Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
It’s not difficult to see that Guardians of the Galaxy is a different sort of slice of the Marvel Cinematic Universe compared to the main line Avengers films. It exists in its own little pocket, yet to cross over into the main storyline beyond some generalized Thanos grumblings, free to tell its own story at its own pace without having to worry about where it fits in the puzzle leading up to the next big beat-em-up. Writer/director James Gunn took the opportunity to weird up the proceedings with a colorful cast of wackos thrown together from across the universe, giving all sorts of obscure Marvel Universe characters the opportunity for a day in the sun. And considering it was not an abject disaster (quite the opposite, really), a sequel would be inevitable. So here we are three years later for another adventure across space and time with this ragtag crew of thieves and miscreants.
This second tale in the Marvel space saga focuses in on the mysterious parentage of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), rescued by a being calling himself Ego (Kurt Russell) as the team (the returning Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel) escapes the wrath of a race of stately, gold-covered aliens and their leader, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) for Rocket’s impulsive stealing of the cargo they were hired to protect. Upon their escape, Ayesha hires Quill’s old mentor/kidnapper Yondu (Michael Rooker), to take out the Guardians, and his hesitance leads to a mutiny aboard his ship. Meanwhile, on Ego’s planet, Quill, Gamora and Drax attempt to decipher Ego’s true motivations with the help of Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an empath who can intuit and influence the emotions of those she touches. This being a superhero, eventually the universe is imperiled, and the Guardians must reunite to end the threat.
While Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 retains the anarchic spirit of its first installment, the franchise continues to present some growing pains along the way. The structure of the scenes is a lot more evident the second time around, with Gunn undercutting pathos with sarcasm or a laugh line with predictive regularity. The script is generally solid, but there are more than a few groaners throughout, and Gamora and Quill’s romance still seems a little forced just because movies like this usually have some sort of romance, so here one is. Some jokes are certainly run into the ground (one specifically involving the name of one of the villains), and there is a preponderance of characters, mostly of the Drax and Rocket persuasion, laughing boisterously that starts to grate after two hours, but the new blood they inject into the world and Gunn’s comfort and willingness to embrace some of the weirder corners of the Marvel Cosmic universe pay dividends. Throwing Kurt Russell at the center of all of that proves a shrewd move, fitting comfortably in as the embodiment of 70s and 80s pop culture the franchise loves so much. He's the key to why the film works, papering over the cracks starting to show in other aspects of the film with his wit and charm.
The first Guardians of the Galaxy suffered a bit due to an addiction to proper names (something even clearer upon revisiting it), a necessary problem for most origin stories exacerbated by the scope of the universe they were introducing to a new audience, and it became a bit tiring to be constantly bombarded by exposition, new planets, new races, new characters and mythologies. Vol. 2 has the benefit of enough of this being established to leave the majority of the deep diving at the door; we don’t need to understand the history and motivation of the Sovereign, just that they want to harm the Guardians. That storytelling approach makes the film flow much better than its predecessor, creating an impressively more breezy atmosphere than its famously breezy first installment. It’s clear James Gunn has a command and understanding of his characters and his world, maybe relying a bit too much on those pop culture references and needle drops (the music is honestly just as egregious as Suicide Squad when you really think about it; we just overlook it because the movie as a whole is so much better...for now), but he makes you care about a baby tree and a space raccoon who loves guns and stealing things and a giant warrior bereft of subtlety and idiom in a way that has not lost its endearing edge.
It’s really that commitment to being weird and goofy that manages to keep Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 afloat. It generally manages to avoid the villain problem that plagued its first installment; Ayesha is clearly the Ronan analogue of this film, but Elizabeth Debicki remains an undeniably captivating screen presence, and the actual big bad ranks among the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best (though, admittedly, that’s not all that difficult a feat). They’ve stumbled across something truly special in Dave Bautista’s Drax, and Pratt continues to grow into his new role as Hollywood’s leading man of choice for all sorts of nerd-based properties. Going strange and psychedelic helps counteract the overall formula and familiarity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, just like it did in Doctor Strange last year, and Gunn should hopefully be able to eke out another sequel before things start to feel old hat. Still, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has just enough momentum to keep things interesting.