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. What else would you call turning a budget film about an obscure superhero team – a misfit outfit that counts a talking raccoon and tree among its ranks! – 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 arrived to considerably greater anticipation. Writer-director James Gunn has helped fuel this excitement, promising fans something different for his second outing in the director’s chair. However, in reality, this latest go-round doesn’t really diverge too much from the formula laid down by its predecessor – the big screen equivalent of a fun riff on a familiar tune.
But when that formula produces such fun end results, does anyone really care if Vol.2 simply offers more of the same?
Picking up shortly after 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 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 creature able to read and influence the emotions of others. With the Sovereign still on their tail – not to 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 Ego and his associate are hiding a dark secret, one that threatens not only the team, but the entire galaxy itself…
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 as that film, Vol.2 still manages to soar thanks to the same blend of irreverent humour, colourful visuals, hyperactive imagination and killer tunes.
Indeed, Vol.2’s visuals, which – in all their full spectrum, Day-Glo, prog rock glory – are more inventive than those in any other blockbuster film in recent memory. With Marvel Studios’ films threatening to become ever more “same-same”, it’s refreshing to see Gunn and his crew unleash their own quirky sensibilities in what remains largely their own corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 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 to life deserving particular praise.
That said, the knock-out visuals in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 barely register compared to the film’s 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.
Yet while Gunn’s screenplay excels in this regard – and somewhat predictably, on the “witty banter” front, too – it doesn’t boast the tightest plot. Instead, the narrative mostly just hops 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 brief moments of downtime that we get to know our heroes and villains a little better, and as with the first Guardians movie, this is when the flick tends to shine brightest.
That these scenes (or the film itself) ultimately work is as much down to the acting as it is to the script. Like last time around, everybody really delivers the goods, 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, and Karen Gillan makes the most of her expanded screen time as Gamora’s twisted sister Nebula. The vocal-only performers deliver the goods too; Cooper continues the impressive juggling act of being both obnoxious and loveable, and the heavily-modulated voice of Vin Diesel wrings as much of a performance out of the same three words as could be hoped!
Then there are the newcomers. Russell is a good fit for Ego, radiating charm undercut with self-involvement, Klementieff does a solid line in “innocent outsider”, and Debicki manages to elevate yet another underwritten MCU villain thanks to a delightfully haughty turn.
It’s thanks to the chemistry of the cast that Gunn is able to sell Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2‘s emotional beats. This is a story that essentially boils down to one key theme – family, biological and adopted, in all its beautiful, infuriating splendour – and the affection and easy interplay of the actors really bring this to life. Like a lot of what Vol.2 has to offer, this thematic subtext is hardly ground-breaking stuff, but it’s clear that Gunn and the cast genuinely mean it.
Unfortunately, much like the Guardians themselves, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 never seems 100% comfortable fully expressing its feelings. 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 with its predecessor, this means a few of the scenes in Vol.2 meant to tug at our heartstrings don’t pack the emotional punch that should – although, to his credit, Gunn does pull off a suitably moving finale.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 is a worthy follow up to the original Guardians film; an unabashed crowd pleaser, it stands tall amid 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!
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