by Michael Henley
There are countless delights to be enjoyed in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, but one of the biggest is a meta-reveal that comes early: this is an expensive, corporate-made genre sequel that somehow has been mostly routed around the blizzard of studio memos in order to preserve its funky, anarchic spirit. Plenty of sci-fi adventures, no matter how colorful, have a stately feel. But Guardians 2, like its predecessor, doesn’t feel programmed—it feels like the work of funny, smart-aleck kids who have taken over the toy store and want to party all night. It’s rare to see a summer blockbuster made with such unsupervised joy.
There was perhaps reason to worry. The original 2014 Guardians was an irreverent, goofy and altogether charming entertainment. But that was an experiment, and now this is a franchise, one that is an intrinsic part of Marvel’s interconnected movie empire. But not much of that seems to matter to Guardians 2, which is fine with doubling down on all the idiosyncrasies that made the original such a fizzy lifting drink of a movie. Of course everyone you would want to see is back: Chris Pratt’s roguish space pirate Star-Lord, Zoe Saldana’s green-skinned warrior Gamora, Dave Bautista’s good-hearted muscle man Drax. We even have returning Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel reprising their roles as the rageaholic rodent and the living tree Groot, respectively (Groot, for what it’s worth, having been reincarnated as a wee baby sprout).
We know we’re in good hands when an opening sequence’s battle royale against a hideous star beast is backgrounded so that pint-sized Groot can jam to a 70’s hits mixtape blaring ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” (Guardians 1 was a movie in love with its incongruous classic rock soundtrack, and #2 continues the tradition—to talk tracklists would be unfair). In an unbroken shot, Groot dances and shakes as his crewmates fight a mostly-offscreen titanic clash, occasionally breaking into frame to slam to the ground or ask Groot to get out of the way. It’s audacious and arresting, and it’s very very funny.
See, this is what you get, in all its glory, when you hire James Gunn (who before the first Guardians made nifty smaller things like Slither and Super) to direct your Marvel movie. There is a plot, more or less, in Guardians 2, as well as your standard-issue universe-shattering third act and teases for sequels and spinoffs and hidden corners of the Marvel ‘verse. But they’re all treated with a certain, puckish irreverence. It’s clear that writer/director Gunn (who made his bones in the Troma grindmill before graduating to bigger and bigger studio pictures) cares more about both his specific, kooky characters and his opportunities to puncture clichés with jokes and references and twists on the familiar.
Examples? Oh, several. There’s that consistent soundtrack again, which at one point underscores a violent spectacle with bizarrely balletic elan. There’s an alien attack where the combatants are piloting drones from futuristic arcade cabinets (and later crowd around the high-scorer like extras from The Last Starfighter). Later a jailbreak sequence that’s punctuated by a series of escalating comic misunderstandings that serve as flawless visual comedy. One climactic bit of score-settling owes more than a nod to the scene everyone remembers from North by Northwest, even the people who have never seen it. And when a absentee father and his mopish son try to capture a bit of much-belated family bonding, they do it by playing catch with a conjured-up energy sphere. It’s as silly as it sounds, and every step of the way, Gunn knows that and leads into it. All in the spirit of good fun.
That mysterious father, by the way, is Peter Quill (Star-Lord)’s dad, and also a godlike immortal energy being named Ego (played with a devilish twinkle by Kurt Russell). Upon finding Quill, he scoops up Peter, Gamora and Drax and brings them to his homeworld, where he explains his history in a museum exhibit dedicated to his own exploits, while his companion, the mousy alien empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff) watches nervously, keeping her own thoughts to herself. She forms a bond with the socially impaired Drax that is sweet in its own, reservedly sentimental way.
Rocket and Groot, left behind to fend for themselves, are soon shuttled to a subplot involving mutinous space pirates captained by Michael Rooker’s scene-stealing Youndou, who proves that even in distant corners of the galaxy there are still good-hearted rednecks (and in a script full of contenders, he gets the film’s best line). Flitting between the movie’s bifurcated stories is Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora’s embittered cyborg sister, who is good at making shady deals and flying off in a rage, but is bad at hugging and learning. Gillan, always welcome, is given more to do than she had in Guardians 1, uses her strong comic timing here to make Nebula a bundle of intriguing contradictions: sometimes a pragmatist, sometimes a bundle of rage, sometimes capable of a Mae West-style-come on, sometimes sourly arch, never overly precious. This is trickier than it sounds.
It’s perhaps inevitable, of course, that certain things will happen in this story that I’ve outlined for you. Perhaps Ego will be more than what he seems, or the opportunistic Youndou will reveal a real heart, and that despite the problems the Guardians have (“All you do is argue,” correctly snarls Nebula at one point), there’s true familial bonds beneath the bickering, ones that perhaps run more deeply than biological ones. The tension between real families and makeshift ones has been a standard story point in superhero epics (Who’s Superman’s real dad, after all?) And it’s a reliable trope, probably because eclectic emotional bonds are more interesting and versatile than shiny happy people.
Is Guardians 2 as good as the first? Almost, but not quite. The original was tight as a drum in its construction. In this one there’s probably a few too many scenes in the middle of characters sitting down and pontificating on their own tortured histories. And this one scrubs not just the original’s sense of surprise, but pretty much all surprise. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or Rocket) to figure out where these plot threads might be going. But formula is bad mainly when its done poorly, and Gunn’s third act is a bravura action setpiece that peppers in solid humor with strong emotional throughlines. We’ve seen countless huge battles with the fate of the world (or worlds) hanging in the balance, but Guardians 2 actually made me care more than once about who was fighting, and why, even when at one point one of them decides to…well, I’d spoil one of the film’s best sight gags/pop culture references but…well, you know how it is.
And what a gorgeous movie this is to look at, too. Ego’s home planet is a lush and vibrant biosphere that recalls the visual palettes of 70’s album and paperback covers (or, perhaps more to the point, some of the wonkier old pages of Marvel Comics). The whole landscape is obviously dreamed up in a computer, but somehow Gunn, his cinematographer and designers have conspired to make it feel real in an otherworldly-but-tactile way rather than stagebound and flat. I loved the little moment when a despondent Gamora sits in the alien grass, and Gunn cuts to a wide shot as the whole eerie planetscape silently regards her.
And more than even last time I admired the splashy, colorful design elements: the neat futuristic cities (Baby Groot at one point gazes at a receding planet like a Garfield hanger), the gorgeous and detailed starscapes, Nebula’s blue and purple complexion, the green saplings peeking out of Groot’s hair, the pink highlights in Gamora’s green skin…and then there’s a visit to an alien planet run by a matriarch (a wonderful, though brief, turn by Elizabeth Debicki) who must have Goldfinger on retainer as an aesthetic director. More than before, Gunn’s paintbox is big and bold and pushes the envelope. But we could tell that with that opening scene with the star beast, where the monster belches pounds of rainbow-colored glitter. Why? Because it’s a lovely image, that’s why. We go to the movies for things like that. Don’t @ me.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is, as they say, exactly what it says on the tin. If you liked Guardians of the Galaxy, here’s much more of it, turned up to eleven. If you didn’t like Guardians of the Galaxy, you’re good to move on. These are uncertain times. Consistency is nice to have.
Marvel Studios presents a film written and directed by James Gunn. Based on the comic book created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Produced by Kevin Feige. Music by Tyler Bates. Photographed by Henry Braham. Edited by Fred Raskin, Craig Wood. Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell.