Just for a change, Marvel Studios are currently opening their gates to dump trucks of money that are being delivered to them. 15 movies in, and the company haven’t really had a true flop, and this past weekend’s “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2” looks like it’ll be one of their biggest, taking nearly $150 million in three days domestically to add to the $275 million or so it’s racked up in ten days in the rest of the world.
Reviews, as they tend to be with Marvel movies, have been strong, but reaction among Team Playlist is a little more divided: those of us who loved the first movie were a little disappointed, those who weren’t on board with James Gunn’s original wound up a little more pleased (like our official review). But what we can agree on is that the film, which sees the space-team (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel) pick up a few new members, betray space royalty and meet Star-Lord’s dad (Kurt Russell), has its ups and its downs.
So as is traditional for a big movie like this, we’ve run down some of the things we liked the most, and some of the things we didn’t, below. If you’ve seen it already (and from the box office, we imagine most of you have), let us know your feelings in the comments.
It was arguably true of the original, though perhaps less noticeable because everything around him was so new, but the best performance in GOTG2 easily comes from Dave Bautista, who was maybe our favorite thing in the entire film. We were skeptical when we heard of the casting — the track record of wrestlers-turned-actors is a patchy one. But Bautista proved to be more Dwayne Johnson than Hulk Hogan: he had a striking screen presence, and unexpectedly good timing as the unthinkingly literal warrior Drax, stealthily walking away with entire scenes. In the sequel, he walks away with the entire movie. Now a little cheerier in temperament, the grief over his family’s death is less all-consuming (though Bautista still handles the more emotional moments nicely), his ribbing of the other characters, and giant puppy love for them, is easily the film’s most effective comedic weapon, and Bautista knocks every line delivery out of the park. More than any other character in the film, we’re most excited to see how Drax plays off against the Avengers in his next appearances, and The Rock may need to watch his back as the biggest former WWE-er in the movies…
You could probably make the argument that the decision to make the resurrected Groot a tiny sapling rather than the nine-foot killing machine of the previous film was a craven one, driven by the response to Dancing Groot in a post-credits scene in the first movie, and by the likely toy sales that it would inspire. Which we’d be annoyed about it, if Baby Groot wasn’t the most adorable film character since John Wick’s ill-fated puppy. A pint-sized little tree whose understanding of the world and his own actions is even lower than Groot’s previous iteration, he’s a sweet agent of chaos who’s never anything less than fun to watch. But crucially, it feels sort of earned: James Gunn never over-uses him, he shifts the dynamic of the Guardians in interesting ways, and plays nicely into the movie’s themes of family. It’s almost a shame that he looks to gradually be returning to full form (though it’s as yet unclear whether teenage Groot will return for “Avengers: Infinity War” or whether he’ll be fully grown by then).
The Opening Credits Scene
If there’s any doubt that the flair, wit and jukebox tunes that made the first film connect in such a big way would be discarded second time around, Gunn quickly dispels them with the enormously enjoyable opening credits sequence. Seeing the team take on a giant toothy alien octopus thing that’s out to steal some batteries (what it might need the batteries for isn’t massively clear), it shows the action mostly from Baby Groot’s perspective as he dances around the fringes of the battlefield to ELO‘s “Mr. Blue Sky” (a musical choice that our Jess described, accurately, as “basically just cheating”). It’s a fun, playful way to bring you back into the action, one that speaks to the confidence with which Gunn handles things this time around: the only problem is that the film never quite finds an action scene quite as inventive again.
As we all know at this point, Marvel have had something of a villain issue for a while. Across 15 movies to date, their most memorable villains have been Loki (who is kind of a wet blanket, all told), Ben Kingsley in “Iron Man 3” (not, it turned out, a villain at all, but a hammy, drunk British thesp), and maybe Robert Redford in “The Winter Soldier,” but more out of the subversiveness of the casting than anything else. GOTG2’s big bad isn’t exactly going to be remembered as an all-time bad guy, all told, but Kurt Russell’s Ego is pretty effective, and certainly an improvement on Lee Pace’s shouty blue dude with the hammer in the last film. Ego’s secretly genocidal nature is sort of a twist (though ruined if you remember that when Matthew McConaughey was in talks, the character was described as the film’s villain), but not a terribly surprising one. But it’s the nature of the character — literally a planet, and one whose aim in life is to reproduce as much as possible — that makes him interesting, as well as his personal connection to Star-Lord. And Russell’s clearly having fun, both as the flowing-haired adventurer and the more megalomaniacal side of the character. Not quite a bad guy for the ages, but definitely in the Marvel top tier.
Speaking of good villains, we’ve pretty much decided that Elizabeth Debicki should play the antagonist, or at least an antagonist, in pretty much every movie. The statuesque product of a genetic experiment to blend Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara previously proved to be great fun in “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” (she’s the main reason to see the film, really), and though her golden-skinned Ayesha, leader of the Sovereigns, ultimately proves to be the secondary villain and not in the film all that much, she’s a joy in every second of screen time. Appearing like an Emmy statue come to life, but haughtier and angrier, Debicki takes the turn right to the edge of camp without quite walking over the line, and while she might never be especially threatening, she’s a fun addition, and we’d be keen to see more of her psychotic Princess Diana vibe, and her world in future films.
With streaming sites like Spotify more or less making compilation records pointless, you’d think that soundtracks would be increasingly a thing of the past these days. But “Guardians Of The Galaxy” (along with other recent hits like “Frozen” and “La La Land”) was a fascinating exception: its collection of A.M. radio favorites sold nearly two million copies, and did a huge amount to give the film its identity (as well as having been thoroughly ripped off — looking at you, “Suicide Squad”). So expectations were high for the Vol. 2 soundtrack (the film’s title even coming from the cassette tape within the film, so intrinsic is the music to the plot), and Gunn definitely delivered: we’d argue that it’s almost a better line-up of tracks than the first film. The film isn’t above going with some obvious choices — the aforementioned ELO track, or Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” But it mixes it up with some catchy obscurities like Silver’s “Wham Bam Shang-A-Lang,” and even if the film maybe has a little too much music — it feels kind of wall-to-wall in places — they mostly work brilliantly. The Sam Cooke, George Harrison and Cheap Trick tracks work especially well, so much so that we’ve forgiven Gunn for cutting away from “The Chain” before the dancier bit at the end. “Father & Son” was a bit on-the-nose, though, right?
It might make us sound a bit like a three-year-old seeing their first movie to say that one of the things we liked most about “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2” was the bright shiny colors, but fuck it: we liked the bright shiny colors. At a time of grim & gritty superhero pictures, the first film felt like something of an exception, a movie that was unafraid to lean a little psychedelic, not least by making one of its lead characters lime-green. As with so much else about the film, Gunn (and new DP Henry Braham, who last did “The Legend Of Tarzan”) really doubles-down on that here, with a color palette that feels less psychedelic-70s-sci-fi-novel-cover-art and more day-glo rave. It flirts with being gaudy, but usually just pulls back, and it’s such a contrast to the saturated feel of most superhero movies, or the orange-and-teal-only vibe of so many modern blockbusters.
With the characters from the first movie so instantly beloved, being a newcomer to the expanded Guardians line-up was a tough task for anybody, let alone an actress who was mostly unknown. But Pom Klementieff, the French actress who plays Mantis, nails it. Previously seen in Spike Lee’s “Oldboy” remake (though that might be a generous perspective on how many people watched Spike Lee’s “Oldboy” remake), Klementieff is buried under giant eyes and prosthetic antenna but is deeply charming throughout. The idea of introducing a true innocent to the Guardians was a good one, and her sheltered, oddly self-loathing persona fits in nicely without feeling like it’s replicating previous dynamics, and Mantis builds up a good rapport with Bautista, who she shares the bulk of her scenes with. She looks to be firmly part of the family going forward, and she already feels right at home.
Ever since the first “Iron Man,” a certain joke-friendly, quippy tone has been a crucial part of the Marvel universe, and a large reason for its success. That’s certainly true of the first ‘Guardians,’ but it sometimes felt a little over-eager to please, shoehorning gags amidst darker territory and the need to introduce the characters. Here, it all feels a little more organic, in part because Gunn has given himself the license to be a little looser and sillier. So we get odd segues or side-bits, like Baby Groot continually returning with different objects other than the eye he’s been sent to find, bits that would be the first to hit the cutting room floor if there was more plot to rush through, but which work beautifully here. Let’s hope that even with 4000 characters, “Infinity War” can still do the same.