A lot has been written about what a surprise hit Guardians of the Galaxy was when it landed back in 2014, but it bears repeating: Marvel Studios really did accomplish the unthinkable in making a big budget film about an obscure superhero team – which including talking raccoons and trees, no less! – into one of the most critically and commercially successful blockbusters of that year.
Fast forward three years and the inevitable follow-up, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, has finally arrived to considerable anticipation. In promoting the film, returning director James Gunn promised fans something different, but in reality, this second go-round doesn’t really diverge too much from the formula laid down by its predecessor.
But then, when that formula produces such fun end results, does anyone really care if Vol.2 simply offers more of the same?
Picking up several months after the end of the first instalment, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 sees Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) on the run from the Sovereign, a snobby – and (somewhat justifiably) pissed off – alien race, led by golden goddess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki).
The team is aided in their escape by Ego (Kurt Russell), Quill’s long-lost, uber-powerful alien father, and his companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a naive, innocent creature able to read and influence the emotions of others.
With the Sovereign still on their tail – not to mention space pirates The Ravagers, who have mutinied against former leader Yondu (Michael Rooker) – the Guardians accept Ego’s offer to take refuge on his planet, however Gamora soon begins to suspect Quill’s dad and his associate are hiding a dark secret, and that the team (and the entire galaxy itself) may actually be in terrible danger…
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 is easily as much of an enjoyable romp as the original Guardians outing. While it might not be as effortlessly cool and obviously can’t hope to pack the same unexpected punch as that film, Vol.2 still manages to soar thanks to the same blend of irreverent humour, colourful visuals, hyperactive imagination and killer tunes.
While Gunn’s screenplay excels once again on the “witty banter” front, it doesn’t boast the tightest plot, with the narrative mostly just hopping from one bravura set piece to the next, stopping for breath only when it needs to set-up up the next slickly choreographed dust-up (the last of which goes on for far too long).
It’s during these moments that we’re also allowed to spend a bit of quality time with our heroes and villains, and as with the first movie, when this character development takes place is when the flick tends to shine brightest.
This is as much down to the acting as it is to the script, and much like last time around, everybody really delivers the goods, with every clever barb or heartfelt line delivered with relish by a cast who clearly enjoy playing these characters as much as Gunn does writing about them.
For his part, Pratt is as likeable as ever as Quill, while Saldana continues to do a lot with what is essentially the “straight man” role of the team. Similarly, Rooker remains perfectly cast as space redneck Yondu, while Karen Gillan is given more to do this time around as Gamora’s twisted sister Nebula, and makes the most of the opportunity.
Turning to the CG-thespian side of the things, Cooper’s vocals continue to manage the impressive juggling act of being both obnoxious and loveable, and the heavily-modulated voice of Vin Diesel manages to wring as much of a performance out of the same three words as could be expected.
Looking at the newcomers, Russell is a good fit for Ego, radiating charm undercut with self-involvement, Klementieff does a solid line in “naive/innocent outsider”, and Debicki manages to elevate yet another underwritten Marvel villain thanks to a delightfully haughty turn.
And then there are Vol.2’s visuals, which – in all their refreshingly full spectrum, day-glo, prog rock glory – are more inventive than those in virtually any other blockbuster film in recent memory.
With Marvel Studio’s films threatening to become ever more “same-same” in order to better unify the wider franchise, it’s comforting to see Gunn and his crew still being allowed to follow their own quirky sensibilities in what remains (aside from a few shoutouts and clever nods) largely their own corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Indeed, the design work in Vol.2 is outstanding and the CGI cutting edge, with the army of visual effects artists responsible for bringing Rocket and Baby Groot (officially the cutest thing you’ve ever seen) to life deserving particular praise.
All that said, the real star of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 is in many ways its soundtrack. As with the first Guardians film, each licensed track has been perfectly chosen to heighten the moment, and as with before (maybe even more so) have been woven into the fabric of the story itself.
It’s a story that essentially boils down to one key theme: family.
About how, more often than not, it’s the people we fight with, who drive us crazy and who occasionally hurt our feelings, who matter the most to us.
It’s also about how being part of a family means more than just being biologically connected, and how you can create a family for yourself out of the people who love you and have your back.
Like a lot of what Vol.2 has to offer, this thematic subtext is hardly groundbreaking stuff – but it’s clear that Gunn genuinely means it. That’s why it’s a bit of a shame that, much like the Guardians themselves, the movie isn’t ever 100% comfortable fully expressing its feelings.
In fact, it seems like almost every time things threaten to get emotionally sincere, Gunn rushes to undercut the mood with humour, as if fearing that Vol.2 exposing its emotional core would cost it too many cool points – as was the case with its predecessor, this also means that at least a few of the scenes meant to tug at your heartstrings don’t do so as much as you’d like them to, which is a shame.
Still, enough of these moments land to ensure that you’ll experience something a bit deeper than just non-stop guffaws before the credits role, and really, it would feel wrong for a flick this single-mindedly driven towards giving its audience a good time to get too heavy
When all is said and done, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 is a worthy follow up to the original Guardians film; an unashamed crowd pleaser that stands tall amidst a sea of po-faced action blockbusters, and with Gunn set to helm Vol.3, here’s hoping our heroes’ greatest hits have yet to come!