Picking up some time after the ending of the first, the Guardians of the Galaxy are on the run again, after a job from the glorious golden space Nazis the Sovereign, led by High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), went awry. They’re saved after a crash landing by the mysterious Ego (Kurt Russell), a Celestial who reveals himself to be Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) father.
So, like any good test of a team, they split up. Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Quill go off to visit Ego and his assistant Mantis (Pom Klementioff). Meanwhile, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) stay back with their prisoner Nebula (Karen Gillian) as the Ravagers quickly come on their trail.
Let’s get this much out of the way, since I know you’re wondering, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is not as great as Guardians of the Galaxy, for reasons that are almost entirely not its fault. This is by a nose hair, but the fact is that the original was a total surprise, a big weird movie unabashed in what it was and unabashed in its tone and sense of humor. That surprise is gone, and the narrative isn’t quite as tight this time around, there’s not as much a propulsive sense underlining the rocket of fun shooting forward. You almost couldn’t replicate that.
It earnestly comes down to that I can see myself rewatching Guardians of the Galaxy more than I can this one.
But let’s not make the mistake that that means Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t a truly great movie on its own merits, and one that ranks proudly with the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
For every extra bit of excitement the original had, this movie trades for depth, an exploration of the lovable, broken misfits at its center. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 doubles down on the character and thematic work that has made the MCU so great and writer/director James Gunn turns in an entry in this franchise that is as gloriously weird, exciting, and heart-wrenching as one has come to expect.
On the most surface level, I have to praise the visuals of this film. The MCU can be flat visually, so it’s worth praising any film that pops. Boy fuckin’ howdy does Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 pop.
The color in this film is absolutely gorgeous, rich and running all across the spectrum. Cinematographer Henry Braham has given this film a rich and deep saturation, with a lot of clear and beautiful lighting that creates images with shades and depth and a very Alex Ross-esque power. There’s an actual pleasure in just looking at this movie, it’s so nice to have a film in color.
But drilling down further, this is a movie about the characters and the stories of their lives. It largely eschews high-flying adventure, this is a movie that has a whole lot of people having conversations about their personal problems. There’s more Linklater conversation than Lucas spectacle.
However, that approach absolutely works. Much of that is on James Gunn, who has such an affection for his weirdos that you feel a certain joy in seeing him spend so much time with them. He’s got such a specific sense of who these people are (part Troma, part Fast and Furious) that letting him expand the world of these characters is about as good as it gets.
His approach is essentially to give all these people rejection in their lives, by fathers, by creeds, by family. Maybe the obvious approach, but misfits feel like misfits for a reason. Gunn helps flesh them out by understanding why they seek each other out, and why we relate with them. He gives them these moments of happiness and shows them why they’re so long earned.
And what’s perhaps best is how simple these moments are. There’s a moment early on where Quill talks about how he never got to play catch with his dad, and you know what will be coming once he finally meets Ego. But it doesn’t take away any of the lump in your throat that you get when it happens.
That keeps happening. Guardians Vol. 2 is a deeply emotional film, one that knows how to pull the heart strings without ever going too far into the schmaltz. An irreverent sense of humor (there’s a pretty off-kilter one liner or physical gag at least once per scene) keeps things breezy, but the moments where it really prods its characters are here to melt stone hearts.
All of that emotionality is also the chance to expand the roles for the characters. Everyone gets an arc, everyone in the film is well-served. But there’s two who steal the show. One is Drax, who perhaps has the thinnest arc, but is perhaps most indicative of what works about this film. Big, goofy, sweet, and irreverent as a character, Bautista finding the shading within his totally literal interpretation of the world is what a sequel should do at its best.
The other is Michael Rooker’s Yondu, who absolutely steals the show. Gunn takes him from a two-note thug to a fully fleshed out…person. Rooker sells the underlying sadness to a lonely criminal like nobody’s business, and the slow reveal of his feelings towards the other characters is aces. The relationship between him and Rocket is particularly well done, props to Cooper for his less cartoony performance this time around.
Guardians is the rare ensemble picture that CAN actually spin its characters off in different directions and still work. They’re satisfying on their own, they’re satisfying paired off, and when they reunite for the big team finish, there’s a certain jubilation in seeing the Guardians together again.
Between the joy of great character, a wicked sense of humor, and enough Marvel paraphernalia to shake a stick at, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is about as good as Marvel movies get. Not breaking the formula, but pushing it to its limits to find what can be good and exceptional about these films.