Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is without a doubt the most complex treatment ever of the emotions of raccoons. It must also set a record for the simplest possible film that could remain bewildering to the uninitiated. Despite the fact that even a toddler with ADHD would be able to understand the story, it would still be an utterly surreal experience to anyone who hasn’t watched the original. If you live in South London as I do, it would be tempting to assume you’ve accidentally inhaled enough weed from walking down the street to be exuberantly high. Why are there so many colours? Why is the baby tree dancing? Why are the aliens listening to Fleetwood Mac?
Guardians is stupendously silly and knowingly so, adopting an almost sitcom-style approach to humour, in which it throws as much quipping, slapstick and meta at the screen as possible in the hope that you won’t notice what doesn’t stick. As a result, the film is, well, if not riotously funny, then at least enjoyably goofy. It’s goofy when it wants to be goofy, goofy when it wants to be thrilling, and goofy when it wants to be serious. In its best moments, it uses humour to balance out an otherwise-overly-sweet sentimentality, resulting in an effective mix of offbeat poignancy. In its weakest moments, it succumbs to the Marvel disease that most afflicted Age of Ultron – undercutting its thrills with wisecracks that instantly dissolve the tension.
This should just have been a character film. Director James Gunn is at his best when writing character interactions; indeed, it’s a miracle that this stuff is engaging at all. On paper, it’s nothing but childish fantasy: a talking raccoon, a sentient tree, weird blue and gold humanoids mugging and spouting nerdy gibberish. That it’s not only engaging but endearing is testament to Gunn’s ability to write memorable, fascinating characters. Chris Pratt’s Starlord is the lead but turns out to be the least interesting of them all, upstaged by a cast of lovable motley outcast aliens. They fly around the galaxy fighting against each other and then fighting with each other and their bickering is snarky, snappy and pointless. Sure, it’s TV-movie-of-the-week, but it’s a lot of fun.
Unfortunately it then attempts the one thing that has always eluded Marvel movies: a coherent plot. The Marvel universe is a brazenly naked franchise; its films are a vehicle for its characters, its actors, its brand. The stories are merely an afterthought, a tiresome obstacle to overcome, just a necessary piece of bureaucracy in the quest to put moving images of their intellectual property on the biggest screens possible. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 fails to disguise this, despite all the style and energy and verve, despite the fact that Gunn clearly cares. None of this can mask the fact that this is a completely irrelevant story that didn’t need to be told. In fact, the narrative probably advances more in the credits of the film than in the entire previous two hours.
On the subject of plot, when will superhero films (and Doctor Who) learn that having villains attempt to destroy the universe does not raise the stakes? In fact, it does precisely the opposite. As soon as the stakes are preposterously high, all suspense dissipates in the audience’s subconscious knowledge that the universe is on no accounts going to actually be destroyed. Here’s a film in which the audience really cares about the characters – the perfect opportunity to keep the focus tight, the peril intimate. But no, instead – as always – we end up with a maniacal supervillain attempting to kill all life. Funny how, even though the world is almost erased from existence every few months, there’s always exactly enough heroes around to stop it happening. Never too many, never too few.
The Guardians of the Galaxy films fall into the exact same pitfalls of their Marvel brethren, yet I stand by my belief that they’re the best of their type. Rather than attempting to obscure their fluffy absurdity, they embrace it. There’s nothing po-faced here, no transparent balancing of focus group desires. They have a fresh creativity and a sense of freedom that’s missing from the rest of the canon. They’ve shaken off Marvel’s reputation for pedestrian direction, with a unique, joyful style, colourful, expansive cinematography and a brilliant, winning gimmick in their classic, nostalgic soundtracks. Volume 2’s ELO-infused opening is wonderful and sets the tone perfectly, while its Cat Stevens ending is the single best-earned and most effective piece of pathos in any Marvel film.
So what are we left with? A piece of entertainment that succeeds everywhere except in telling a story. Perhaps that doesn’t matter, though perhaps it should. Even blockbuster cinema has always been about telling stories. The reason Star Wars and Lord of the Rings were so successful is that they told bold, rich, complex tales. That used to be a prerequisite. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is a perfect example of why this may no longer be the case.