Guardians Vol 2 hooked on old feelings
Marvel's mirth unit returns with another planet-hopping, joke-dropping space oddity
It's a tough ask to discern how exactly to follow up one of the freshest films in an ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe catalogue of superheroes, fantastical figures, and weighty mythology.
The 2014 worldwide smash hit Guardians of the Galaxy's riposte was to largely confine a lot of what had become Marvel's stuffy staple to the sidelines and present a bright blast of technicolour goofiness, set it all in space and against a backdrop of 70s music tunes.
Loud, brash and above all fun, it was the perfect tonic to the growing tedium of the MCU, injecting humour into a ragtag bunch of reprobates who quickly became family.
So, how do you follow that up?
Like that tricky second album syndrome that blights so many artists, James Gunn and Marvel's answer is to do it all again, and throw more music and more humour at it.
But, disappointingly in parts, that sadly doesn't quite make this sequel quite as spectacular.
With the central themes of family and familial conflicts thrust largely to the fore, the sequel concentrates on two simple storylines. When Rocket rips off the group's latest employers, they're forced to go on the run.
Stranded on the planet Berhart after their betrayal is discovered and the Milano, their ship, is crippled, the issue of Star-Lord's (Chris Pratt) parentage arises when his father (played with 80s style gusto by Kurt Russell) mysteriously shows up..
It's not that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is a bad film, but it feels like it's squandered some of the promise and goodwill of the first.
Visually, Gunn and his Weta Digital team have assembled a truly vibrant universe. From its opening moments where a squid-like creature takes on the gang spewing out all the colours of the rainbow from its mouth, to the gold-covered race The Sovereign, via planet vistas adorned with hues of reds, blues and greens, there's plenty visually to admire and wallow in. And once again, music is the sixth Guardians character, with sounds from the 70s and 80s providing a proliferation of grooves and moves among the CGI.
But the film too often falls back on its humour as a constant crutch to punctuate scenes, and it becomes repetitive and irritating.
Whether it's Bautista's literal Drax saying inappropriate and initially amusing things, or members of the Ravagers making comments, there's way too much of this throughout to do anything other than a) feel lazy and b) set your teeth-grinding.
Equally, if it's not the humour, it's the reliance on the Baby Groot ex Machina to help with the story. Though, admittedly, Groot's cuteness and abject tendency towards adorable are initially very appealing and amusing. (The aforementioned fight is brilliant in its execution thanks to a combination of ELO's Mr Blue Sky, an out-of-focus battle in the background and a shimmying couple-of-inches-tall tree character).
As the film goes on, the over-use of the humour tends to scupper the more obvious emotional edges of what transpires. If everything's a joke to everyone all the time, it really does make it hard to care about what happens to these self-professed a-holes and the various predicaments they face.
More successful are the quieter moments of the film.
There's a distinct profoundness to some of the more humane scenes involving the ongoing conflict between Saldana's Gamorra and Gillan's Nebula, as well as Pratt's portrayal of a man who just desperately wants to know who his father is. Add in a nuanced turn from Rooker's Yondu, seeking redemption, and there's more than enough meat to keep the narrative running and just enough to provide distraction from the incessant hilarity that's injected at every turn.
It's here that Gunn excels and imbues some love for the wise-cracking characters we came to care about in the first film. He achieves the required poignancy with ease, and masterfully delivers it.
But in among the day-glo colours, and 80s references (The Blob, Journey To The Centre of the Earth, arcade games and other Easter eggs too fun to spoil et al), it's these kernels of emotional truths which resonate in Guardians Vol 2 and which give it the heart it so desperately needs and so perfectly achieved in its first outing, setting them above the usual smash and grab CGI world destructions that have become the Marvel denouement norm.
But they're nearly overwhelmed by everything else that transpires on screen; and while it felt fresh the first time around, the over-insistence on a "more, more, more" ethos means it comes dangerously close to destroying the goodwill it had previously generated.
With a third outing for the Guardians of the Galaxy already confirmed, it's no stretch to say that this latest, with its flaws and occasional bloat, is a good time at the movies, and a cut above the usual blockbuster fare.
However, all of that candy-blast and sugar-coated reliance on humour prove sufficiently corrosive to Gunn's stated intentions of going deeper with the characters; and, worryingly, if they don't ease up on those elements in the third outing, it could end up inducing a diabetic cinematic coma to audiences.
Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Kurt Russell
Director: James Gunn
Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes