The reviews are warping in for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Anticipation is at a fever pitch for writer-director James Gunn's sequel, which received positive buzz from an early press screening last week and could open to as much as $150 million when it debuts May 5. The Marvel Studios film once again stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper - and introduces Kurt Russell's Ego as father to Star-Lord (Pratt). The film currently holds an 86 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
The big question going in was if Vol. 2 could possibly live up to the beloved first installment. And The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy wrote in his review that the sequel fails to recapture the magic of the 2014 original.
"Alas, most of these maverick mercenaries prove rather less charming the second time around; they're like bickering family now and not in an amusing way. For starters, some of the characters who at first exposure were ingratiating in part because of their rough edges have now turned downright ornery and are not much fun to be around," wrote McCarthy.
While he has praise for Russell, whom he calls "well-cast," McCarthy doesn't have fond things to say about this film's portrayals of Saldana's Gamora ("every line now seems barked out in an elevated state of annoyance"), Cooper's Rocket ("he's prematurely become a genuine curmudgeon annoyed by everyone and everything") or even Diesel's Baby Groot ("you'd be hard-pressed to identify the speaker just from hearing him, and if the actor spent more than an hour in studio recording his stuff, it was too long").
"The heavy, elaborate action is both plentiful and rote; in their geometric design and execution, the special effects feel exceedingly computer-generated," concluded McCarthy. "Unlike, say, the best space battles in the Star Wars series, the frantic ballistic parrying here often makes the viewer feel as if trapped inside a pinball machine."
In his 3.5 out of 4 star review, USA Today's Brian Truitt wrote, "It's missing some of the ragtag underdog charm of 2014's instaclassic Guardians that made it one of the best Marvel efforts ever. Yet Vol. 2 becomes in its own way a more confident and well rounded movie by experimenting with character relationships, familial rivalry and its own successful template."
He goes on to praise Russell, calling him "a great addition to this awesome little world, with an enormously powerful movie personality that draws from the actor's own Hollywood legend."
Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty's B- review ultimately came down to the expectations the first installment set up: "Is it possible to be disappointed by a film and still manage to have a good time watching it? Absolutely. And Guardians Vol. 2 is Exhibit A of that. It's smarter than most films, but not as smart as the first one. It's funnier than most films, but not as funny as the first one. And it still probably belongs in the upper tier of Marvel movies, but nowhere near as high up as the first one. Guardians Vol. 1 was so original and unpredictable and irreverent and silly and sublime that Guardians Vol. 2 can't help but feel like a step backwards. It's a decent enough Marvel movie. But the original was a true lower-case-m marvel."
In Empire's 4 out of 5 star review, Chris Hewitt praised Gunn for being able to followup his surprise hit with a worthy successor: "But when you've lost the element of surprise, following that is no easy task. Happy to report, though, bar a few last-act wobbles and the odd tonal shift, Gunn has done it again, crafting a sequel that keeps the focus on the characters we fell for first time around while pumping up the volume."
Time's Stephanie Zacharek charged the film with being "high on its own supply," writing: "In striving to surprise us every minute with its seen-it-all irony, Guardians Vol. 2 is actually the surprise-spoiler of all time - our every 'Wow!' or 'Haha!' has been scripted in advance. At one point Drax, an elaborately tattooed space dude played by former pro wrestler Dave Bautista, announces, 'I have famously huge turds!' and laughs heartily at his own pronouncement, just in case we can't be trusted to get a poo-poo joke. This is a movie that praises viewers for being cool enough to show up and then proceeds to insult them - but only ironically, see?"
Forbes' Scott Mendelson argued that the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Vol. 2 suffers from "middle child syndrome," one in which second films have trouble living up to their predecessors.
"As is the case with Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron, the second Guardians of the Galaxy is stuck with no major chess pieces to move into place," Mendelson wrote. "The 'monster of the week' installment rambles along with very little plot, hoping that a fun time spent in good company, plus special effects razzle-dazzle, will distract from the lack of storytelling."
He also argued that the plot does not justify the film's budget.
"There is clearly a desire to tell standalone stories within the specific franchises and within the MCU, sans much connective tissue to the bigger picture," wrote Mendleson. "But there is also demand that spectacle-hungry audiences get their money's worth. Peter deciding whether or not to trust his dad and whether or not to stay with his biological family as opposed to his surrogate one sadly isn't enough."
IndieWire's Eric Kohn wrote in his B- review that though the film gets "weighed down by clunky attempts to tap into the original's appeal," it "snaps back to life" when the music hits.
"You could argue that Gunn overdoes the effect, but it's still far more exciting to watch a shootout set to a funky beat rather than cacophonous sound effects. With the Guardians always eager to blast the stereo as they head into action, Vol. 2 is basically the best mainstream American musical since La La Land (at least until Baby Driver, which uses a similar device, hits theaters)," wrote Kohn.
In a 3 out of 5 star review, Time Out London's Tom Huddleston also argued the film didn't quite live up to the first one: "The characters are still fun to be around, the one-liners are still sharp ('My turds are famously huge!') and the soundtrack is, of course, terrific. But there are only so many times you can slap on a Fleetwood Mac toe-tapper and expect it to paper over the cracks."
On the positive side, the film's finale earned plenty of positive mentions from critics.
Birth.Movies.Death's Dave Schilling praised the film's final battle, calling it "a world-shattering finale that ranks with the best climaxes in Marvel's oeuvre," and noted the film gives its characters their due.
"Each and every principal cast member gets a satisfying arc and they come out of this adventure changed in some way," wrote Schilling. "Even a character as seemingly one-note as the unwaveringly literal strongman Drax the Destroyer gets a subplot weighted in real emotion. Thankfully, Gunn and Marvel wisely limited any clumsy efforts to set up Avengers: Infinity War (sorry, folks) in favor of a satisfying, self-contained series installment. Let's just say if you took a drink every time someone mentioned Infinity Stones, you'd have no problem operating heavy machinery afterward."
IGN's Terri Schwartz also praised the third act in her 7.9 out of 10 review, which notes even if Vol. 2 "isn't as amazing a film as the first and suffers from some pacing issues, but it still proves to be a fun time with a lot of heart."
"Yes, there's yet another massive, almost-incomprehensible set-piece battle sequence that is now a staple of superhero movies (no last-minute dance-off challenge in this one), but this is one of the most emotional conclusions to a Marvel movie yet," she wrote of the third act.. "Because these are characters we care about, there are real stakes here across a wide array of heroes."
Finally, Collider's Haleigh Foutch also praised the care with which Gunn treated his ensemble, and called the film "funnier and darker than the first film." But Foutch also noted some of the narrative challenges faced by Gunn's choice to split up its team for parts of the movie.
"You'll have a smile plastered on your face most of the way through, until a moment sneaks up on you and you find yourself choking back tears. But those cathartic beats sometimes feel cut short, ricocheting you back into the fun zone before you absorb the full impact," wrote Foutch. "The needle drops, dancing, and 80s references still delight and they're responsible for some side-splitting moments, but that gleeful goofiness threatens to topple over into self-indulgence when they chip into a heartfelt moment, diminishing the emotional investment the film worked so hard to earn. The nature of the story calls for a tricky tonal tightrope, and while never falls off, he makes some jarring missteps along the way. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, those franchise trademarks can feel like distracting packaging."
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opens May 5.