As fresh and invigorating as the original was, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 eschews the predictable expectations and heads off into the wild blue yonder. It continues to be endlessly charming (if a bit less effortlessly), but more importantly, it decides to look right down the barrel and confront a plethora of complex and nuanced emotional stakes. That’s right: amidst a script of dick jokes and curveball cameos, there is an impressively heartfelt core.
Picking up from where the first movie left off, the Guardians find themselves working more or less as freelance heroes. In this case, they are under the employ of the Sovereign, a group of genetically engineered aureate people that value propriety above all else, to protect some extraordinarily valuable batteries from a giant sarlacc-like monster. Unfortunately for them, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) decides to steal some of the batteries anyways.
One thing leads to another, and the group ends up crashed on a planet after being saved by a man who claims to be the long-lost father of Guardian leader Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). So Peter, Drax (Dave Bautista), and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) set off with Ego (Kurt Russell) and his valet Mantis (Pom Klementieff) to Ego’s planet while Rocket and Groot (Vin Diesel) hang back to repair the ship and keep an eye on the captured Nebula (Karen Gillan).
There’s a lot of unpack here. The first Guardians set up a good amount of drama, but it paid very little of it off. Even the big culminating moment of Quill using his mom’s memory to find strength felt a bit hollow. (The “We are Groot” moment still lands, though.) In this sequel, writer/director James Gunn aims to take everyone’s origins and develop them meaningfully.
Most interestingly, he attempts to do so within the group itself rather than with direct confrontation of the base issue. Granted, that often means expanding what you’d consider the core group of Guardians, but it’s a subtle and deft move to redirect the conflict internally rather than externally. Rocket, for instance, continues to carry the albatross of being a permanently out-of-place entity for being manufactured, but his arc brings him to solace through an unexpected but entirely valid route and character.
Not every character gets commensurate treatment, however. Drax’s interminable mourning does really grow much more than being a few moments of transitory poignancy and the butt of a few jokes. Nor does Quill’s love for his mother evolve beyond a more potent form of the previous film’s resolution.
No matter the growth, though, they all form an interesting bit of web. Quill’s relationship with his father creates the foundation that everyone else juts out of, but it all folds back in. Quill and Gamora, Gamora and Nebula. Quill and Yondu, Yondu and Rocket. The supersized conclusion capitalizes on this interdependency and makes the resolution feel far bigger than it seems to end up being, reminiscent of Gunn’s Super in fantastic ways.
The writing, for the most part, carries forward the same sort of purposeful irreverence as it had before. Gunn’s penchant for simple, dressed down humor that lands with pugilistic efficacy is on full display here. It doesn’t feel as effortless as the first Guardians, the shotgun blast of invigoration now a bit more tempered, but it doesn’t ever feel like that new guy at work trying way too hard to be your friend.
It’s very clear, though, that Gunn is an avid Marvel fan long before the MCU. He weaves in an incredible number of Howard the Duck-level in-jokes and references that seems to be just as much for him as they are for us. (Original Guardians? Hot damn!) And then there’s just the sheer audacity of involving Ego at all, the living planet of the Marvel Universe, and making him a goddamn Celestial. Woooo nelly.
Expanding on the first film, too, is the raw and undiluted desire of Gunn to put this movie on permanent visual overdrive. He previously touched on a bit of this when the Guardians first visited Nowhere, but this entire production is untethered now, and it is beautiful. Much like how Pacific Rim used its deeply rich colors to present a sort of hyper reality, Gunn uses colors to create a reality that is simply hyper.
This gives cinematographer Henry Braham a great deal of laterality to work with, crafting several shots on the order of stunning. The more intimate action scenes may be edited a bit roughly, but this movie doesn’t ever look not terrific. And that’s in no small part due to the entirety of the film’s art department because everything is bonkers but awesome. Perhaps more than even Doctor Strange, this is something to put your peepers on.
In any given moment, this movie is a joy. It even leads into a worthwhile conclusion that resolves matters while opening the door to other, equally tantalizing ones. But looking back on it, it’s easy to say that this is a bit too familiar—like riding a favorite roller coaster one more time. That doesn’t stop Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, however, from being one hell of a ride.
Final Score: 8 out of 10