If anything, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 might have had a tougher job with audiences than the first film. The original Guardians of the Galaxy was Marvel Studios’ biggest gamble back in 2014, as no one could predict a wisecracking, talking raccoon, an ex-WWE wrestler, a CGI “living tree” from Planet X, and a overweight, life-goal challenged actor from an NBC sitcom could pull off one of the best films in the Marvel Studios library. But they did. Under the careful hand of James Gunn, a man raised in the Lloyd Kaufman Troma Studios system, Gunn and his Guardians took the world by storm, and even won over people who don’t care about superheroes, or their movies. Now, loaded with all of the pressures of repeated success, could Gunn and company expand on the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, or was the first film a fluke?
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does an admirable job of fleshing out the characters and their respective stories. And in so doing, Gunn, who writes and directs, digs deep into the barrel of the Marvel Cosmic library, using characters created decades before to fill out his team of rogues and help the Guardians solidify their place in the Marvel Studios pantheon.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opens with the Guardians working a job for the Sovereign, a race of gold-skinned perfect beings, who need help protecting their sacred batteries. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and “baby” Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) have to battle a nefarious, tentacled space monster to protect the batteries, and the battle serves as the fun, toe-tapping opening credits.
Once the beast is destroyed, Quill and the gang take their leave of Sovereign, but not empty handed, as Rocket pockets a few of the batteries, which prompts Sovereign to attack, sending the rag tag bunch into perilous situation after perilous situation and the Milano is savagely damaged in the attack. The team is saved by a mysterious man named Ego (the always amazing Kurt Russell), who claims to be Peter’s long lost father, and his empath assistant, Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who takes Peter, Gamora, and Drax to his planet on the other side of the galaxy to show Peter why he abandoned Peter’s mother all those years before, leaving Rocket, Groot, and a captured Nebula (Karen Gillan) on the Milano wreckage.
Sovereign, not to be made a fool in this ever growing Marvel cinematic galaxy, hires the Ravagers, led by Yondu (Michael Rooker), to find the Guardians and retrieve their batteries. This creates some obvious conflicts, both on the surface and underlying, as Yondu and Quill have a history, as noted in the first film. This gives James Gunn a perfect opportunity to introduce some well-established Marvel Cosmic characters, further fleshing out connections to the source books in new and unique ways.
With the Guardians separated, bad things happen, and Peter and Ego bond as father and son, though Gamora isn’t 100 percent sold on the idea of Ego, and Mantis isn’t helping with her whispers of secret visions. Things don’t add up, and only Gamora can see it. The balance of the film deals with these issues and more and the team may not be the same at the end, regardless of what happens.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 explores many themes, and the biggest is the relationship between fathers and sons, sisters, brothers, and the true meaning of family. In fact, it hits the audience over the head with it. Over and over. Peter and Ego bond like a father and son should, even going so far as to playing catch, and the team, fractured for most of the film, both literally and figuratively, explores just what it means to be in a family unit. Heck, even Gamora and Nebula have it out with one another as only sisters can. These issues are the true conflict of the film, and that may or may not work for everyone.
Gunn’s script, this time without the help of Nicole Perlman, lacks the subtlety that made the first film such a hit with almost everyone. The jokes are forced and juvenile (one exchange talks about turds for about two minutes too long, and Gunn seemingly loves the word “douche”), and it’s almost as if he forgot — or never understood — that the true humor from the first film wasn’t from the jokes as written; it was from the absurdity of it all, and the laughs came naturally. Luckily, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 abandons its pretense of being a slapstick comedy midway through the second act and focuses more on the story and the conflicts, but it was excruciating getting to that point, and a film that feels a little too long to begin with could have been better served with some of those jokes being a special feature on the Blu-ray release.
Visually, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is stunning in almost every way, and if you can see this in 3D on IMAX, I highly recommend it. Not for the inevitable things shooting out into your face, but for the gorgeous depth-of-field that the 3D offers. The colors used throughout makes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 eye candy in almost every scene, especially on Ego’s planet. And the music, a universal high point in the first film, is stellar here once again, with Gunn using some pretty obscure soft rock hits in some very big situations.
Also, as mentioned, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does an amazing job of broadening the Marvel Cosmic universe for the film universe. There’s no mention of the established heroes, like Captain America, Iron Man, or Thor, but it still shines light on all of the cool things that Jim Valentino and Steve Gerber and Jim Starlin and even Jack Kirby (and so many more) created throughout Marvel Comics’ illustrious history. And I’m sorry if this is spoiler material, but I was super stoked to see a Watcher, finally. And there was something very surreal about seeing most of the original-original comic book Guardians of the Galaxy together on screen. It may have been the highpoint of the film for me. If Marvel Studios wants to create a separate sub-brand that deals only in the Marvel Cosmic universe, James Gunn would be the perfect guy to spearhead that endeavor, if only he would stop trying to write terrible, unfunny jokes. As a longtime fan of all things Marvel Cosmic, I welcome seeing more — more races, more heroes, more celestials, more history, more planets, and maybe, one day, even Galactus, if 20th Century Fox would only play ball.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a fun, epic, visually stunning romp through a part of the Marvel Comics universe that is seldom seen, and rarely mentioned. While the forced jokes mostly fall flat (maybe 10-year-olds will enjoy them), these are characters that resonate well with audiences, and the closing credits announce right off the bat that the Guardians of the Galaxy will return. Also, be warned that there are five mid-credits scenes, a few being more jokes, and one huge stinger that sets up the events to come, not only in the Guardians films, but also in the greater story of the Infinity Gauntlet.
If the first film served as an introduction to this universe and these characters, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the first real attempt at universe building, and for that, it succeeds. The seeds are planted for much more to come, not only here, but in the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe going forward, and when all is said and done, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 will be known as a transitional film. For long time fans, these are exciting times. For new fans, or fans of only the MCU films, things are about to get crazy — crazier than a talking raccoon and a dancing tree. And I, for one, can’t wait to see it all unfold.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is rated PG-13 and is in theaters on May 5.
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