The Marvel Cinematic Universe is known for a particular quality of movies–they look great, have wonderful casts, are full of action and humor–but that also means they can feel samey after awhile, especially if the film’s main goal is to further the complex company-wide story arc. 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a major exception to that, keeping the great stuff about the MCU but adding weird heart, riotous humor, and a colorful, spaced-out setting. With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, writer-director James Gunn takes a further step away from the usual MCU stuff…and it’s terrific!
In a lot of ways, Guardians Vol. 2 is a smaller film than both the first film and the previous grip of Marvel movies. There are still the requisite CGI space battles and monster fights and universe-jeopardizing peril, but even more than the first time around, Gunn does all this directly as a result and reflection of his characters. It feels much more like a comedy of personalities than it necessarily does a comic book sci-fi movie, though it deftly proves what the cosmic side of the MCU ought to always be. There’s clearly abundant love from the writer-director for the team, and even for the new characters and returning side characters. Each of them matters; they all get their moment or three to shine.
The movie opens with the Guardians–Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel)–on what amounts to an assassination mission, tasked to destroy a giant monster for a gold-and-haughty society of intellectuals, led by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki). After doing something typically reprehensible, the Guardians are chased away, only to be saved by the bearded and swaggering Ego (Kurt Russell), a near-god who just happens to be Star-Lord’s long-lost alien father.
Meanwhile, Yondu (Michael Rooker) is having trouble maintaining control and respect from his Ravagers after going soft on Peter Quill at the end of the previous film. All the same, he takes Ayesha’s bounty offer to hunt down the Guardians, little knowing that Gamora’s arch nemesis sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) is also in the mix. All roads lead to Rome, as they say, and Gunn puts his characters on different paths that eventually lead to a big ol’ joke-and-tears-filled finale.
As with the first movie, Vol. 2 has a killer soundtrack full of needle-drops. I had worried that following the success of that first awesome mix tape, the music choices here would feel kitschy more than fitting to the movie, but one of Gunn’s strengths is picking music that is at once iconic ’70s hits and perfectly matched to the scenes at hand. And even more than that, the music becomes part of the plot, to a greater degree than it had been in the first film. There are three or four scenes that just wouldn’t work with a different song.
Gunn’s love for the characters is both a major asset and the source of some of the only minor complaints I have about the movie. He spends a great deal of time making sure each and every one of his characters is fleshed out, far more than before, and even Ayesha–who has less screen time than Ronan in part one–is much more defined and her personality and motivations are very clear. New addition Mantis (Pom Klementieff), the empathic alien companion of Ego, is wide-eyed and innocent, but makes for a really great foil for Drax, since they can essentially bond over their lack of understanding subtlety or subtext.
But the flip side of all this attention to characters, and indeed outright affection for them from Gunn, is that the culmination of storylines tends to veer into the realm of schmaltz, sentimentality, and blatantly cutesy heartstring-pulling. Now, I’m not opposed to this, but it seems antithetical to me that a film with rampant destruction, henchmen actually getting gleefully killed onscreen, and some fairly tough moral dilemmas at work, that Guardians 2‘s climax would be almost totally devoid of a hard edge. This doesn’t detract too-too much–as I said, I think this movie made me laugh more than any this year–but it does strike me as strange. It’s as though Gunn decided to amp up the “We are Groot” moments by 400%.
Those small things aside, and the fact that Baby Groot is SOOOOOOOO cute, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 delivers on all of the promise of the first movie and even improves in almost every aspect. Particularly refreshing to me were its almost defiant disinterest in what’s happening in the rest of the MCU, favoring its own internal continuity more than that of the studio as a whole, and the focus on mixing up character dynamics in a very real way, without it being “dun dun DUN” plot reveals.
The action’s great, the performances are top notch, and the soundtrack is killer. 2017’s first Marvel movie is, impressively, one of the best sci-fi adventures you could hope to see. I defy anyone to watch this and not smile from beginning to end.
4.5 Spaced-Out Burritos out of 5