Perception is everything when it comes to pulling off a magic trick. James Gunn‘s 2014 space opera Guardians of the Galaxy hit audiences from the side, upending the narrative and character constructs we’d come to expect from Marvel films to create a constant stream of delight. Gunn delivered one subversive surprise after the next with the confident hand of a cinematic alchemist, conjuring something entirely new out of familiar elements.
With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Gunn attempts to recapture that strange magic while fulfilling sequel expectations for more action and bigger world-building. By and large, he succeeds. Vol. 2 is uproariously funny (it will no doubt be one of the most vocal theatrical audiences you’ll experience this year), possessing the same wit and wonder of the first film with a doubled down intent to explore what makes his heroes tick. But for all its strengths, Vol. 2 can never quite clear the impossibly high bar set by the first film. Part of that, no doubt, stems from the fact that we’ve seen this trick before. We know how it works now, and in a time where the Marvel Cinematic Universe has absorbed and repackaged much of Guardians‘ weirdness, from the strangeness and splendor promised by Thor: Ragnarok to the 80s arcade-tinged logo’s that populate Marvel’s upcoming slate, what once seemed irreverent now seems like the mold.
Vol. 2 follows in the footsteps of the first film, setting the scene on Earth, where we meet a digitally de-aged Kurt Russell as Ego, the charming and floofy-haired spaceman who also happens to be Peter Quill’s father. Cut to 34 years later, and we catch up with our Guardians — Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, Dave Bautista‘s Drax the Destroyer, Vin Deisel‘s (baby) Groot, Bradley Cooper‘s Rocket Raccoon and Chris Pratt‘s Peter Quill — who have been hired by the High Priestess of the Sovereign (Elizabeth Debicki) to protect the cherished Anulax batteries from a tentacled space beast. The gang is back, and working like — well, not quite a well-oiled machine, but maybe a lightly oiled machine as they work around each other’s idiosyncrasies to get the job done.
Our team of intergalactic oddballs has evolved since we last saw them, settling into their roles and taking a group parenting approach to dealing with Baby Groot, who’s more reckless and daft than ever. A pint-sized murderous force, lil’ Groot is almost too cute to look at; an agent of chaos, raising tiny little havoc wherever he goes. Such is the state of the Guardians, who function through semi-organized chaos, not quite a cohesive unit, but undoubtedly a family. Borrowing a page from the Star Wars playbook, Gunn splits up that family in short order, sending them on far-flung adventures and putting obstacle after obstacle in their path as they try to reunite.
The film’s greatest strength is the respect and genuine interest it has for its ensemble. Gunn loves his pack of weirdos, and for the sequel, he dives a bit deeper into the mess of emotional and psychological scars define them, carefully making space for each character to grow over the course of a very crowded film. It helps that Vol. 2 is given a reprieve from the burden of actively advancing the larger MCU narrative in favor of honing in on this pivotal moment in the Guardians’ arc. There are no Infinity Stones. Thanos is mentioned, but never appears, and the extent of his villainy is finally revealed by showing us the lasting effects of his evils deed gone by rather than the sinister machinations of his evil deeds to come.
At it’s core, Vol. 2 is a family drama by way of space adventure. If Guardians of the Galaxy was about building a family, Vol. 2 is about the constant sacrifice it takes to keep a family together — the willingness to be vulnerable, to be honest, to take the hard road when necessary, and to put the we before the I. “We are Groot.” Groot forged the team into a family through the fires of self-sacrifice but what does it mean to live in it together, every day, when each member has built an identity based around being a lone outsider?
The film is also straight up about daddy issues, and everybody’s got ‘em. Quill’s arc takes center stage when he finally meets his mysterious father, Ego, the charismatic and incredibly powerful man who is poised to either finally fulfill Peter’s need for fatherly love or cement his life-long disappointment. But the rest of the team travels similar arcs, all rooted in the theme of parantage and family.
Gamora and Nebula’s relationship gets the much-needed attention it deserves, giving both women something substantial to chew on this time around. Gamora has always been the consummate pro on the team, and her superhuman physical feats remain a wonder to behold, but this time Gunn leaves room to fill out her arc beyond that of the galaxy’s most fearful mercenary. Everything that was hinted at in the Guardians is spelled out in chilling detail in Vol. 2 as Gamora and Nebula search to rekindle the spark of sisterhood between them that Thanos’ cruelty threatened to extinguish. They often do this through combat, and Gunn is wise to let the action do much of the talking, but there is a surprising resonance to their relationship this time around, which takes on the tone abused children trying to learn how to love again. Likewise, Rocket continues to struggle with his grief over being created by people who never gave a damn about him, and the resulting nihilism that keeps him from the connection he so desperately craves. He also gets some fancy new gadgets to play with.
On the flip side, there’s Drax, who continues to cope with the death of his family and sense of failure as a father. The hyper-literal bruiser develops an unexpected affinity for Pom Klementieff‘s Mantis, Ego’s strange, empathic companion, who reminds Drax of his daughter and shares his complete lack of social skills. Klementieff is an excellent addition to the team, and fans will no doubt welcome Mantis’ distinct brand of kooky charm with open arms. Finally, there’s Michael Rooker‘s Yondu, who is Vol. 2’s secret weapon. Yondu took on the role of secondary antagonist in the first film, but here he joins the ranks of the world’s weirdest heroes as he comes to terms with his complicated feelings toward Quill, the half-human boy he snatched from the Earth and kept aboard his ship for mysterious reasons. Rooker is extraordinary in the role, walking away with the film as he snarls and snarks his way through the uncomfortable emotional territory. As for Groot? Well, he doesn’t have much to do besides be cute, but he’s a baby, what do you want?
If that all sounds a bit heavy, it is, and Vol. 2 occasionally struggles with tonal imbalance. The script isn’t a tight as the first film, and lacks the propulsive flow of action. It’s both funnier and darker than the first film, and splitting up the team means that Gunn has to constantly cut across the narratives, making for some jarring transitions along the way. You’ll have a smile plastered on your face most of the way through, until a moment sneaks up on you and you find yourself choking back tears. But those cathartic beats sometimes feel cut short, ricocheting you back into the fun zone before you absorb the full impact. The needle drops, dancing, and 80s references still delight and they’re responsible for some side-splitting moments, but that gleeful goofiness threatens to topple over into self-indulgence when they chip into a heartfelt moment, diminishing the emotional investment the film worked so hard to earn. The nature of the story calls for a tricky tonal tightrope, and while never falls off, he makes some jarring missteps along the way. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, those franchise trademarks can feel like distracting packaging.
It should be noted that the visuals are astounding, and you should expect to see them on the Academy shortlist when the time comes around. Gunn amps up the candy-colored world he created in the first film into a full-blown cinematic Aurora Borealis of glistening jewel tones and glinting gold. Along with heaps of impressive practical makeup, the digital effects work is exquisite, not only in service of the spectacular environments (Ego’s planet being a highlight) but much more importantly, rendering CGI and motion capture characters like Groot and Rocket with precise emotional integrity. Gunn is also gifted at directing in a CG environment, crafting set-pieces from unexpected vantage points and taking full advantage of the technology at his disposal to immerse you 360 in his fantastical world. The film doesn’t have any set-pieces as memorable as the prison escape sequence from Guardians, but there’s no denying that Gunn knows his way around genre, and having him behind the camera gives Vol. 2 an edge of exciting showmanship.
Ultimately, Vol. 2 can’t quite live up to the legacy of the first film, but it’s got everything you could want from a big superhero spectacle and then some. If you came for big laughs and good tunes, you’re going to get that, plus a surprising amount of emotional poignancy, and once you see what Gunn has in store for the Guardians, you’ll be happy he’s already confirmed to finish their arcs in the final film of the trilogy. However, if they hype machine has you expecting the best Marvel movie yet, you would be well served to adjust your expectations accordingly.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opens May 5