Damn, what a missed opportunity.
I enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and hoped the second would be more snarky fun.
Instead, it’s a stiff, nonsensical mess.
What Went Well
The fight scenes and set pieces are absolutely stunning. I mean just gorgeously filmed, with excellent special effects, and clever shots.
The soundtrack was similarly inspired. Any Cat Stevens fan is a friend of mine.
Zoe Saldana continues to do great work with slight scripts. And Kurt Russell was a great choice for Ego.
What Went Wrong
Ye gods, so much.
Almost everything feels stiff and forced. The weird sniping between Rocket and Peter is overwrought and comes out of nowhere. The opening credits sequence with Groot is cute but completely drains the background fight of any tension. The feud between Gamora and Nebula feels rushed and shot through with bad timing, from the “not ripe” yaro root joke that falls flat to Nebula’s kamikaze run entrance that has absolutely no effect on anything else that’s happening.
So many things seemed designed to drain the events of any meaning. Yondu loses his control-hawk, but it doesn’t matter because he gets it back within a day of getting captured. The Sovereign tracks them across the galaxy, but it doesn’t matter because their pilots are so bad they can be held off by one ship while Peter flies around asking for tape. It doesn’t even matter that they “kill” so many Sovereign pilots, since their ships are all remote-controlled drones. Nebula takes out Yondu for a bit, but it doesn’t matter (in the sense of her becoming the new captain) because the writers want to make jokes about Taserface.
Then there’s the big, gaping, passive hole at the center of the story.
Peter’s relationship with his dad is supposedly at the heart of the plot, but there’s no tension there, either. Peter is never forced to choose anything, he just gets carried along with events. He meets his dad, and just goes along home with him. He finds out his dad is evil, and then immediately is forced to go along with his plans (until rescued by his friends).
There’s no drama, no moment of choice anywhere. It’s just one set piece after another, all of which we know the Guardians will come out on top for, until credits roll.
How to Fix It
We start with the spine of the story: Peter and his encounter with Ego. We strip out the parts that add fake tension: he killed Peter’s mom, he smashed his walkman, etc. We take out the forced usage of Peter as a battery.
Instead, we push Peter into a terrible choice: his father or his friends.
Maybe Ego is dying, and only Peter can save him by staying on the planet and serving as a second battery. Or maybe Ego promises Peter he can bring his mother back, if only he helps him “recharge” by overtaking those planets he’s placed seeds on.
Either way, we need the climax of the story being Peter making a choice. He needs to be forced to choose either the father he never knew, or the ragtag family he’s assembled on his own. We need to see both choices as something Peter could do. Whatever he chooses, he’s going to lose something.
And then we can echo that conflict out to the other plotlines. Nebula can still take out Yondu, but then have her take over the control of the Ravager ship. She jettisons Yondu and Rocket out of an escape pod; they’ll have to fend for themselves. Meanwhile, she’s decided to take the ship and track down Gamora, for her revenge.
When she arrives, it’s in the middle of the battle between Ego, Peter, the other Guardians, and the Sovereign. And Nebula will have a choice: to protect her sister, or to stand by and watch her fall.
Meanwhile, Yondu and Rocket are facing a choice of their own. Having hobbled over to a nearby star system to lick their wounds, they have to decide what to do next. Yondu tries to induce Rocket to join him as a Ravager, saying something to the effect of “this is where you belong.” They can steal a ship, and then keep stealing, for as long as they want. No Peter to keep them from grabbing a few batteries when they want.
But then they see news of the Sovereign fleet heading to Ego’s planet, and they realize their choice could mean all of their friends will die.
Finally, we need to fix the character of Mantis. Currently, she’s Ego’s plaything. Her role in the story is to be a love interest for Drax. She doesn’t affect the story in any way, or have any choice she has to make.
So let’s give her one. Make her one of The Sovereign, a mutant named Bug that the gold people think of as a mistake. She stows away on the Guardian’s ship to get away from the home where everyone hates her. Drax discovers her during the initial fight with the Sovereign, and decides to take her under his wing.
The rest of her storyline can play out normally from there, with one twist: during the final battle, she gets contacted by the Sovereign command with an offer: betray the Guardians, and earn a hero’s welcome back home.
More than polishing up the dialog, or making the actors do more takes until it feels natural, or dropping the weird cameos from Howard the Duck and the Watchers, it’s these changes that will push the movie into a meaningful, purposeful shape.