Director James Gunn’s 2014 hit “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a breath of fresh air for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not only because it deliberately avoided the pitfall of taking itself too seriously, but also because it strove to provide its characters with emotional cores– it successfully humanized its various non-humans.
It almost feels underappreciative to call the new sequel to the film (appropriately title “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”) more of the same, but that’s an apt descriptor– not necessarily in story beats but in sheer quality of content. Fans who return to the theater next week for a second helping of the hyperkinetic hijinks of Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Gamora, and Drax partnered with the grounded soul-searching of Star-Lord will find exactly what they’re looking for. The movie delivers exactly the right recipe of action, comedy, and pathos that you would expect from a “Guardians” follow-up.
Moreover, it helps that “Vol. 2” takes great pains not to simply repeat the precise outline of the first installment, instead endeavoring to take the same characters and allow them to evolve organically while placing them in new scenarios, often following through on the loose ends left over from last time. In a way, this movie feels like a feature-length epilogue to to the original, in that it strives to answer a number of key questions posed in the first movie’s script. Who is Star-Lord’s father? Why did Yondu really abduct Peter Quill in the first place? How will Gamora and her sister Nebula resolve their differences? The second installment resolves all those mysteries and more, in uniformly entertaining ways.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” picks up with our protagonists in a position they’re not used to– actually acting as heroes, in a team setting, cooperating with planetary governments to help eliminate monstrous threats. Of course the mischievous Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper and performed on-set by Gunn’s younger brother Sean) gives in to his baser instincts and instigates an intergalactic incident, forcing the Guardians to go on the run once again. Along the way they encounter Ego (Kurt Russell), whose connection to Quill splits up the core group and invites paranoia and trouble in from all sides.
Meanwhile, Rocket and the infant-sized Groot (Vin Diesel) get mixed up with some bad hombres– namely the Ravagers formerly captained by the now-exiled Yondu (Michael Rooker). The three must enlist the help of second-in-command Kraglin (also Sean Gunn) to formulate an escape plan and eventually find their friends. These sections of the film often feel like a B-story to the main attraction of Star-Lord’s wightier dealings with Ego, but that doesn’t make them any less thrilling. In fact, Yondu’s reunion with his fabled whistle-controlled arrow sets off a protracted action sequence that may qualify as the movie’s centerpiece.
The entire cast is at the top its game here, and nowhere is that more evident than in the interplay between Quill (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana). The two leads continue their appealing Han Solo / Princess Leia will-they-or-won’t-they romance, but that takes a backseat to larger, more contemplative concerns when both of their pasts come back to haunt them on Ego’s planet. Even burly, surly Drax (Dave Bautista) meets his intellectual match in new character Mantis (the spritely Pom Klementieff) and sparks a unique relationship that is sure to launch countless “shipper” memes online.
James Gunn has undoubtedly found his niche with this series, using the wry irreverence toward the superhero genre he demonstrated in the cult 2010 comedy “Super” to great effect, and he’ll soon join the Russo Brothers as the most-prolific Marvel filmmakers when he helms “Guardians Vol. 3.” It’s clear Gunn knows the proper balance between off-the-wall action, oddball lunacy, and honest-to-goodness empathy that it takes to make movies like this work.
“Guardians,” like all Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, is meant to function as one part of a much larger tapestry, but it never feels like less than its own thing. We’re reminded that the Infinity Stones exist, and that big baddie Thanos is a looming threat, and of course there’s a (hilarious) Stan Lee cameo, and yet none of that takes the audience out of the story at hand. Even when the inevitable post-credits sequences pop up, we’re reminded that there’s a bigger Marvel world out there, but “Guardians of the Galaxy”– more than any of the other sub-divisions of the MCU– still feels like it could operate entirely on it own.
I’m not the kind of person that demands every superhero movie be “fun.” I love Christopher Nolan’s brooding “The Dark Knight” and M. Night Shyamalan’s pensive, deliberately-paced “Unbreakable.” But I also think a genuinely fun superhero movie is an accomplishment worth commending, even though James Gunn is so good at it he’s begun to make it look nearly effortless. My brain knows that it’s not, that thousands upon thousands of hours of hard work and pure creativity are poured into making a movie like “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” but my heart just wants to sit back and enjoy the ride.
WATCH “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” TRAILER:
Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” opens Friday, May 5th in theaters nationwide.