Does Marvel Studios Have a Second Movie Problem?

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a fun time in at the theaters. Still, it seems to be part of a bigger Marvel Studios problem.

In case you needed a reminder, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is jamming out in theaters now like a three-day weekend on the road with “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” on repeat. And as our Don Kaye so aptly said in his review for the movie, “It is a hell of a lot of fun.” For the most part, it is. And yet, I find myself beginning to hum along to the harmonies of a growing chorus. Something is off about this picture, isn’t it? Like so many Marvel Studios sequels before it, there is a vaguely vacant feeling about the whole experience that sets in after the credits roll and the smiles begin to fade.

Increasingly, there seems to be a specific trend that when Marvel attempts sequels, especially as direct follow-ups to previous hits, there is almost always a collision of corporate strategy and actual storytelling ideas. In the aftermath of this crash, the latter is frequently discovered half-formed and buried in the weeds by the time of release. And before someone storms off to comment, “What about Captain America: The Winter Soldier?” note that this is an exception that proves the rule. In contrast, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is probably the best of the non-Captain titled sequels in the MCU stable; it has Gunn’s perverse sense of humor running through it, a third act that subverts the typical MCU formula, and a few beats of darkness that are probably the closest a superhero movie under the Mouse House has come to eliciting genuine menace.

Nevertheless, it remains an indistinct commodity that’s beholden to many of the same weaknesses that downright crippled Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Like those bloated movies, it followed on a critically well-received, and adored by fans, franchise kickoff that was entrenched in origin movie formula. The next one would be bigger, brassier, and way more expensive looking than its predecessor. But those CG bells and whistles frequently suggest that these nine-figure hydras are all dressed up with nowhere to go. In the case of Guardians, Gunn has one central and pretty amusing conceit: what if Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a loveable space-age slacker and man-child version of Han Solo, met his father… and that father turned out to be Kurt Russell? But wait, there’s more! What if his dad also just so happened to be a planet named Ego. (It’s complicated.)

This is a fun set-up that is fairly well executed in the more personal, quiet scenes of the movie. It also contrasts well with the one B-story that works, which involves Yondu (Michael Rooker) becoming suddenly (and shockingly) awesome. Those sequences, and one of the new characters who comes with it (Pom Klementieff’s Mantis), intuitively understand this should be a smaller movie than the 2014 original.

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Yet the need to be bigger, louder, and push more new characters who grow the MCU on audiences leads to a whole lot of coincidence being piled on top. As with the studio-mandated necessity of squeezing Nick Fury and Black Widow into Iron Man 2, and whatever the hell that Jacuzzi Thor took in Age of Ultron was supposed to be, there are also extraneous subplots here that outlive their humorous set-ups: Elizabeth Debicki as Ayesha, an alien empress who looks like she had a run-in with Gert Fröbe’s Goldfinger, and Sylvester Stallone’s Stakar Ogord appear shoehorned into this picture simply to foreshadow several sequels. These elements ultimately clutter the third act instead of heighten it.

The film also is compelled to recreate sequences from the first film (or other superhero movies) with beloved characters. But when the only storyline with a pulse involves Peter Quill, the rest of the B-material is just that: Peter and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper’s voice) bicker like children, Dave Bautista throws in a poop joke for needless additional comic relief, and then Zoe Saldana’s Gamora gets the thankless gig of den mother, trying to police her two (man-)children.

In many ways, it all ends up playing like what Peter Quill later laments about in the story—a sitcom, albeit one closer to Family Ties than the Cheers romance he unconvincingly compares himself and Gamora to.

Peter imagines that audiences wonder about his and Gamora’s “will they or won’t they” chemistry, yet the movie itself feels more like a family situation where the writer’s room found one narrative thread, and gave all the other players some inane backburner slop to pad the running time. Thus instead of getting an organic sequel that raises the stakes or deepens the characters from the first film, the picture is merely an exercise of maintaining the status quo while running in place, like how Joss Whedon forced a TV-styled romance (read: unconvincing) involving Hulk and Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

In TV parlance, there’s a word for this: filler.

And there is just so much filler, be it Gamora fighting with Karen Gillan’s Nebula (again), or Quill and Rocket starting a domestic squabble that is as unresolved as any romance, because like Cheers’ Sam and Diane (or Bruce and Natasha), the film suspects audiences do not want resolution or complete storytelling. They’re happy to be led along by the nose indefinitely, otherwise, and as Peter points out, the ratings go down. In the meantime, here is a great action set-piece where Yondu’s weapon of choice takes on an X-Men’s Quicksilver-level of detail in its mass killing to an admittedly pitch perfect song choice.

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It’s fun, but in that disposable way. And even in a relatively intimate third act with a pretty nifty twist on the villain by Gunn, the film still arbitrarily includes a threat to Earth. Sure, Gunn references ‘50s and ‘80s horror icon The Blob, however it still feels like an attempt to rationalize just one more visual excess.

For like Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World, and especially Age of Ultron, here is a sequel so caught up with offering fan-service, and keeping all the wheels spinning, that it forgets to actually pack the ride with anything worth taking home with you. Those movies are egregiously barren of humanity and anything resembling life, but they all likely began with a definite kernel of a narrative idea (Tony’s arrogance and drinking gets in his own way; Thor takes Jane home to meet his parents; the Avengers accidently birth a sarcastic version of Skynet to keep the world safe) that is squandered by a corporate brand fulfilling its many other obligations.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does it better than those three, because it has enough of Gunn’s weird sensibility, humor, twistedness, and love for mid-20th century pop song glory to power through its weaknesses. But even in the film’s sitcom button—literally four post-credit scenes—there is the creaking realization that at least two threads of Vol. 2’s glut were all about setting up more sequels instead of making this one something special. And they’re interrupted by a credit sequence that’s brightly decorated in gifs of the cast dancing and winking at the audience.

Like the thoroughfare at Disney’s theme parks, it’s a nice parade celebrating characters we loved in the past. But it doesn’t hold a candle to the real movie that spawned them. In 2014.