Just under three years ago, I said of the original Guardians of the Galaxy that “Gunn and his crew take those things that influenced them and colored their youth and make a movie that is sure to become a favorite of the next generation.” (Go back and read that review if you want a fuller take). Not surprisingly, Guardians has become one of the most loved comic book movies of this current run and often ranks among the best of Marvel Studios’ output. Its combination of great action set pieces, comedy and characters still have it a fan-favorite for comic book fans. Which means that Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 has some pretty big shoes to fill. If before, the question was “Will anyone see this?” now the question becomes “Will they like it as much as the first one?” For the answer, well, let’s get some things out of the way first.
Guardians Vol 2 follows the eponymous team’s adventures as they gallivant across the galaxy taking jobs for hire. After one such adventure for The Sovereign and their High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicky), the Guardians find themselves splitting up when the long-missing father of Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) shows up. His name is Ego (Kurt Russell) and he’s a Celestial; an ancient cosmic being of tremendous power. Along with Quill go Drax (Dave Bautista) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) while Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) along with Nebula (Karen Gillan) fall into the hands of the Ravagers and their leader Yondu (Michael Rooker). Why does Ego seek out Peter? Why are the Ravagers after them? Why is Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Ego’s companion, so worried for the Guardians? How can the Guardians get all these people after them off their backs?
The first thing that needs to be said is that this isn’t just a rehash of Guardians Vol 1. Pulling double-duty as writer and director, James Gunn actually crafts a tale to push the various characters forward from where we last saw them. This means getting deeper into who they are, what has driven them and what keeps pushing them forward. And that makes things more complicated and complex — which is why some might not find this as easy to enjoy as Vol 1.
The cast is all game for this. Pratt, Zaldana and Bautista bring the same energy to Quill, Gamora and Drax respectively. They continue to riff on one another, with Drax getting to be his usual dense self, Gamora being the stoic warrior putting up with everyone around her and Quill continuing to be the jerk with the heart of gold. It’s the same with Rocket and Groot — irascible, quick-tempered and silly, the two animated characters continue to be a fun part of proceedings. What’s interesting though is the willingness the cast has to follow Gunn’s script and let their characters grow.
Because Guardians Vol 2 is all about delving into the team members and finding out what makes them tick. In Vol 1, Quill said they had all lost something and in Vol 2, it all comes to the foreground. How losing his mom impacts Quill meeting the man who claims he is his father. Gamora must come to grips with the warped relationship between her and Nebula and how that cost both of them and shaped them. Rocket has to confront his making and how it impacts his relationship with his new friends. Interestingly, the one who shines the most in all of this is Rooker and his Yondu, whose reasons for not delivering Quill and his history with Star-Lord impact proceedings in several ways.
The rest of the cast does a solid job. Diesel has to do different for Groot — a baby version of his earlier self means he’s cute and even more innocent than before. Gillan gets more to do this time as Nebula and it’s interesting how she and Gamora play off one another. Debicki gets to look alluring and distant as Ayesha. It’s a simple role but she does it well. Sean Gunn gets more this time as Kraglin, Yondu’s lieutenant, and he does add more humor. And Klementieff plays really well against the Guardians, in particular Drax, as Mantis the empath. The two of them manage to have some of the funniest and saddest moments of the movie.
As for Russell’s Ego, I don’t want to spoil things too much, but it is rather interesting how he plays him. In part, there’s an older take on Pratt’s Quill — a smart-mouth and quick wit. He’s very much a scoundrel with a heart. But there’s also an interest in showing the ageless wanting of Ego. After all, he’s a Celestial. How would such a being think? How would he feel? How would he react to finally meeting the son he searched for so long? Russell balances the various sides of Ego well until the end.
Gunn takes this opportunity to not just add another layer on top of the first movie but to build outwards from it. This extends to the universe around the Guardians and the work his crew do to bring it to life. Cinematographer Henry Braham, editors Fred Raskin & Craig Wood, production designer Scott Chambliss and the various FX houses all forge a galaxy that is colorful, unique and varied across its breadth. Framestore returns and builds on their work on Rocket and Groot and makes them just as much a part as the rest of the cast. Weta Digital, meanwhile, does tremendous work with Ego’s planet, which is wondrous to behold in its various terrains, landscapes and details. It looks like everything you dreamed an alien planet would look like. Meanwhile set decorators Jay Hart & Lauri Gaffin, costume designer Judianna Mokovsky, makeup department led by Legacy FX and the various art departments populate it with a variety of species, races and characters that feel as unique and interesting. From techno-brothels to golden palaces to a Dairy Queen in Missouri, every place breathes like it is alive and that is to be commended.
I shouldn’t go too far ahead without mentioning either Tyler Bates’ score for the movie or the compilation Gunn put together for Awesome Mix, Vol. 2. Bates’ scores continues to do a lot of the heavy emotional underpinning, particularly in the big action set pieces. Meanwhile Gunn provides some big if out-of-left-field songs for the Mix. From ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky” over the opening credits to going back to Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” and Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” for key emotional and plot moments, this isn’t just a compilation of tracks. The songs are as much the specter of Peter’s mom, looking down on him and guiding him in his quest to uncover the truth of his parentage as well as of himself.
Here’s where I’m going to make a possibly controversial comparison: Guardians Vol 2 is the Empire Strikes Back of this series. Not in impact but in how it is structured. Opening action set piece, heroes are split up into two different storylines, major revelations of parentage occur, key partings and a somber ending that touches upon where the heroes go next. And that structure is key because it impacts how things proceed. Sure, there’s the usual action sequences and battles. Of note, I’ll highlight the escape by Yondu, Rocket and Groot as well as the final battle between the Guardians and the cosmic danger they all face.
But while the final battle is dazzling and the space battles are fun, nothing compares to the grin-causing Kyln escape from Vol 1. This movie doesn’t have the easy breeze and effortless nature of the first one. And that is by design. Because Gunn and crew are digging into the broken, difficult and complex psyches of his leads. Which requires slowing things down and having more conversations and less set pieces. This is what’s led people expecting the same easy, breezy time to come away disappointed by it.
However, that doesn’t mean Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 is any less the movie than its predecessor. It’s, like I compared above, as different from it as Empire Strikes Back was from A New Hope. It’s trying to be more nuanced and go into greater depths as to friendships and family, fatherhood and purpose. Of course, it does it in its usual silly, colorful, action-packed way. I think multiple viewings will reward fans with a movie as good as the original. You’re still laughing most of the time and having a good time when it’s all said and done. Gunn continues to be one of the better directors in the MCU and the Guardians continue to be one of the more interesting properties Marvel has in its arsenal.