A moderate blast of novelty was what Guardians of the Galaxy brought to the Marvel formula with a soundtrack of needle drops and a tone as breezily goofy as the characters it introduced (a cornball lead, a stoic green lady, a hyper-literal lug, a talking racoon, and an ambulatory tree man). This allowed the movie to build considerable affection, despite succumbing to all the worst tendencies of hectic, anonymous destruction in its protracted climax. So it was surely too much to hope Vol. 2 could have the same sense of unexpected. (The only thing that beats the sudden blast of “Come and Get Your Love” in that film’s opening is probably the trailer’s memorable use of “Hooked on a Feeling,” fitting for a multi-tentacled franchise whose films are always also advertisements for itself.) But what Guardians Vol. 2 has going for it is being the rare Marvel Cinematic Universe production that mostly consists of what works best about these pictures. Going light on overlong CGI slugfests and interlocking self-importance, this one is all about the likable characters, eccentric performances, pseudo-psychedelic visual atmosphere, off-kilter semi-Shakespearian sci-fantasy pulp family drama, earnest sentiment, a dusting of sarcasm, comic book splash pages and punchlines, topped off with screwball fizz.
In fact, for those of us who prefer these behemoths at their lightest, most frivolous and goofy, this one starts with payoffs and just keeps returning on that investment. Sure, it gets dragged down at its most static with long sequences of characters marveling at each other’s squabbles and petty exposition – worst is a living planet who walks us through tableaus of his life that are hollow visualizations where an evocative monologue would do. But when it works it works, a buzzy blast, a popcorn entertainment happy to be a good hang. Who cares if Chris Pratt (Star-lord) isn’t much of a dramatic performer and Zoe Saldana (Gamora) has the thankless task of scowling and posing while slathered in dull green makeup? The rest of the ensemble is crackling, from the good-natured single-minded Drax (Dave Bautista) to the chattering racoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) to a dancing sapling (cooing voice-modulated Vin Diesel) to the bit parts made into meals by the appealing likes of Michael Rooker and Elizabeth Debicki. Best is Kurt Russell playing pure swaggering charm as what we soon learn is a literal manifestation of ego run amok. They’re all having fun goofing around in special effects, knowing they can go big and silly without upstaging the multicolored save-the-universe lightshow splattering around and behind them.
There’s hardly anything to it, but writer-director James Gunn stages it with some visual panache, more confidently maneuvering the Marvel house style into interesting curlicues of delight and surprise. There’s an opening action sequence set almost entirely in the background of a shot focused on an oblivious adorable little guy dancing to ELO. (Predictably, but still successfully, the movie is set to greatest hits from any AM oldies station.) There’s a whistle powered arrow zipping around a ship, its trailing red laser beam allowing us to see its progress Family Circus style in the back of slow-mo frames and, later, through a massive, askew bank of security monitors. The whole movie is nothing but goofball details – a race of golden humanoids who pilot a hive of drone attack ships from a command center that looks like the palace of Versailles had an 80’s arcade; an antennae-wiggling empathic bug lady (Pom Klementieff) who tries her best but smiles in an unhinged grimace; a god whose self-justification for abandoning his family hinges on a close reading of the lyrics to “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).”
It adds up to a good time at the movies, with lower lows that a great many of its franchise compatriots. (Its highs are also lower, but what are you going to do about it?) There’s still not much of a story going on here, and for all its zipping around and moments of dramatic import the impact is gentle and borderline forgettable. But the fizz and fun are good in the moment. Perhaps that’s the MCU’s biggest success. Barely any of these feel quite enough because they’re perfectly calibrated to leave you happy but wanting more.