Comic books are weird. Over so many decades of history, we’ve got characters of all species across all dimensions and planets and timelines, all going on convoluted adventures that get retconned to pieces later on. This has of course created storylines and properties so bizarre that they would seem impossible to adapt into a mainstream motion picture, and so obscure (even among comics fans!) that they didn’t seem worth the effort.
And then James Gunn came along.
Guardians of the Galaxy was a massive game-changer to a degree that can hardly be overstated. We weren’t talking about household names like Captain America or The Hulk. We weren’t even talking about B-listers like Iron Man or Nick Fury (prior to their respective film adaptations, of course). We were talking about a rotating roster of Z-listers, every one so obscure and outlandish that precious few knew the first thing about any of them.
Yet Gunn chose a handful of those characters, bringing them to the screen with style and wit in abundance. And he didn’t even stop with the Guardians — he introduced the world at large to Yondu, Ronan, the Nova Corps, the Collector, Cosmo the Space Dog, and freaking Howard the Duck. (No, that old LucasFilm bomb doesn’t count and you know it.)
All of this served as a reminder that the world of comic books (Marvel in this particular case, but it applies to DC as well) is so much greater than anyone in the mainstream could realize. It humbled the newcomers and gave them a reason to take an interest in the comics they never knew about. Moreover, it emboldened the fans — the ones who knew about all of this minutiae before it was cool — letting them know that the filmmakers hadn’t forgotten them. It was a reminder that these films are being made by people who know and love the comics just as much as the most seasoned fanatic.
Perhaps most importantly, it gave filmmakers a greater license to go outside the norm, proving that they could be rewarded for defying formula and adapting deeper cuts if the work was done with sincerity and the resulting film was a quality product. To wit, it’s hard to believe that Marvel would have gone ahead with their take on Doctor Strange without Guardians under their belt first. And over at Fox, Guardians finally gave them the confidence to shut up, get out of the way, and give us the Deadpool film we always wanted. As for DC? Shit, they’ve already given us parademons, mother boxes, and a looming showdown with Darkseid by way of Steppenwolf. If they plan on going any deeper into the utterly bonkers New Gods lore, they’re only going to succeed by standing on the shoulders of James Gunn.
So here’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which pretty much doubles down on many of the aspects that made its predecessor such a massive hit. And for that, while the film is admittedly far from perfect, I’d say it makes for a perfectly worthy sequel.
To start with, the theme of family is still very much present. This is admittedly not a new concept in cinema: For instance, Fast and Furious (another franchise featuring Vin Diesel and Kurt Russell) talks about family like they get paid by the f-word. But there’s a crucial difference: The grating comic relief aside, the characters of Fast and Furious are all insanely attractive, an impeccably cohesive team, and consistently smooth. Compare that to the team of fuckups, assholes, and criminal scoundrels that are the Guardians of the Galaxy.
It’s easy to be part of something greater when you’re socially acceptable. It’s something far more special — and more difficult — for misfits and outcasts to come together and stay together and be part of something greater. That’s what this franchise has always been about, and it makes for a specially innovative hook in a cinematic genre built on demigods. Though mercifully, the theme is expressed in ways more varied and interesting than the blunt repetition we got in the first film.
To that end, we’ve got a wide array of antagonists who are all far and away more interesting than Ronan (easily one of the weakest villains in the MCU to date, which is saying something). My personal favorite is Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the head priestess of a species calling themselves The Sovereign. The whole species strives for perfection in all things, holding themselves to the highest possible standards of beauty and grace. They’re insufferably proud and the film loves to take the piss out of them at every opportunity.
The other big highlight is of course Ego, played by Kurt Russell. The trailers have already spoiled that he’s the father to Peter “Star-Lord” Quill, and Marvel’s flawless de-aging technology is once again used to show as much in a flashback. And while Ego was not Peter’s dad in the comic (which makes for a better film, in my opinion), longtime fans went crazy over Ego’s inclusion for a totally different reason.
See… Ego is a planet. He’s a sentient living planet, with control over every rock and blade of grass on his surface. In this case, he uses that degree of precise control to create a human body and go visiting other planets for a time. Even so, Ego is a case study in why it sucks to be immortal. There’s nothing else like him out there, and he’s lived longer than any other life form in the universe. His loneliness drives him to do terrible things, it contrasts beautifully with our heroes’ concept of togetherness (especially given Peter’s blood ties to Ego), and it makes him a more compelling villain. Of course, it certainly helps that Ego’s involvement is a satisfying payoff to a lot of setups in the first film, and Russell’s delightful performance is another big help.
(Side note: Such a damn shame we’ll never get a big-screen showdown between Ego and Galactus.)
The other big contingent of antagonists comes by way of the Ravagers. In the first film, we only knew the Ravagers as a crew of space pirates led by Yondu (Michael Rooker once again). In this film, we learn that there are actually a hundred Ravager factions, and Yondu’s crew was excommunicated from all the rest over a violation of their code. And Yondu has to deal with a mutiny as the plot unfolds.
(Side note: This is also the movie in which Yondu gets a bitchin’ new head fin that’s slightly more in keeping with his look in the comics.)
So the Guardians are a team of outcasts fighting against a team of outcasts. The difference is that while both teams are mercenary assholes, there’s something the Guardians have that Yondu’s team doesn’t. More specifically, while the Guardians may bicker to an unhealthy degree, there’s still an undercurrent of genuine compassion between them that simply isn’t there with the Ravagers.
Time and again, the movie portrays how people within a unit can love each other and always be there for each other, even as they hate each other and fight over petty differences. Thus we have an examination of bonds between “siblings”, which builds on the established relationships to bring us something that could never have been possible in the previous film.
Though to be fair, the previous film did have a heavy emphasis on parents (Peter’s parents, Thanos and his daughters, Drax with his dead wife and daughter, etc.) and that is still definitely present here. The matter of Peter’s parentage is obviously central to the plot, ditto for his relationship to adoptive “father” Yondu. Drax’s wife and daughter get a few mentions, and there’s a neat scene about Rocket’s origins as well (even if that scene really should have gone to Peter instead of who it actually went to, but I guess Peter had enough to do as it is). And while Thanos never actually appears, his shadow looms heavy over Gamora and Nebula (once again respectively played by Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan).
Incidentally, Nebula makes for a powerful wild card in this movie. After alienating herself from her father and everyone else in the galaxy, everybody’s kept guessing as to what her endgame is. Suffice to say that it involves a lot of fighting with Gamora, which brings us back to the “sibling rivalry” theme.
As for the Guardians themselves, they’re basically the same eccentric squabbling A-holes we all know and love from the first film. Peter (Chris Pratt) is still grappling for position as the de facto leader, though I’m sorry to say that he doesn’t pull any of the double-crosses or sleight of hand that made him so memorable in the previous film. His comic timing is still wonderful, however, even if he isn’t quite the trickster of before.
Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is shown on multiple occasions to be his own worst enemy. While he does show some wicked skills with technology and piloting, he consistently proves himself to be a “professional asshole” above all else. Rockets comes to the realization that he keeps deliberately driving people away and acting in a self-destructive manner, and it’s actually a sweet little development arc.
Drax (Dave Bautista) was easily my least favorite character from the previous film, and I got no small amount of flak for that from my correspondents. Luckily, Bautista’s comedic talent has greatly improved since the last film. Plus, Drax’s socially inept shtick is so much funnier when it’s bouncing off of people who know and expect it from him but still don’t know what he’s going to say or do at any given moment. Also, now that his obsession with revenge has passed (for now, anyways), Drax can instead obsess over doing right by his friends, which is far more endearing.
Something else that helps Drax is the inclusion of Mantis, here played by Pom Klementieff. She was raised alone, as Ego’s pet empath. (It’s a long story.) So she can read emotions and even affect them to some degree, but she doesn’t know very much about how to deal with people. She and Drax get along famously. Unfortunately, while it was refreshing to have someone with such a radically different power set join the team, she sadly proves rather ineffectual during the climax.
Getting back to the returning Guardians, Groot (Vin Diesel) is easily the one who took the biggest step backwards. Now a mere toddler after the events of the first film, Groot is little more than comic relief this time, and his plant-based powers are barely utilized. Then again, given how insanely overpowered Groot was in the previous film, hitting him with a Nerf bat was probably the right call. Moreover, the character’s charm and good humor are 100 percent intact, and that’s really what people know and love about Groot anyway. Also, Vin Diesel doesn’t get nearly enough appreciation for how insanely talented he is as a voice actor.
Last but not least, Gamora is the unwitting mother figure for these boys running around. This makes for effective comedy, as she plays the “straight man” for all the petty bickering going on around her. It’s also — I suspect — a huge part of why a romance arc between her and Peter will never ever work. And while it never goes beyond teasing in this movie, I hope it’s dropped for good and all after this one. Little chance, but a guy can hope.
Moving on, the action scenes are suitably epic, with more than enough space battles and shootouts to keep anyone happy. It also helps that the plot had so much more at stake than some MacGuffin and a political conflict we never had any reason to care about. What’s more, this movie carries over the previous film’s deft touch for comic relief breaks in the middle of the action without slowing anything down too much. For the most part. Yes, we do get another emotional scene that grinds everything to a dead stop for far too long, but at least this one happens at the very end instead of mid-climax.
Then we have the humor. Gunn’s comic timing is pitch-perfect, with an uncanny skill for knowing precisely when to cut the tension and which character to make fun of. Additionally, while the first movie had plenty of pop culture references, this one goes all out. The jokes and references are so random, flying in so quickly from so many different directions, that the element of surprise is in full effect. Even when we’re hit with product placement, it comes off as just another random sight gag.
Regarding the visuals, I deeply regret seeing the picture in 2D. The filmmakers so obviously crafted every last detail to be seen in 3D that I wish I could’ve seen if their grasp met their reach. The music is of course another huge factor — especially given the popularity of the previous film’s soundtrack — and this film’s playlist is more retro goodness. In fact, one song is quoted at length to make a prominent thematic point.
We’ve also got the aforementioned Ravager factions all throughout the cosmos. And they’re led by such talents as Sylvester Stallone, Ving Rhames, Michael Rosenbaum, Michelle Yeoh, and freaking Miley Cyrus. Either all of these actors were brought in for a quick one-off cameo, or these characters and their armies will be serving as troops in the Infinity War. Could go either way, but I’d bet on the latter.
(Side note: Speaking of random cameos, Seth Green appears briefly to reprise Howard the Duck, opposite a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her appearance from Molly Quinn. And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the David Hasselhoff gag. As with pretty much all of Gunn’s films, there are way too many other cameos for me to list here.)
Last but not least, one of the credits stingers (there are no less than five of them this time, swear to God) heralds the imminent arrival of a character central to the Infinity War. This introduction has been a long time coming — anyone who knows anything about the comic storyline has spent the past decade wondering how this character could be adapted to the MCU, or how the storyline could be adapted without such a bizarre and obscure construct. And it’s characters like him who are precisely why we and the MCU need this franchise.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is perfectly serviceable as its own film and as a sequel. It’s random and bizarre — often too much so for its own good — but at least the characters are interesting and the humor is effective. I also appreciate how the filmmakers aren’t afraid to let their characters be assholes — the characters are so much more compelling and their bonds are so much more meaningful precisely because they’re so deeply flawed. More than that, I am sincerely grateful that we have someone who’s willing to dredge up the most outlandish concepts that the MCU has to offer and make them accessible to the mainstream while also keeping the fans happy.
This is definitely a film worth seeing, and worth seeing in 3D.