Three summers ago, "Guardians of the Galaxy" hit the Marvel Cinematic Universe like a tidal wave, sneaking up on its universe-expanding dramas with a wallop of candy-colored fun, silly shenanigans, and a nostalgic and catchy-as-hell soundtrack. With a cast of characters unknown to mainstream audiences, co-writer/director James Gunn delivered an unabashed and slightly crass delight. Audiences were caught off-guard but fell hard and fast for the quirky crew that included an arrogant, bed-hopping captain; a no-nonsense warrior; and a gun-toting, curse-spitting, crotch-scratching talking raccoon.
It was absurd. It was surprising. It was just the shake-up the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed! So how to follow its shocks and awesomeness with a sequel? Gunn goes the double-down route, giving audiences more of the same. But what surprised the first time around feels stodgy the second.
"Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" picks up with the unlikely heroes in the midst of a gig that demands they battle a toothy space squid that looks like the beasts of "Monster Trucks" on steroids. But when Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) can't keep his roguish tendencies in check, he enrages the pompous employer -- a high priestess played with inflamed eyes and pristine posturing by the always scene-stealing Elizabeth Debicki -- the Guardians are chased to the ends of the universe to escape her wrath and fleets of spaceships. But along the way, the Guardians cross paths with Ego (a waggish Kurt Russell), a curious figure with great hair and his own planet, who claims to be Peter "Star-Lord" Quill's (Chris Pratt) long-lost father. Also back into the fray is the arrow-whistling Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his volatile crew of space-pirate Ravagers, as well as Gamora's (Zoe Saldana) vengeance-thirsty sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Ego's socially awkward empath, Mantis (a sprightly Pom Klementieff).
The plot is a nebulous thing that barely supports a slurry of spaceship chases, whirling battle scenes and slippery escapes. Bouncing between the fractured factions of the Guardians and their frenemies, this sequel can't keep up with its characters, even with a bloated runtime of 2 hours and 17 minutes. When they're not firing shots, the Guardians are dropping punchlines as carelessly as grenades. But more often than not, these land with thuds instead of explosions of laughter. The wit and cheeky charms of the first film are woefully absent, replaced by forced "Cheers" references, juvenile barbs (calling Mantis "hideous" and Rocket a "trash panda"), and the increasingly tiresome "I am Groot" bit, where Rocket serves as frustrated translator to the enigmatic talking tree alien.
One of the film's few -- but welcomed! -- surprises is Dave Bautista as Drax. Where in the first film, he was deftly doofy as the extraterrestrial barbarian who doesn't understand metaphors ("Nothing goes over my head…I would catch it."), this time around Drax has discovered humor. And Bautista booming with raucous laughs actually offers the funniest moments of the film, injecting it with liveliness and saving jokes that would otherwise fall flat.
It's not that "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" is a bad film. It's fine. It's fun enough. It's just that we've seen it before, when it was called "Guardians of the Galaxy." Despite the flourishes provided by a jaunty Russell and a glamorously glowering and gold-skinned Debicki, this feels less like a new adventure with enriched arcs, and more like an extended after-credit scene. There's virtually no growth in these characters. Yes, Drax has gotten a sense of humor, but Rocket is still an unapologetic "asshole" with a soft-spot for his team. Peter is still the flirtatious rogue attracted to Gamora, yet their relationship hasn't evolved at all. She's still fiercely feuding with her sister. But while warring siblings Thor and Loki got a trilogy to battle within, Thanos's rage-filled daughters get short shrift as a messy B-plot. And Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), whose appearance in the first film became an easy fan favorite, is used as a crutch for cuteness and silly jokes that suffer diminishing returns with each repetition.
The MCU won praise for sculpting complex arcs and succinct but evocative character beats in movies like "Captain America: Civil War," with its intense in-fighting and instantly adored backseat bickering between Falcon and the Winter Soldier. But with his Vol. 2, Gunn is content to retrace his steps, giving too little that's new, and too much that's pandering. As if to drive that point home, this Marvel movie boasts five bonus scenes throughout its credits, most of which offer less exposition and more prolonged unfunny gags, like Quill nagging at a teen Groot to clean his mess of a room, as the angsty alien plays a video game and grouses in a cracked voice, "I am Groot!"
There's no nuance to be found amid the film's big action set pieces and barrage of jokes. So when it comes time to deliver those big emotional moments, they feel abrupt and ring hollow. Much shouting and intensity can't make up for Gunn's lack of groundwork. And so what should be a climax that's beautiful and bittersweet, reminding the audience that each of us comes from dust and to stardust we might return, the oomph that should tug us to the edge of our seats and pry salty tears from quivering eyes just isn't there. Instead, I sat sullen and regretful, because the performer whose character gets a showy sendoff in this sequel deserves better.
All in all, this is mid-level Marvel. It's a fun-enough popcorn movie that demands little from the audience, and delivers alluring out-of-this-world settings, a determinedly retro soundtrack, and heavy doses of star power. But it doesn't deliver the exhilarating breath of fresh air and gleeful irreverence the first film did with a wink and friendly noogie. After the surprise and success of "Guardians of the Galaxy," Gunn had a true challenge in his follow-up. It's a shame that instead of conquering new worlds, he concentrated his efforts on trying to make lightning strike twice.
Written and directed by James Gunn, "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2" opens May 5.