Indulge me for a moment. Think of the Marvel and DC screen franchises as eligible bachelors. One is strait-laced, well-groomed, financially savvy and usually on his best behavior. The other is the black sheep of the family: undisciplined, a bit rough around the edges, prone to burn through all his cash and, though beset by arrested development, more wordly, and more willing to take risks than his wholesome counterpart.
That contrast in personalities extends to the birds and the bees. You know, s-e-x. The bad boy's been around the block, is probably hesitant to commit and isn't shy about owning up to his same-sex exploits. Mr. Squeaky Clean, on the other hand, is a firm believer in monogamy who isn't used to discussing matters of the heart at length, much less talking about what goes on in the bedroom.
For further proof, you needn't go further than the flashback that kicks off “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” A long-haired stud behind the wheel of a turquoise sports car appears to be going steady with a girl who knows every lyric to hits by, say, Blue Swede, Fleetwood Mac and Sam Cooke. It's all flowers and sunshine for the lovebirds as they nuzzle in a meadow, but just about as the blue-eyed dreamboat (Kurt Russell, his youth restored with a digital assist) is about to make his move, the camera pans away, and we're sucked into what appears to be the character's bloodstream. And that's the closest an entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has gotten to depicting intercourse on camera.
We're then unceremoniously dumped light years away and 34 years later, not long after the events of the first “Guardians,” a summer 2014 box office hit. The titular motley crew of intergalactic outcasts, led by by Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (a still chiseled Chris Pratt) is fighting a tentacled, gross-looking creature in order to protect the prized batteries of the Sovereign, a race of gold-hued humanoid beings who think they're above all other life-forms. You know, the way entitled Marvel fans mock defenders of the DC Extended Universe's erratic, wildly uneven cinematic output.
Out to teach these snobs a lesson is Rocket Raccoon (the voice of Bradley Cooper), the Guardians' wisecracking comic relief. The potty-mouthed furball with a boulder on his shoulder pockets some of the Sovereign's nondescript power sources, sending dozens of remote-piloted fighter ships out to obliterate our ragtag bunch, who had only agreed to the perilous gig in return for Nebula (Karen Gillan), the scheming, duplicitous sister of Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Quill's green-skinned colleague/love interest.
And that's when the Guardians cross paths with Ego (Russell, now sporting a nicely groomed silver beard), a deity who claims to be Quill's dad, and Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an antennaed waif with the gift of knowing what others are feeling. Ego rescues the Guardians and takes some of them to his lush planet. Quill is thrilled and overwhelmed by the opportunity to get to know this stranger with godlike powers, not to mention the prospect of finding out more about his genealogy and obtain closure, but Gamora, who has her own dysfunctional family issues to work out with her cobalt-hued sibling, smells a rat.
It may sound like I'm covering the totality of “Guardians'” narrative, but I'm merely scratching the surface. This is one busy, overlong sequel, and with too many balls in the air to juggle, writer-director James Gunn spreads his antiheroes' arcs too thin, even though his attempt to further develop the characters beyond what a Marvel film would typically allow a filmmaker does not go unnoticed.
Full disclosure: I was not a fan of the first “Guardians,” which from where I was sitting, amounted to an obnoxious, self-satisfied space romp. To call it a live-action Saturday morning cartoon would be faintly insulting to good Saturday morning cartoons. Take away the snarky zingers and old-school soundtrack, and you're left with an awfully generic origin story. It remains to this critic an astonishingly overpraised case of the emperor's new clothes.
In its defense, “Guardians 2” aims to provide a respite from connecting the dots to the rest of the MCU, a story requisite that might induce nerdgasms from those who grew up collecting the adventures of Captain America, Iron Man and Thor's adventures in serialized form, but which also limits a particular film's ability to stand out on its own terms. It's a glass ceiling that has long prevented these movies from forming their own identities. But let's give Gunn, a gifted genre director before Marvel came knocking, some credit:
There's a noticeable attempt to give the Guardians an inner life outside of the far-reaching clutches of the franchise's more iconic properties. For example, Gamora and Nebula's lacerating, destructive rivalry is engaging enough to warrant its own showcase. (In a neat movie reference, Gamora runs for her life from a ship's gunfire, much like Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock's “North by Northwest.”)
And yet, the characters' personal growth bends to the will of a stale, predictable plot that squanders Russell's winsome screen presence and descends into overwrought action sequences, with a dash of destruction porn, peppered with lame jokes that land with a thud. The father-son storyline gradually takes over “Guardians 2,” and it's tempting to view this relationship as a defense of the Marvel formula. Ego wants his progeny to follow in his world-building footsteps, but in a telling line of dialogue, Quill proclaims there's nothing wrong with being just like everyone else. Individuality is herewith portrayed as a dangerous force to be stamped out, while teamwork forms the glue that keeps evil at bay. Critical thinking is the enemy of intergalactic harmony, and groupthink is the pathway to prosperity, peace and an ongoing series of aesthetically uniform sequels.
But it's not as if there aren't signs of Gunn's own approach to cinema in “Guardians 2.” More so than its predecessor, there's a mean streak cousing through “Vol. 2.” For all the generous displays of Baby Groot (the voice of Vin Diesel), a cute, pint-size version of a character from the first film that should have stayed dead, there are periodic bursts of (bloodless) violence that result in a high body count but which fail to register emotionally. In a scene that should give Marvel fans pause, thuggish ruffians taunt and bully Li'l Groot, and the unsavory hooliganism stands out for its casual cruelty.
Gunn then appears to overcompensate the sourness of those moments by dunking the last 20 minutes of “Guardians 2” into a vat of molasses. The film pokes fun at the good guys' misfortune, then it smothers viewers in a collective group hug. This is drippy family therapy that wants you to bask in the characters' personal breakthroughs after you're done dissing them behind their backs.
Which brings me back to the Marvel vs. DC dating game. Would you pick the responsible, cleanshaven go-getter, or are you more likely to roll the dice on the unkempt ne'er-do-well who'll keep you on your toes in and out of the sack? If the chasm between the global adoration for Star-Lord and company and my disdain for them are any indication, your mileage may vary.