That observation came to sum up a lot of what I felt as I walked out of the sequel. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is fine! It’s fun, and I enjoyed it, and I’m seeing it again with my husband over the weekend. It’s also frenetic and vaguely exhausting and loud in ways that undercut the best, most human parts of the movie. The film is good at doing what superhero movies are supposed to do, which is offer up escalating spectacles intended to bring audiences back for more. But that mission also stands in the way of genuine evolution within the superhero genre that would allow people working within it to tell different kinds of stories.
To explain what I mean, some basic plot points first: When we reunite with our motley, mix-tape-fueled crew, they’ve been hired by a humorless, genetically engineered society called the Sovereign to protect a set of ultra-powerful batteries from said tentacle-y thing, in exchange for Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) adoptive sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan, terrific). Rocket (Bradley Cooper), being the felonious raccoon that he is, steals the batteries at the end of the gig. In response, the Sovereign hires a crew of Ravagers, among them Yondu (Michael Rooker), who raised the half-human, half-alien Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as a child, to track the Guardians down and drag Rocket back for punishment. This task is complicated by the fact that a man going by Ego (Kurt Russell) and claiming to be Peter’s father has shown up, and Peter, Gamora and Drax (Dave Bautista) have flown off with him to his homeworld to check it out. Spoiler alert: Things are not what they seem.
That this is only a very partial plot summary should make my point: There is a lot going on in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” much of which ends up splitting up the titular team for long stretches of the movie, and doing a lot of cliffhanger-heavy editing to jump back and forth between the storylines. In the meantime, we meet the head of Ravager society (Sylvester Stallone), learn that Baby Groot is not very good about following instructions but is willing to chop off people’s toes, and drone through a tour of some oddly terrible museum dioramas.
This is something of a bummer, given that genuinely interesting emotional stories are unfolding inside all of this chaos.
The best of these involves the fraught relationship between Gamora and Nebula. The pair are the adopted daughters of Thanos (Josh Brolin), the character who is set up to be the Big Bad in the super-size “Avengers: Infinity War” team-up movie slated for next year. Both women suffered as a result of Thanos’s parenting style, but Nebula retains the greatest trauma from his efforts to craft them into living weapons: Every time Nebula lost a sparring match to Gamora, Thanos replaced a part of her body with a mechanical device, hoping to improve her. The route that “Guardians” takes to address this sibling rivalry involves a lot of spaceship crashes and double-dealing, but the most powerful work comes out of the conversations Gamora and Nebula have about what was done to them. Gillan in particular does an excellent job with Nebula’s rage, pain and obsessive determination to eliminate her father from the universe.
The movie takes Rocket, who has been deeply affected by the experiments the scientists performed on him, on a similar journey. The characters continue their rough, and very funny, barrage of insulting questions about whether Rocket is a raccoon, a “trash panda” or merely a really hideous puppy. But when he and Yondu are locked in a cell together, their conversation reveals that both men feel their lack of community acutely. In Rocket’s case, that’s left him with a self-destructive tendency to blow up his relationships (sometimes literally). Feeling strange and excluded is an entirely human story, but one that’s emphasized when those experiencing it are a blue alien with a robotic fin embedded in his skull and a surgically enhanced sentient raccoon.
Peter’s relationship with his birth father and the alien who raised him hit some similar notes, though it’s ultimately undercut by a fairly unsurprising plot reveal that’s delivered in a clunky fashion born of the necessity of bringing all this ruckus in under the two-and-a-half-hour mark.
Again, I feel the need to emphasize that everything that happens around these more emotional moments is fine. Ego’s planet looks like a weird and entrancing mash-up of an Elvish palace from “Lord of the Rings” and Angkor Wat! Watching Rocket and Yondu wreak havoc on a group of mutinous Ravagers is bloody, darkly humorous, good fun! I enjoy director James Gunn’s visual sense of space! And yet it’s a bummer to feel as if the best, most sophisticated moments in “Guardians” have been snuck into the movie under the cover of spectacle.
Superhero movies and giant blockbuster franchises are here to stay. Their box-office power and cultural influence aren’t in doubt. So it’s from this secure position that I feel as if it’s time to ask for a bit more from them. A change in tone, like the jokey vibe that “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” brought to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is refreshing, but it’s not a dramatic experimentation with the form. Men caring deeply about each other is not the same thing as actually putting a gay character in a superhero movie. Having a half-baked idea about whether superheroes should be regulated doesn’t automatically count as staging a smart idea about the tradeoffs between freedom and security. I say this not because I think superhero movies are inherently schlocky and shallow, but because I believe they can be great. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is perfectly good at what it’s trying to be. Gunn’s ambitions, and Marvel’s, could stand to aim higher and weirder.