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Playing the Hits

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn't as uniquely edgy as it thinks it is.

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"You were insufferable to start with," groans Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the badass green chick who should be the hero of the Guardians of the Galaxy series. She says this, rolling her eyes, about "hero" Star-Lord, aka doofy Earthling Peter Quill, after a revelation about his parentage that's at the center of the tedious, been-there-bought-the-T-shirt plot of Vol. 2.

See, Peter (Chris Pratt) already had been living the fulfillment of a fantasy that lots of kids have: that they don't belong in whatever dull place where they're stuck, that nobody understands them, and that clearly they are destined for greatness, etc. Born on 1980s Earth, his father a mysterious spaceman, Peter now lives and works out in the big wide galaxy, the vindication of that childhood escapism: "See? My dad was from another planet!"

But that's never enough, is it? Luke Skywalker was never just a bored farmboy, Neo was never just an unappreciated hacker, and Peter, it turns out, is not just any old ordinary doofus with a spaceman for a dad. I won't spoil the big secret of Peter's space dad (Kurt Russell), except to say that while it has nothing to do with Peter's backstory in the GotG comics, it's something dragged in from elsewhere in the Marvel universe. It's also a ridiculous ego boost for Peter, and an even more insufferable and—what's worse—very familiar male fantasy.

The overarching problem with Guardians of the Galaxy was somewhat true of the first movie but is really a problem with Vol. 2: The series thinks it's weird, edgy and transgressive—something like the punk little brother of all those other stodgy comic-book movies—but it isn't. It might be slightly more candy-colored, but it's just more of the same-old space battles, ravenous monsters, 'splosions, ironic posturing and monologuing villains. It's got poop jokes. It has sexy sexbots; and women (or woman-coded androids) as commodities is so unexpected. As a flight of fancy, Vol. 2 is shockingly limited in its imagination.

It also seems to think it's a comedy, but it just isn't funny. It wants Fleetwood Mac songs scoring space battles to be amusing, or a Cat Stevens song behind a sentimental moment to be touching, but that just feels like a way to sell a compilation soundtrack. It's got geeky cameos that are intended to be surprising and clever but feel like stunts. All the snarky references to cheesy '80s TV shows and retro technology feel like eating the pop-culture seed corn; if we don't start telling some new stories that can become tomorrow's nostalgia, what the hell will we ironically allude to in the 2040s? "I am Groot" is only going to take us so far.

But another major issue with Vol. 2 is how writer-director James Gunn has gone overboard in attempting to remedy the "it's not about anything" problem of the first film. This one is all about family, and in case you missed the idea that Peter and his team—Gamora, Rocket the cyborg raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), muscleman Drax (Dave Bautista) and tree-creature Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel)—are an ad hoc family, someone will be there to remind us. (Funny how Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie and the droids never felt the need to keep telling one another how they were just one big family.) It starts to sound a bit ominous and creepy, like when Don Corleone says "family." Family—except for Peter's dead Earth mom. She's still dead.

The trying-too-hard extends to the five—count 'em—mid- and postcredits scenes. If having one or two is good, five must be better, right?

Of course, mega-budget blockbuster movies like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 are carefully calculated and constructed, but they shouldn't feel like they are. We shouldn't see the puppet strings tugging on all the characters. We don't need to have the themes explained to us. For all the monster ichor and alien gardens and quite a bit of human(oid) blood flying around, nothing here feels very organic.

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