In the context of modern garden-variety escapist cinema, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, director James Gunn’s sequel to his 2014 megahit, both adapted from the Marvel comics series of the same name. But this gag- and plot-stuffed follow-up is also emblematic of all we’ve come to settle for in movie entertainment: It feels not so much crafted as squirted from a tube. In striving to surprise us every minute with its seen-it-all irony, Guardians Vol. 2 is actually the surprise-spoiler of all time—our every “Wow!” or “Haha!” has been scripted in advance. At one point Drax, an elaborately tattooed space dude played by former pro wrestler Dave Bautista, announces, “I have famously huge turds!” and laughs heartily at his own pronouncement, just in case we can’t be trusted to get a poo-poo joke. This is a movie that praises viewers for being cool enough to show up and then proceeds to insult them—but only ironically, see?
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 comes at us grinning from ear-to-ear for nearly two and a half hours. It’s high on its own supply. There are enough plots here to fill a dozen galaxies: Chris Pratt returns as the boyishly cute half-human, half-something-else space pirate Peter Quill. In addition to Drax, his crew once again includes Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, a green-skinned warrior beauty who appears immune to Quill’s all-too-human crush on her, and Rocket, the potty-mouthed raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper. Vol. 2 also introduces a sort-of new character, Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), a twig-sized offshoot of grown-up Groot, who met a noble almost-end in the last movie. (In the Guardians galaxy, good-bye is never forever.) The gang lands on a planet ruled by a golden queen (Elizabeth Debicki’s Ayesha), with the goal of retrieving Gamora’s estranged, snarling sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), a space criminal with a bounty on her head. While there, Rocket pockets a couple of special space batteries, which Ayesha and her planetmates consider more valuable than gold. Consequences arise.
Meanwhile, Quill meets the swaggering, mirthful god Ego, who claims to be his father. (As played by Kurt Russell, Ego is the movie’s lone saving grace, a radiantly self-absorbed silver fox for whom the world is one giant little blue pill.) Ego lives on a planet of his own creation, a riotously colored landscape apparently inspired by Magic Rocks and Silly Sand—his castle headquarters are what you’d get if Antoni Gaudi had licensed his designs to a Las Vegas hotel magnate.
Comic-book lore is the closest we have to modern mythology, and so the plot of Guardians Vol. 2 is packed with conceits that seem monumentally, spiritually important—parables about siblings who don’t get along, allegories that speak to our need to slip free of parental control, and the like. Quill clearly has daddy issues: The interplanetary marauder who raised him, Yondu (Michael Rooker), trained him as a thief. And his birth father, who may or may not be Ego, abandoned him and his mother long ago. Then she died, leaving her young son with nothing but memories and a couple of cassette tapes filled with 1970s (or thereabouts) Top 40 radio hits. For Quill, these tapes—“Awesome Mix Vol. 1” was the first, now followed by a “Vol. 2”—are talismans, sources of courage in an uncertain world.
For Gunn, they’re just songs. As in the earlier picture, he mines this vault of not-always-so-golden oldies shamelessly. Some of these songs are great. Others would be better left stranded in the mists of time. Fleetwood Mac’s regal and ominous “The Chain” rubs elbows with Cat Stevens’ mawkish dad-guilt anthem “Father and Son.” Glen Campbell’s toothache-inducing “Southern Nights,” a lousy song recorded by a great singer, gets swirled into the mix, as does George Harrison’s sanctimonious yet nevertheless revered “My Sweet Lord.” Wanna-be hippie dads everywhere, kick off your sandals and rejoice!
The alleged purpose of these songs, love them or hate them, is to help carry the plot along. In an early scene, intergalactic destruction breaks out as Baby Groot shimmies and shakes adorably to ELO’s jaunty “Mr. Blue Sky,” blocking out the chaos around him by. Great movie soundtracks can revitalize old, semi-forgotten songs. Sometimes our brains have to change shape to accommodate music we thought we knew well, and the effect can be staggering: Anybody who’s ever seen David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, for example, is never going to hear Roy Orbison’s 1963 “In Dreams”—that is, the “candy colored clown” song—without feeling a shiver. But the songs in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 are just zombie footsoldiers—they’re let loose, blind and stumbling, one after another. Freed from their original contexts and given flimsy new ones, if any, they toil in the service of a movie that’s invested in little beyond smirking at its own jokes. These songs, good and bad, are prisoners of their own self-proclaimed awesome mix. If they were genuinely awesome, we’d know it without being told.