996), Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014), and Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015) are all examples of films that achieve a successful and appropriate balance of stakes and levity. To a lesser extent, Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014) was successful in this sense as well, and in many ways it was more of a science fiction comedy as opposed to a straight science fiction action-adventure film. However, its sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (James Gunn, 2017), fails to find a successful balance and the film suffers from it as a result. While the sequel is certainly full of action and humor, the latter undercuts the stakes of the former to the point that nothing can be taken seriously and any attempt at actual consequences or emotional resonance come off as out of place rather than impactful. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is full of humorous content and moments of levity, but these instances are too frequent to allow for the film to build any sense of consequence and as a result the story falls flat as a whole.
None of this is to say that Vol. 2 is not entertaining in many respects. The film, like its precursor, fills itself with colorful and interesting visuals and characters, and this is the saving grace of the film. In many ways, it also has heart, as its characters are shown to genuinely care about their respective relationships. But all of this is constantly undercut by the humor that the film often forces into itself. Almost all of the characters in Vol. 2 are either humorous themselves or they are a source of humor to other, especially those such as Peter Quill/Starlord (Chris Pratt), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Groot (Vin Diesel). And while humor is necessary for a film such as this to work and even make sense, the constant one-liners and undercutting of serious moments bring with them the effect that nothing in the film needs to be really cared about. Again, a Hollywood summer blockbuster does not want to have too much of a sense of concern about it as it may make it unpleasant to some audiences and the end goal is for as many people as possible to see it and make it money; but once a film reaches the level where nothing seems to matter at all, the film has gone too far. This is the unfortunate territory that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 finds itself in as the constant one-liners, bouts of physical comedy, and overall undercutting of each scene and set piece cause it too feel as if nothing should be concerned about in the end and therefor genuine emotional investment in the film is impossible.
What Vol. 2 strives to be, or perhaps even sees itself as, is a parody of contemporary science fiction action adventure films. There are many parodic elements in the film to be sure, such as the scenes taking place in the video-game style command center of the Sovereign battle ships, but ultimately the film relies too much on the elements it is parodying and it also does not contain enough of these instances for it to be a parody. The first Guardians film did not see itself as a parody, but more as a shinier and funnier Star Wars-style film. Both films struggle in having an overall sense of urgency, as neither of them really know what is happening from scene to scene, but the overall sense of fun that the films have save them from this. But Vol. 2 does not flow as smoothly as its predecessor as many of its instances of levity are inserted in such a clunky manner that the scenes do not flow smoothly. This is a result of the film not committing fully to its vision of parody, as it still wants to have stakes but also does not know how to always successfully integrate its humor.
But even when it becomes apparent that the film universe is being threatened with annihilation, Vol. 2 cannot find it within itself to take anything seriously. As Peter Quill battles with Ego (Kurt Russell), in a fight that plays a large part in determining the fate of the universe and is partially fueled by Peter’s rage at the revelation that Ego killed his mother (Laura Haddock), his line is: “You shouldn’t have killed my mom and squished my Walkman!” At this point in the film it is established that Peter is furious at Ego over his role in his mother’s death, but Vol. 2 still feels the need to insert its brand of levity wherever it sees fit and not just where it is needed. In addition to this, the final fight scene is paused by an extended sequence of Rocket and Groot going over the detonation processes for a bomb. This scene on its own is both funny and relevant to the current situation, but it is inserted in such a way that it completely stalls the action and flow of the final sequences. In addition to all of this is the needless death of Yondu (Michael Rooker). Throughout the film, Yondu is the only character that undergoes an actual character arc, but in the end he is killed in an attempt to conclude this arc. And while it certainly does in the sense that he is now dead, his death is not needed to cement its finale. Yondu’s demise also has the effect of emotional impact being clumsily forced into the film. The death of Yondu is too little, too late for it to have any real emotional weight, as the rest of the film has been chock-full of moments of levity.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a fun film, but one that cannot find within it the discipline to take a moment to establish a serious sense of consequences. This lack of stakes keeps the film lighthearted, but it detracts from it in the sense that the audience cannot become invested in the film, as there is not a reason to. Through all of the set pieces, from the initial battle on the Sovereign planet, to the crash landing on as they escape from the Sovereign fleet, to even the revelations by Ego about his life and his later reveal of his sinister purpose, levity is inserted whether it is needed or not. Even though it is within the character of Peter Quill to make fun of anything and everything, he has been established as someone who knows when to take a situation seriously. But Vol. 2 rarely allows him to do so, and when it does another character often steps in to provide a joke or two. The end result is a film that strays into parody territory to have a few notable instances, but not enough to establish itself as a parody film, and this leads to its clunky and disjointed nature. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does not effectively embody what it sees itself as, and this leads to it being unsuccessful and inconsequential as a whole.