2014's first "volume" of Guardians of the Galaxy was Disney-Marvel's Snarky Superhero Movie: the usual ratio of two-thirds worldbuilding to one-third planet-trashing, albeit composed to an ironic AM-radio soundtrack and with some inbuilt sense of its own ridiculousness. Since then, rival studios Fox and Warner Bros. have both enjoyed big hits with their own SSMs (Deadpool and Suicide Squad, both rather more aggressive in their insincerity, though apparently not enough to put off the fanboys), which means that Guardians Vol. 2 has in some way to address the problem of rapidly diminishing novelty. It does this, almost inevitably, by getting bigger. If there's one coherent pattern or project that can be discerned within the new film's industrial sound and fury, it concerns an extension of the Guardians family. Green alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana) embarks upon a titanic sibling rivalry with her blue, Borg-ish sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). Drax (Dave Bautista), the jolliest two-tone giant since Buster Bloodvessel, finds companionship of a joshing, non-committal sort with tentacled empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff). And upon crashlanding his ship, cocksure pilot Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) has an unexpected reunion with his father, the almost equally cocksure Ego (Kurt Russell), thereby initiating the origin story the first movie zoomed past. Subplots-a-go-go, then, though as several observers have pointed out, it doesn't matter whether you're gold, green, befurred or blue in this universe, your struggles will forever be secondary to those of two white guys working through long-deferred father-son issues.
Vol. 2 thus proves heavier and more baggage-laden than its predecessor: we're zooming this time towards the death of one Guardian, which only slightly offsets the 47 new arrivals, and isn't much of a basis for a wild Friday night laughfest; indeed, it all ends with a tear, providing you're not inclined - after two-and-a-quarter hours - to stick around for the not one, not two, but three (count 'em) post-credit stings. Over that time, it should become apparent to all but the most mewling of fanboys that James Gunn has become a far less interesting and subversive filmmaker than we may first have taken him for: The Specials to Slither to Super and Sniggering Knock-Off of Every Space Saga Under the Sun represents a pretty precipitous decline, whatever that trajectory may have done for his personal savings account. Gunn now has more money and bigger names at his disposal, and limitless opportunities to magick up heavily digitised spectacle, but GOTGv2 is otherwise a mess of rewrites and test-screening feedback: more Baby Groot, the cards said, so Gunn duly follows through, no matter that this takes us several minutes further away from an already fraying narrative line. I can't even say he makes an awesome mixtape: he's limited to rummaging in the archives of whichever labels Disney has a stake in, and presumably forbidden from selecting anything too outré, lest it alienate the multiplexers. When Quill is handed a Zune to replace his once-trusty Walkman on his adventures, the first song he shuffles towards is - oh sweet Jesus, not this, anything but this - bloody Cat Stevens doing bloody "Father and Son".
Again, the sense is of material that is fundamentally and inescapably kids' stuff, juvenilia conceived to inspire easy credulity in the suckers whose pockets it's just picked, filling those 136 minutes with dialogue so throwaway it can only reasonably be delivered tongue-in-cheek. That's one get out, and Gunn has also realised he can further dress up any arrested development with heavyweight casting: here, we get not just Russell but Sylvester Stallone, although the pair's presence in the Fast & Furious and Expendables franchises rather betrays a fondness not for robust drama but late-life cheque-chasing. Of the other grown adults accepting money for their participation, there may be no sadder opening credit in recent movie history than "with Vin Diesel as Baby Groot" (dude survived The Pacifier for this?), while the American mainstream's project to whittle Pratt down to machine-tooled antihero remains frankly criminal; he's approximately one-fivehundredth as funny as here as he was on any single episode of Parks & Rec. In the end, the great triumph of this franchise, as with so many others, is one of packaging, and how Green Lantern-level nonsense can be rebranded and resold to us as a hot ticket: Vol. 2 certainly has the arched-brow framing of a joke, but with the exception of a few stray signs of life - Klementieff's spaciness, Bautista's throaty chuckle, those humdrum sidebars Gunn sporadically ducks into amid the setpieces - not the integral wit. First time round, I pegged this franchise as Pirates of the Caribbean in space, which now seems a touch unfair on Gunn's better instincts; on a second go, it suggested no more than Space Truckers with major corporate backing - and, call me perverse, but I find scrappy intergalactic underdogs easier to cheer for when they count Stephen Dorff among their number, and are busy fending off a straight-to-video black hole.
Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.