For all the great characters Marvel Studios have brought to life, none hold a special place in my heart like the five weirdos we met in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Writer/director James Gunn gave us a film that was dripping in personality, totally accessible despite a healthy dose of cosmic lore, and above all was something that felt different and exciting. It’s maybe an unfair criticism then to say it’s not as fresh the second time round, but there’s no denying Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is just a bit less rock-n-roll than the first. Gunn makes a lot of interesting decisions that are sure to split opinions, some of which are absolutely inspired, others… less so. But even though Gunn slows down the tempo for Vol. 2, he never loses sight that this is a story about family, and for all the jokes that land and the story beats that don’t, it’s something very candid and tender that stays with you after the film.
Surprisingly, Vol. 2 actually scales back on the scope of the first film, pushing the overarching story with Thanos and the previous world-building to the background, zeroing in on this dysfunctional family as they get caught up in one of their whacked-out space adventures. Here our titular team of reformed outlaws find themselves fleeing an assault from some former clients they slighted, when they are rescued by Ego (Kurt Russell), an ancient being claiming to be the estranged father of the Guardian’s leader, Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), looking to reconnect with his son. In a way, it feels less like an epic sequel and more like a big episode of a long running sci-fi series, which is both the best and worst thing about this movie.
Since these lost souls found each other in the original they’ve become inseparable, so naturally Gunn takes this opportunity to split them up. On the one hand, this allows us to explore the veterans of the team a little bit more, while easing in the new members. But at the same time, these characters are never better than when they are all bouncing off each other, and we never quite get anything as unassumingly joyous as when the five of them sat around a room trying to put a plan together in the first movie.
It’s worsened by the fact that the core plot is kind of dull, lacking any tangible stakes for most of the runtime, and ending up feeling like a bit of a distraction overall. This leaves our heroes as a passive force in their own narrative, having things happen to them rather than pushing the story along. It does all come together, but the emotional resonance all emerges from what was there already, rendering the actual threats in the movie inconsequential beyond being a catalyst.
All of that said, the story does conclude beautifully and I can’t praise Gunn enough for showing the restraint to allow such a quietly emotional ending to play out. While the main plot about Ego never quite captures you, one of the other characters’ tales is given room to build slowly in the background, setting the stage for them to step into the spotlight at the last minute and bring the whole damn thing together. The final moments of the film are unexpectedly bittersweet and touching, an extremely brave move for a big-budget action/comedy that trades in talking animals and dick-jokes.
Which is to say you can rest assured Vol. 2 still packs the trademark humour of the first movie. Admittedly, it sometimes feels a little less natural this time round (especially for some characters), but the script delivers jokes in such rapid succession you’re sure to find yourself laughing more often than not. A lot of the comedy still comes from the dialogue and expert delivery from the cast, but there’s a fair bit of physical comedy (much of which comes from the totally CG Baby Groot) and straight-up goofiness that finds its way into the movie. The whole movie, in fact, is just a lot more colourful and strange than its predecessor, a trippy love letter to decades-old sci-fi and obscure mythology that inspired it. At times, it’s way too cutesy and probably risks alienating some viewers, but I couldn’t help finding myself charmed by its wackiness and reverence to Marvel lore.
As for the Guardians themselves, we mostly get another dose of what we got the first time round, which is certainly not a bad thing when you’re discussing such a lovable cast. No doubt it’s the almost too adorable Baby Groot that will win the most hearts. Possessing the innocent simplemindedness of his forefather, but with an infectious enthusiasm and a design that looks like a Pop! Vinyl come to life, he lights up every scene he’s in. The other CG creation Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) initially feels a little worn out as he goes around insulting everyone at the start of the movie, but wins you over as the film starts exploring his insecurities.
Dave Bautista’s Drax easily gets some of the best laughs of the movie as he says whatever he is thinking with complete frankness. Completely devoid of any malicious intent, his type of honesty is one that borders on monstrous, but you can’t help but love him for it. Sadly, newcomer Mantis (Pom Klementieff) doesn’t really measure up to the rest of the characters, and is mostly played as the butt of Drax’s jokes. Michael Rooker’s Yondu gets a much bigger role this time round as he finds himself brought into the team proper. He’s a bit more morose than we’ve seen, but never loses his redneck (blueneck?) charm amongst the angst and is able to draw a much more detailed character with his extended screen time.
Star-Lord and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) both get the short-stick in terms of material as they are caught up dealing with their familial affairs; Peter with his father and Gamora with her sister and embittered rival Nebula (Karen Gillan). Both stories are perfectly fine and carry a certain weight, but both stars find themselves robbed of material as they are caught up in them. A particular tragedy for Pratt, who absolutely stole the show last time round, since he is given only a handful of moments to shine in this installment (all of which he nails, naturally).
There’s no denying there are some problems with the story and pacing of the movie, but all quibbles aside, Vol. 2 has got it where it counts. It may not be as accessible as the first film, which will no doubt leave more casual fans cold (I’d even go as far as to say this is the most insider-y Marvel Studios have ever gotten), but damned if it doesn’t wind up being more powerful. Funny, inventive and full of heart; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 may not be a total slam-dunk, but it’s another very fine notch on Marvel’s belt.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10