It’s a tricky thing, and other movies have tried and failed, but “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” does it. It’s a sci-fi action movie that spoofs the form to strong comic effect, and yet it profits from every good thing about the genre it’s mocking. It tries to have it both ways, and it succeeds.
The first “Guardians of the Galaxy” almost got there, but the jokes weren’t funny enough, and it leaned too much on the space battles. “Vol. 2” is wilder and more inspired. The emphasis is on the comedy, and the comedy is specific and directed this time, so we’re not just seeing generalized high spirits. The sci-fi action genre itself is the target, so that every time the movie seems to be going in a conventional direction — cranking up the soundtrack for the corny horns of hope — the legs are cut out, and the seriousness goes splat.
Written and directed by James Gunn, based on the Marvel comic series, the movie gets off to a great start before the credits even roll. The guardians are preparing for an attack by some gigantic killer octopus, with rows and rows of teeth, and Groot is with them. Groot was a tree man all but killed in the last episode, but a twig was saved. Now the twig has grown into an oblivious toddler.
Gunn shoots the ensuing battle by focusing almost entirely on Groot, as the baby twig dances to music and keeps coming within inches of getting squashed. The idea is funny, but the execution is even funnier, because the animation is so good that the dance itself is fun to watch. At the same time, Gunn gives himself the freedom to break from Groot for absurd little moments, as when Drax (Dave Bautista) comes up with a completely ridiculous strategy for killing the monster.
Throughout the movie, the character of Drax is the source for some of the movie’s best laughs. An enormous muscleman (who avoids shirts because he has nipple sensitivity), he’s a wonderfully developed comic character, with a tendency to laugh uproariously at the most inappropriate moments and to say awful things to people with no awareness that he’s being offensive.
“Guardians 2” finds a good story within which to frame its bits and laughs. In the previous installment, we met Peter (Chris Pratt), a space adventurer whose mother was dead and whose father was unknown to him. Now he gets to meet his dad. His name is Ego (Kurt Russell), and he has been searching for Peter for many years. Of course, there are warning signs – the name, Ego, for one. But he seems genuine in his desire to be a real father, after all these years. And he has a great living situation, an entire planetary paradise that he created with the power of his mind. He is a kind of god.
“Guardians 2” throws a lot into the pot, but it keeps all the elements clear and finds ways to have fun at every turn. Michael Rooker has a nice role as an inter-space rogue, who helped raise Peter, but also terrorized him. Sylvester Stallone shows up for a couple of scenes as a major space honcho. Throughout the film, the people of a planet known as Sovereign keep figuring in the action. They are a perfect-looking and perfectly mannered golden people — very self-serious and thus the ideal foil for the movie’s irreverence.
Yet amid all the irreverence, whenever the writer-director wants to be serious about something, he can do it. These dives into sentiment aren’t disconcerting or discordant, but seem sincere. Gunn creates a tonal atmosphere that gives him a wide range.
He has good characters to work with, and he makes the most of them – not just Drax, but Rocket (the shifty raccoon man voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Peter, who is fun-loving but wears his needs on his sleeve, and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who feels as much as Peter but is reserved in all the ways that he’s open. Near the end the movie threatens to become the thing it parodies, with too much of an emphasis on the action, but it recovers completely.
In recent years, the first Friday in May has become the start of summer blockbuster season. This is a solid beginning. They should all be as good as “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.”