In 2014, Marvel Studios unveiled Guardians of the Galaxy, a rock-centric space oddity unlike anything Marvel had released before. Through the direction of James Gunn (Slither/The Belko Experiment), Marvel introduced the world to a rag-tag group of miscreants and killers who somehow managed to pull themselves together long enough to save the galaxy from complete destruction. In the much anticipated return to theaters, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 offers up the sarcastic, juvenile, rock n’ roll audiences loved to the tune of over $770 million worldwide, wrapped up in a mature, frequently emotionally affecting story. So buckle your seatbelts, A-holes, the Guardians of the Galaxy are back to kick off the summer season in an adventure that’ll tickle your senses as the marauding band of heroes end up on the wrong side of everyone, yet still manage to save the galaxy from ruin. Again.
Taking place months after the end of Guardians, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) use their rep as galaxy saviors to secure jobs as heroes for hire. Unfortunately, after a “misunderstanding” with a race of people known as The Sovereign, the Guardians find themselves once more on the run from enemies new and old, forced to seek shelter with the mysterious man known as Ego (Kurt Russell).
By their nature, sequels invite escalation. They push the characters we think we know into new directions, while making the story exponentially larger. Gunn successfully subverts these expectations by telling a story that’s far more insular, sophisticated, and poignant. Inset within the larger action-oriented plot of the Guardians on the run, is a story about family. Peter Quill gets a chance to learn more about his other-worldly paternal side, Gamora and Nebula (Karen Gillan) dive into their sisterly (sometimes murderous) squabbles, and Rocket and Yondu (Michael Rooker) examine their general animosity to everyone and everything. None of this self-reflection would’ve fit narratively or tonally in the initial Guardians, but it fits beautifully in Vol. 2. Impressively, taking time for this kind of self-reflection throughout the picture doesn’t slow down any aspect of it. Rather, the introspective moments reward audiences with some of the most charming and equally devastating moments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. Don’t worry, though – everything audiences loved about Guardians – the adolescent humor, fantastical action sequences, and elaborate alien set pieces – they’re all still in there. (This is a James Gunn-directed picture after all.)
Also returning is a rousing soundtrack filled with classic hits of the ’60s and ’70s. Introduced at the end of Guardians as “Awesome Mix, Vol. 2” – a gift from Peter’s mother – it features songs like The Sweet’s Fox on the Run, Looking Glass’s Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl), and Sam Cooke’s Bring It On Home To Me. While most films in the MCU contain ineffectual music, Gunn’s application of music courses through the Guardians series like lifeblood: simultaneously enhancing the action on screen and fueling it. These songs are central to Peter’s identity as they are the sole connection he has with his mother, Meredith (Laura Haddock), who died at the start of the first film. So if you loved the musical integration within the narrative and action of the first Guardian film, then Vol. 2 is going to blow you away. Gunn furthers the intimate bond between the songs and Peter, resulting in various cinematic moments that resonates in the form of joy, grief, and anger. Signaling just how strong Gunn’s musical approach to storytelling connects with audiences. These songs represent who Meredith was and how it lives on in Peter, which ties in nicely with the significant subtext of family and individual identity.
With the majority of the original cast returning, Pratt, Saldana, Bautista, and Cooper continue doing great work grounding their larger-than-life characters. Presented with a more challenging script in Vol. 2, this gang of four convincingly breaks through the character’s false bravado, enabling each one to grow just a bit more from when we first met them. The story may take place a scant three months after they met, but, by the end of Vol. 2, their loyalty and faith in each other is far more genuine than it is convenient. Vin Diesel’s Baby Groot has the least character work to do due to his toddler-like stasis of regeneration, however, Baby Groot never feels like a gimmick or a source of easy repetitive jokes. In fact, Baby Groot’s participation in the opening credits dethrones the dance sequence in Guardians as the greatest opening in MCU history.
Joining the cast is Kurt Russell as Ego and Pom Klementieff as his companion Mantis. Russell brings the kind of charming, yet smarmy delivery that made his previous sci-fi characters so noteworthy; fitting him into the cast like he was born to play a mysterious space traveler. Klementieff’s (2013’s Old Boy) role is both small and pivotal, and Gunn takes great care in giving Klementieff time for audiences to get a sense of who she is. To her credit, Klementieff’s performance is charming and sweet, which provides a lovely aperitif amid the boyish jokes. If anything, what keeps Vol. 2 from being perfect is its reliance on crass humor over-and-again. When it works (like on Ego’s home world), it’s hilarious, but where it doesn’t, it detracts and distracts.
The greatest trick James Gunn and Marvel Studios ever pulled was getting audiences worldwide to fall in love with the Guardians of the Galaxy. They are crass, self-serving, violent outlaws, whose sense of justice frequently pushes the bounds of the PG-13 rating. Yet we love them. Why? Because the Guardians create the most delightful anarchy seen within the entire MCU, set to glorious toe-tapping music. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.