I usually end these MCU movie reviews by talking about the 4K Blu-ray release, but with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I will instead discuss the 4K edition first before going into the details of the movie. To be candid, Disney has a pretty checkered history among home video enthusiasts for how it has approached the latest home media format. News recently surfaced that Disney will soon be abandoning the format except in the case of its major properties (i.e., Star Wars, PIXAR, Marvel), meaning it apparently has no plans to remaster and release the entire 20th Century Fox back catalog on 4K Blu-ray after spending $71.3 billion to acquire the studio in 2019. (Disney has since denied this development, but at the same time also hasn’t announced the release of any more catalog releases since issuing this denial.)
Even before this reporting came to the fore, there were some pretty clear signs that Disney was not taking 4K as seriously as its rivals and was instead intent on ultimately increasing consumer focus on its new Disney+ streaming platform, even if it was at the expense of physical media sales. (Not sure why they would want to cut off additional revenue streams, but I suppose it doesn’t have to make sense.) For one, the packaging designs for its physical media releases tend to lack imagination and always feature the Movies Anywhere logo and illustrations of multiple devices in the bottom right corner, which is completely unnecessary. In terms of audio/visual presentation, Disney tends to trail the other studios, particularly when it comes to its live-action releases.
Although Disney pretty consistently provides a Dolby Atmos sound mix with each 4K release, the studio has an annoying habit of mastering the volume below standard calibration levels, requiring users to turn up the volume just to get movies to play at a normal listening level. Frequently, this results in some distortion and a general lack of punch on high-end systems (especially on the low end of the frequency spectrum). I’m not sure why Disney thinks lower volume = family friendly, but this does appear to be the studio’s belief, and the practice has earned the derisive nickname “Atmouse” by critics. Disney has fared somewhat better as far as the visual half of the 4K A/V equation is concerned, turning in some truly stellar transfers of some of their animated movies. (The Star Wars sequel trilogy likewise also looks great in 4K.)
Currently, there are 23 Marvel Cinematic Universe films; Disney is responsible for the 4K releases of 20 of them. (The Incredible Hulk is by Universal and both Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home are by Sony.) So far, not a single MCU film has received a 5-star rating for its 4K video quality by Blu-ray.com. To some degree, this is not surprising, since only one movie so far (Black Panther) was finished on a 4K digital intermediate. (The other 22 were finished on a 2K digital intermediate and upscaled to 4K.) And while it is rare for a non-native 4K transfer to receive top marks for video quality, it does happen from time to time, such as with Star Trek or Shutter Island or Revenge of the Sith. It is decidedly less uncommon overall for upscaled 4K transfers to be rated 4.5 stars, but unfortunately this has not occurred often with the MCU’s 4K releases.
Thus far there have only been six: The Avengers (2012), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018), Avengers: Endgame (2019) and Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019). Only one of these — The Avengers — is a so-called “catalog” release, or a re-release of an older title for the first time on 4K. The rest of the transfers were prepared for the films’ initial release on home video, which included simultaneous releases on 4K Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD and digital platforms. It would appear Disney has done a slightly better job with these newer titles (with the exception of Far From Home, since that’s a Sony title) than it has done with its catalog MCU releases. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, however, was Disney’s first ever release on 4K Blu-ray and bears none of the blemishes that have come to tarnish typical efforts from Disney 4K releases.
First and foremost, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 receives a full 5-star rating for its Dolby Atmos track by Blu-ray.com. To reiterate, this is most unusual for a Disney release. The only other MCU movies to get 5-star audio ratings from Blu-ray.com are The Incredible Hulk, which is a Universal release (and utilizes DTS:X rather than Dolby Atmos), and Spider-Man: Homecoming, which is a Sony release. So as far as Disney 4K releases go, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the only MCU movie to not receive the “Atmouse” treatment for its sound mix. (What seems likely is that Vol. 2 made it out of the gate prior to Disney implementing its policy of compressing its Atmos mixes.) Furthermore, Vol. 2‘s 4K video quality outpaces the previous 14 MCU entries as well. In fact, Vol. 2 has the distinction of being the first film — ever — to be shot digitally at 8K resolution. As I have expressed many times in other reviews, however, shooting at such a high resolution is somewhat meaningless.
For one thing, visual effects are still mostly created at 2K resolution, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is certainly an effects-driven movie. The movie was also ultimately finished on a 2K digital intermediate, meaning that the majority of the detail that was shot never actually made it into the final image — it was eventually “downscaled out.” Of course, native 8K footage never would have made it into the 4K version even if a 4K digital intermediate had been used (again, it would have been lost during the inevitable downscaling), but at least the 4K edition of the film wouldn’t have been upscaled from the finished 2K image. All that being said, the movie looks (and sounds) fantastic in 4K, and that’s what matters. Furthermore, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2‘s color palette is marvelously bright, and the HDR10 color grading pushes the disc over the top as the 4K Blu-ray to demo for other MCU fans.
Anyway, enough about technical stuff. Let’s move on to the movie itself. I openly criticized the first film for trying to do too much at once and for introducing too many characters and plot threads in an overly expository manner. This has been corrected somewhat in Vol. 2, which trims some of the supporting cast that managed to survive the proceedings last time — alas, Benicio del Toro, John C. Reilly and Glenn Close, we hardly knew ye — and also leaves Infinity Saga arch villain Thanos (Josh Brolin) out of the proceedings entirely. (He doesn’t even make an appearance during the mid-credits or end-credits scenes.) Furthermore, the story is more streamlined and focused, and dispenses with the constant planet hopping that made Vol. 1 somewhat difficult to digest. Kurt Russell is on board for the ride this time, playing Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) father Ego, a Celestial planet/god who takes the form of a human when he feels like it.
Of course, in somewhat predictable fashion, he turns out to also be the villain, and when Quill shoots him repeatedly, the holes in his body regenerate like the T-1000 in Terminator 2. And that’s basically all there is to the movie: Peter Quill’s dad shows up, takes him to his planet (i.e., to himself since he is a planet… I think), and when it turns out he is evil, they blow up the planet and leave. A few subplots involving the other characters are grafted onto this main plot, but they aren’t particularly lasting or all that interesting in the first place. The best one involves Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her step-sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), who continue their love-hate relationship in spectacularly violent fashion. Quill’s surrogate father Yondu (Michael Rooker) sacrifices himself for Quill so he can escape the exploding planet, which is just as well — Yondu doesn’t have much to do this time around anyway.
He does, however, have an early exchange with a character named Stakar Ogord, a Ravager with a higher rank played by none other than Sylvester Stallone in what essentially amounts to a cameo. In scanning the movie’s Wikipedia’s article, I discovered that Stakar Ogord is better known as Starhawk in the comics and I would have to imagine will almost certainly play a role in future Guardians of the Galaxy films. So I guess we have that to look forward to. Another addition to the proceedings is Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who is Ego’s assistant of sorts, though it was never quite clear to me why exactly he would need an assistant if he is essentially a god. She possesses an appealing naïveté, and her unlikely romantic pairing with Drax (Dave Bautista) is a fun development. By the end of the film, Mantis is a full-fledged member of the Guardians of the Galaxy. (Interestingly, though she is credited as appearing in both Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), I have no memory of her doing or saying anything in either film.)
As with the first Guardians of the Galaxy, I have a hard time judging Vol. 2. In some ways, it’s certainly better than the first one. It’s more narratively coherent and less overly expository. In terms of zany, light fun it more than delivers, and the characters have grown fairly endearing over the course of two full films. The visual effects are impressive and production values are high. Yet something seems to be missing here. As I mentioned earlier, Thanos is nowhere to be found. (Presumably, he’s off planning the havoc he’ll unleash in Infinity War.) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an almost entirely self-contained film, without much crossover with the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I say “almost” because there is technically a thread connecting Ego’s arrival on the scene with the rest of the MCU proceedings: Ego tracks down Quill when he hears that a human held an Infinity Stone in his hand and survived.
Aside from that, none of the other developments from the Infinity Saga’s previous 14 entries really figure into matters here. And while a major unanswered question from the first Guardians of the Galaxy was the identity of Quill’s father, I’m not sure dedicating an entire movie to answering the question was really the best story idea to pursue. Now we know who his father is, but we also know that he will no longer factor into future films, making Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 essentially a pointless movie to revisit. The remedy for this problem was to ensure Quill had a pronounced character arc, but what I find truly odd is that he basically doesn’t; I don’t get the sense from watching Vol. 2 that Quill is any different at movie’s end than he is at the beginning. The root of this particular issue lies in the relationship between Quill and Ego. Quill never internalizes this relationship in a way that feels especially familial, let alone paternal, so it’s hard for us in the audience to feel invested in it as a result.
It’s a story dynamic we have seen before — Ego is essentially the millionaire who suddenly shows up and offers to change the life of a kid. There’s even some Willy Wonka thrown in here — with all of the crazy colors and whatnot on Ego’s planet, it almost seems like an oversight in the plot for Quill not to have been handed a golden ticket first. This familiarity in itself is not a problem, but what I find somewhat lacking is what Ego tempts Quill with — or perhaps more precisely, the rather ineffective way in which he tempts him with it. He offers Quill the chance to be a god — a Celestial, like him — but before we can really wrap our heads around what that exactly means, Ego upsets the applecart and spills the beans that it was him that gave Quill’s mother the brain tumor that killed her. It’s pretty clumsy writing: at the same time he is offering Quill the chance to be a Celestial, Ego shows him how together they can take over thousands of planets through terraforming (such as on Earth, where the process begins behind a Dairy Queen featured prominently during the prologue).
In other words, Ego may be a god, but he’s a terrible salesman; he jumps to the close without doing a proper needs assessment first. This makes him a pretty unremarkable villain, since he never makes his offer sound particularly tempting. This is a downright strange thing to say, of course — at least on paper, the opportunity to be a god should pretty much be the definition of tempting. Yet it never really comes across that way. The story would have been much more compelling if Ego had withheld his evil intentions until after he had already convinced Quill to be a Celestial. We should have seen multiple scenes of Quill enjoying his new powers and even accomplishing something useful with them. (Even seducing Gamora would have sufficed.) But these scenes do not occur. As a result, we never get the sense that Quill is giving up something he is attached to when he kills off Ego and loses his Celestial powers. This is a pretty obvious missed opportunity.
The filmmakers may have thought they were making Quill choose between his father and being a Celestial (i.e., his actual family) and his surrogate family (his fellow Guardians), but it never really seems like a difficult choice for him. Instead, it’s merely presented as a choice that Ego can’t possibly understand, not as one that has any dramatic heft or develops Quill’s character in any meaningful or lasting way; the emphasis is a bit misplaced. Part of the problem is the filmmakers wrote themselves into a bit of a corner here; being a god is granting a character too much power and viewers with enough storytelling savvy surely recognized that Quill’s powers would be short-lived. Had the powers been of a different kind — say, a weapon like the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail in the Indiana Jones movies — then Quill could be granted a more realistic agency as to whether to keep it or not, but that isn’t how the decision is presented.
For one, killing Ego actually stops him from doing evil things, so he’s pretty obligated to eliminate him. Secondly, Ego is responsible for killing his mother. The decision is a slam dunk — it’s just a question of whether or not he can do it — and the alternative isn’t really an alternative. (Rule the galaxy as Celestial father and son? Please.) In this respect, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is simply under-dramatized. There’s plenty at stake and the movie is perfectly functional, but it’s ultimately amorphous and forgettable when it easily could have been more. What’s truly odd about this is the fact that the whole movie is about revealing who Quill’s father is, and yet the film is intent on not delivering on any sort of emotional level about something that should theoretically be extremely important to the franchise’s main character. Perhaps this is where the series’ zany tone does itself a disservice, but I don’t see why that should have ultimately been a hindrance, particularly when Quill is such a charismatic and likable hero.
After all, he’s someone who stays connected to his mom through her mixtapes. If that’s not someone who can be taken advantage of for dramatic purposes, who is? Despite being fairly extraverted, he’s certainly a dreamer whose emotional development has been arrested due to his childhood abduction. It just seems like there’s more the movie should have been able to do with this. Anyway, I have hammered this point enough. It will be interesting to see what Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 will entail when it hits screens in a few years. (Presently, writer/director James Gunn is occupied with making the DC Extended Universe film The Suicide Squad.) I will certainly have plenty more to say about these characters when I review Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, particularly since Thanos and the Infinity Stones are a creation of the Guardians of the Galaxy comics.