With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, writer/director James Gunn seemingly enters a no-win scenario. His 2014 original wasn’t just a surprise smash hit, but a pop culture cornerstone. By both embracing and thumbing its nose at the sci-fi/fantasy tropes that have burned many potential blockbusters, a la John Carter or Green Lantern, to the ground, it managed to capture a special kind of magic that has essentially turned it into this generation’s true heir to Star Wars. How do you follow that up? Most returning directors might have simply opted to just dial up the bells and whistles and coast on the same formula from before, but James Gunn isn’t most directors. He genuinely cares about these characters and refuses to let empty spectacle overwhelm them.
Gunn seems to think that the Guardians need a little time to work on themselves. Instead of relying on the infectious chemistry that made the first movie sing, he opts to splinter the ensemble into smaller groups in order to give them each more intimate arcs. We have Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) finally meeting Ego (Kurt Russell), his long lost father who just so happens to be a celestial being with his very own planet. Lucky break. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) finds herself forced to confront her bitter relationship with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) are kidnapped by a group of Ravagers and find themselves having to work with Yondu (Michael Rooker) to escape.
This more loose structure could have easily turned this film into a hot mess. However, Gunn has done a fantastic job of keeping all of these stories grounded in the same theme. These are all broken, temperamental people looking for a greater sense of purpose. While we saw them find friends in the first one, we get to see them find themselves here. All of the characters, except for the sidelined Drax (Dave Bautista), are given really rich arcs here. While some of them land better than others, it still makes for a story with a lot more meat on its bones.
We get to see Peter’s goofy bravado start to untangle when he’s faced with the man he’s been searching for his whole life. His dynamic with Ego is surprisingly tender, with Pratt and Russell nicely navigating some moments that could’ve easily been sappy. While Pratt does find himself struggling later on with some of the heavier moments, his pure movie star charisma ends up pulling him through. However, the highlight is easily the Rocket/Groot/Yondu story. Rocket is still by far the most compelling member of the group, and his ferocious bitterness is put under the microscope here. Watching that volatility play off of Yondu’s even shorter temper makes for some of the film’s best moments. Drax and Groot do end up suffering a little, though. While Bautista gets a lot of fantastic one-liners, he’s mostly just waiting around for the third act to start with the also fairly under developed Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Baby Groot is certainly cute but ultimately feels like a bit more of a marketing scheme than anything else. He’s never given anything especially funny to do, the running gag of him having to have everything explained to him wearing thin very quickly.
Even though all of this character work is fantastic, it’s occasionally undercut by Gunn’s on the nose writing. He has a tendency to tell instead of show, which really starts to hold things up whenever we focus on Gamora and Nebula. A great deal of what we learn about these two is through long diatribes that would have been a lot more powerful if we could actually see what they’re talking about. Instead, the two of them mostly just shout lines at one another, making what ultimately happens between them fall flat. This wonkiness spreads into all of the stories at some point or another, which does undercut them a bit. Fortunately, the quirky humor that everybody fell in love with is still here in full force. It’s a film that isn’t afraid to make fun of itself, which makes some of the flat emotional moments go down smoother.
While Gunn was dipping his toe into directing a blockbuster last time, he cannonballs into the pool here. He has an incredible eye for action sequences, masterfully using every part of the frame for maximum chaos.As the Awesome Mix of 70s/80s pop hits blares in the background, we get to know these people through how they fight. There’s a genuine sense of madcap joy that makes it all incredibly dynamic. The vibrant colors and compositions feel ripped directly out of a particularly psychedelic comic book, with a couple moments that are hallucinogenic enough to make Dr. Strange blush.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t nearly as tight a package as the first film but in many ways, it’s far more ambitious. It manages to shuffle a massive cast, giving most of them something significant to work with. The irreverent tone and humor is all still there, even if our characters are slowly starting to mature. It’s the kind of movie that Marvel Studios would do well to focus more on. A singular story completely unconcerned with building to future movies that instead focusses on evolving what we already have. Only time will tell how these A-Holes will interact with Avengers, but for now, their cosmic space opera is by far the most entertaining wormhole to enter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.