Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is never less than explosively, even ornately inventive — Doctor Strange, by comparison, is a chaste classic of Shaker design — with the perhaps unavoidable trade-off that it’s not always as breezily, casually inventive as the 2014 Guardians, either. But the movie will make fans happy, very happy, and it will reduce everyone else to a mass of cooing, goo-goo-ing ninnies, all in the thrall of a character named Baby Groot.
Baby Groot, the (literal) offshoot of Vin Diesel’s stoic tree-thing from the first Guardians movie, looks like the Little Prince reincarnated as a whisk broom. (He’s accurately described by one villain as “too adorable to kill.”) You can easily imagine him cast in a reboot of Home Alone, slapping aftershave on his face and howling. Given Galaxy’s fondness for pop culture of the not-too-distant past — the new movie hinges on the 1972 single “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl”) and drops in references to Mary Poppins, Heather Locklear and Pac-Man — this is not too crazy a suggestion.
This time out, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), onetime Missouri boy and now Star-Lord, meets his long-lost father, Ego (Kurt Russell), although we meet Ego first: The film starts on Earth in the Show-Me State in 1980, out among some trees not far from a Dairy Queen. Ego, with the thick, well-conditioned hair of the era, is flirting with the girl who will be Peter’s mom and tending to a secret horticultural project that we know (from Vol. 1) will grow to great intergalactic significance.
Peter, on the other hand, doesn’t set eyes on him until years later out in deep space: Ego is standing on top of his own space vehicle, waving like an idiot in Peter’s direction. The silly outlandishness of this image, and many more to come, is part of the movie’s enormous humor and charm.
After all this time, Peter is thrilled to learn that Dad is not just some Johnny-come-lately father figure. He’s an out-and-out God figure, somehow symbiotically, metaphysically connected to his very own planet. (Think of it as a variation on the old Earth saying: “It’s Frank Sinatra’s world. We just live in it.”) Peter visits, and is enchanted both by Ego’s hucksterism and the planet’s unbelievably kitschy, otherworldly décor, which appears to be a collaboration of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Jeff Koons.
Zoë Saldana, returning as Gamora, senses something isn’t on the up-and-up here. For one thing, she doesn’t trust Ego’s simpering lady friend, the delicately pretty, insect-like Mantis (Pom Klementieff, an excellent addition to the cast). With dark moon eyes and antennae the consistency of enoki mushrooms, Mantis is a strangely tentative creature, mincingly polite and alluringly ambiguous. If she were a flight attendant and your flight happened to be overbooked, you’d have zero confidence any innate decency would come to the surface.
There’s a lot more story than this, bringing back familiar characters (like Rocket, voiced by Bradley Cooper, and Dave Bautista’s Dax, the Ernest Borgnine of the Marvel Universe), along with other new faces. Sylvester Stallone, as a high-ranking Ravager named Stakar, gives a measured performance of severe dignity. By which I mean he just sits there for a few scenes.
And there is a lot more extravagant nonsense to come: One would be remiss not to mention the Sovereigns, a powerful and persnickety alien species with flawless gold skins. They wage war remotely, crouched over a phalanx of individual battle stations. It looks like the most fabulous spinning class in the universe.
Vol. 2, in other words, has taken the vibe of first Galaxy film — its eccentric, just-go-with-it tone — and kidded it, refined it and indulged it: The franchise has now entered its rococo phase, with Baby Groot planted like a cherub in a painting crammed with satyrs, winged horses and that sort of thing.
But director James Gunn also wants to go deeper emotionally this time, bolstering the story’s mythic resonance in the manner of Star Wars. This doesn’t work so well. Imagine a sky of cotton-candy pushed aside by a storm front that rains down diced carrots and celery. Who asked for this kind of nutritional value? This kind of pain? To put it another way, Pratt and Russell, who represent two different generations’ paradigms of slacker/dude cool, don’t quite ascend to the Skywalker-Vader firmament.
Pratt, in particular, was not meant to be crucified (repeatedly) on a curving spike of glowing molten energy. It looks like a frat hazing gone wrong.
The movie’s core performance, it turns out, comes from Michael Rooker, once again playing Yondu: flawed, cantankerous and, despite his cobalt skin and red Mohawk fin, very, very human. There are few actors as good to be found anywhere in this ever-expanding universe of superhero franchises.
And did I mention Baby Groot?
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opens May 5. Rated PG-13.