Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
When Guardians of the Galaxy opened in August 2014 and quickly became the top-grossing film of the entire summer and a critical smash, it demonstrated that the Marvel Cinematic Universe had a lot of untapped potential outside of their prime superhero adaptations. A C-list cosmic group made up of an intergalactic cowboy, a green-skinned warrior princess, a bulky destroyer, a talking raccoon, and a sentient tree seemed like a hard sell on paper, but Marvel had the confidence to greenlight the project, and eventually use it to set up their next set of stories beyond Earth’s confines (not to mention tie it directly into their Avengers series, which will finally happen next summer with Infinity War).
The real risk came tapping director James Gunn to helm the project - a guy known for making some really weird and oddball low-budget genre flicks (Slither, Super) and being behind the script for some Hollywood projects like Dawn of the Dead and Scooby-Doo. But Gunn’s visually-driven sensibility was the perfect touch to set this series apart from the exploits of those like Iron Man and Captain America, and help to move the superfranchise away from the homogenized sensibility of its first phase.
A sequel was green-lit before the original even opened, showing Marvel has a bright future in mind for the Guardians. Nearly three years later that sequel is here, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a follow-up that does everything one would expect in terms of upping the ante. The action set-pieces are greater in scope and design, the ensemble gets more development, the story moves to new and exciting places, and the soundtrack is exceptionally well curated.
Having said all of that, it’s hard to top the sense of fascination held by the original, and if there’s anything that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t able to replicate, it’s that. Taking on a structure which feels directly inspired by sequels like The Empire Strikes Back, the majority of the plot focuses around hero Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) finding out about where he came from and finding the answers to his parentage, while the core ensemble is split up and end up going through hell in the process of being reunited...but alas, some are not so lucky.
After facing off against a mammoth tentacled beast (in a digitally composed one-shot sequence set to ELO’s ‘Mr. Blue Sky’) the Guardians are attacked mid-space flight by a drone armada from the golden-skinned Sovereign nation led by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) , before crash landing on a strange planet. In the ensuing madness, they face-to-face with Peter’s biological father Ego (Kurt Russell) - a Celestial being who occupies human form while also existing as a literal, sentient planet. While Peter, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Drax (Dave Bautista) go off with Ego and his assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel), and Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora’s fugitive sister taken hostage stay behind to fix the ship, setting into motion the secondary plot. Captured by Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his band of space pirates the Ravagers, tasked with retrieving a precious item snatched by Rocket during their last job, the tables turn when Nebula seizes the opportunity to lead a mutiny and take over the Ravagers, then forcing Yondu to team up with Rocket and Groot. Seeing the characters paired up in these factions, while leading to some amusing moments, helps to foreground the idea of family, one that certainly expands from the original but nonetheless showcases this sense of dependence.
Guardians of the Galaxy was all about the hero growing from being alone in the universe and finding some sense of a makeshift family (of a certainly dysfunctional type). Vol. 2 builds from this, as the hero must choose between the biological family he never knew and this secondary one that has come to love him over time.
After meeting Ego, it’s easy to see how Peter is taken in by him (he’s Kurt Russell after all!) - a great, bearded, eternal god who wants his son to join him in his position as an omniscient being. This sense of belonging is within much of the relationships of the film - whether it’s Gamora and Nebula’s ongoing sibling rivalry, Rocket being a one-of-a-kind creature, or even Yondu’s rejection by high ranking Ravager Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone). In that, seeing this band of misfits find company within one another makes things all the more satisfying when they reband to face a darker threat facing the galaxy in the finale.
While it’s still very much Peter’s story, each character gets multiple chances to shine and define themselves in new and interesting ways. Gamora has definitely loosened up since being under the leadership of her mad titan father Thanos, and much of her development comes from looking back on her past treatment of her sister. Drax, still obtuse as ever in his mannerisms, gets an interesting foil through Mantis, herself very literal in conversation while physically his opposite. Yondu’s arc is especially intriguing given his role as Peter’s ‘daddy’ - raising him to be a thief and giving him the skills needed to survive, and it has to be said that what’s done by actor Michael Rooker (a favorite collaborator of Gunn’s) has led to one of the best examples of casting within the MCU. Given their extensive CG work it’s hard to say the same about Rocket or Groot (now in baby form!); the former leads to a lot of banter being thrown around while the latter seems designed to only be cute and sell merchandise.
It’s the explosion in popularity of characters like Rocket and Groot that makes Vol. 2 suffer ever so slightly, taking something which felt unique the first time and then trying hard to engineer as many of those special moments again. What was once amusing is now rather irksome, and having to fit in as many gags with them as possible across the runtime wears out its welcome. This is a problem with many sequels that want to recapture the magic, and while it should be commended that Vol. 2 goes all out in crafting a narrative which certainly develops its overarching themes, the wonderment doesn’t burn as brightly.
Because of all this character work, it’s easy to see how Vol. 2 doesn’t have the heaviest of plots, sacrificing a concrete sequence of events for visual splendor and awe. It’s certainly full of heart compared to other MCU sequels, an effect that is accentuated by its soundtrack that certainly has less rockin’ tunes and more cuts with emotion and soul. And while it doesn’t feature any explicit nods to the next few films in the MCU (sorry to those hoping for a Captain Marvel cameo), some seeds are planted for the future onward, that should kick off at the culmination of this third phase.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is sure to be enjoyed by anyone that’s a fan of its predecessor, and as a sequel it really digs into why people adore this team so much. It’s another solid outing for Marvel which shows their formula has yet to go bad, and should go down as one of the top films of the summer among audiences.