‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2' Brings the Laughs and the Feels

More of the Same Here Is Hard to Complain About

[Image via SlashFilm.com]

★★★ | Garrett Foster

[Warning: This review may contain mild spoilers.]

The most important moment in the Guardians series thus far takes place in the opening sequence of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The titular guardians have returned from the previous installment and are up against a gargantuan, computer-generated Abilisk, a creature that appears equal parts (a) octopus, (b) Rathtar from The Force Awakens, and (c) Kraken from Pirates of the Caribbean. The creature is one of the many marvelous creations of the movie’s $200 million budget, and it looks fantastic and terrifying, tentacles flailing and surging wildly toward the heroes.

But director James Gunn does something interesting with this battle — something essential and series-defining. As soon as the melee begins, the camera takes the CGI monster out of focus and zooms in instead on a dancing Baby Groot, who has plugged in the auxiliary cord from Star-Lord’s signature tape cassette into a speaker and is overtaken by the infectious rhythm of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”. The fight continues for some time around him, bodies flying and laser shots firing in the background, but it’s Groot’s solo performance that’s front and center for the title sequence’s roughly four-minute unbroken take.

It is this scene that lets us know from the very beginning: These Guardians of the Galaxy movies aren’t here to showcase fight scenes, superpowers, or intense chases. They’re more concerned with us having a great time, getting to know its characters, and making us want to hop out of our seat to dance along with them.

The first thing you’ll notice about Vol. 2 is that it has the liberty to sidestep exposition. We don’t have to spend the first half hour catching up on what the characters have been up to for the past three years. The first words from the mouth of group leader Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) are: “It’s showtime”, and the movie never stops once to look back.

The gang has been hired by a race of golden people called the Sovereigns to deliver a supply of valuable batteries from the aforementioned monster in the title sequence. In exchange, the Sovereigns hand over a much-coveted prisoner to the Guardians: Gamora’s evil sister Nebula. They wrap up the mission rather swimmingly, but Rocket, the group’s kleptomaniac, steals the batteries back on the way out.

This leads to a high speed space-chase in which the Guardians must elude a cadre of fighters sent after them by the Sovereign leader, Ayesha. Comically, the fighters are remotely controlled by the golden people back on their home planet; when one of their ships gets shot down, the loss carries the significance of a “Game Over” in one of those sit-in spaceship arcade games. The Guardians escape, and Ayesha hires a group of Ravagers led by the blue-skinned and orthodontistry-needing Yondu (Michael Rooker), a familiar face to the Guardians, to track them down.

The crew is split up into two groups. The iconic duo of Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) remain on the planet that the ship has crash landed on with the captive Nebula, where Yondu and his discord-stricken gang eventually find them. Meanwhile Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista) follow Star-Lord on a quest to discover his origins. You see, Quill has finally met the man who claims to be his biological father, a celestial (with a small “c”, he clarifies) named Ego who is played by Kurt Russell with a cool, collected demeanor and startlingly convincing de-aging techniques. In a way I won’t spoil for those who haven’t seen the film yet, Quill becomes torn between his family by blood (by which he is technically a demigod, or something to that effect) and his through-thick-and-thin “family” of Guardians.

The specifics of what’s happening are often convoluted and hard to follow, but you’ll see when you watch the movie that that’s really beside the point. The plot in the movie is essentially there only to provide situations for its heroes where they can pull stunts, crack wise, and interact with one another. It’s an exercise in characterization, however goofy that turns out to be, which ultimately makes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 a deeper and more involving film than its predecessor.

In that regard, Vol. 2 draws quite striking parallels to the second of the Star Wars pictures, The Empire Strikes Back. In both sequels, main characters are split up to undergo their own personal arcs with side-by-side alternating narratives, before meeting up again in the final act for the big finale. Both are sequels that build off of the novelty of their originals, up the ante in special effects and world-building, and bring more direction to their characters. Plus, you know, the “I am your father” reveal. For Vol. 2’s intents and purposes, it’s essentially the franchise’s carbon copy of Episode V, and if you have even the slightest conception of my adoration for that film, you’ll know that isn’t meant as a bad thing.

Much like a young Luke Skywalker, Peter Quill is more confident in this installment now that he knows the ropes and has this whole hero thing figured out. Pratt is more confident in the role too, providing unexpected range from an actor whose career was once defined by a Parks & Recreation goofball named Andy Dwyer. He’s on his way, if he’s not already there, to bona fide movie stardom. The crew’s green-skinned, emotionally unavailable member, Gamora, is also granted more depth, moving the character beyond the clichéd and seemingly obligatory “strong female protagonist” that so many movies cling to nowadays for the sake of boasting them. Gamora is now a flesh-and-blood character—one who has genuine moral convictions and is like all of us enough to experience the gripping frustration of sibling rivalry.

Among the minor characters, we are introduced to the ditsy, bug-like Mantis (Pom Klementieff). By Drax’s noble willingness to look beyond her “ugly” exterior (one of the movie’s best and ceaselessly entertaining running jokes), she becomes a counterpart to the beloved blue musclehead, and her empathic abilities open the door to the possibility of further character study down the road when the heroes aren’t willing to say what they’re feeling on their own. Karen Gillian as Nebula is a worthy opposite of Saldana’s Gamora, offering a feistiness and palpable tension to every scene she appears in. Michael Rooker also returns as Yondu, caretaker of Star-Lord from childhood and recently exiled Ravager after breaking the band’s code. Rooker is brilliant here in what I suspect will be one of the most underappreciated performances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing numerous moments of heartbreaking introspection, and blurring the lines of what makes a comic book character good or bad.

The Guardians’ raccoon pilot (or “trash panda”, as Peter so affectionately dubs him) also gets some nice scenes with his still lovable but now adorable sidekick, Baby Groot. I especially liked a scene between the two where Rocket deciphers the inch-tall tree’s repeated catchphrase, “I am Groot.”, into an explanation of how Groot thought Yondu wanted him to wear a leaf as a hat and “that made him sad because he doesn’t like hats and he thinks that wearing hats make people think he has a funny-shaped head”.

With a cast full of impeccable comedic timing—deadpan, absurd, or otherwise—it’s that kind of ridiculous, off-the-wall humor that Guardians excels at. It’s what worked about the original (a fact that writer/director James Gunn is acutely aware of), so Vol. 2 takes the pleasure of gathering everything that was good about the first movie and giddily amplifying it in round two, for better or worse.

And largely, it’s for the better. There are a lot of big laughs in the movie—far too many to count—and they range anywhere from mocking the laughable monikers of villains (“What was your first choice… Scrotumhead?”) to making obscure pop culture references whose context is lost on characters from other worlds (Peter: “You’re like Mary Poppins.”/Yondu: “Was he cool?”). Characterization is also taken further in this installment, and we get some great moments between the Guardians as they work out the kinks of their “family” dynamic and undergo personal arcs.

Particularly affecting is a scene where Rocket explores his tendency to put up a glib facade of sarcasm and insolence to mask his fear of attachment. Turns out, Yondu shares some common ground with him there behind his tough guy act and whistling arrows. The two open up with a candor they don’t offer to anyone else, and their heart-to-heart concludes with Yondu telling (or warning) his friend: “You are ME.” The scene ends, and you stop to ask yourself, “Am I still watching a superhero comedy?” Vol. 2 is emotionally resonant like that in ways that the Marvel Cinematic Universe typically hasn’t been before.

The movie’s budget has also skyrocketed since last time, and the result is a delightfully eye-popping world with the color palette of a pack of tropical-flavored Skittles. Gunn and his cinematographer, Henry Braham, are boasting a visual style here that is uncharacteristic of your typical superhero movie; ‪they prefer saturated rainbow colors to gritty realism, the battle scenes are treated with some degree of cohesion, and none of the shot composition feels like it was conceived on a computer, even though almost every individual thing in the frame was. In those respects, Vol. 2 might actually be a better and more engaging movie than its predecessor, and certainly one that’s more jam-packed with laughs and visually ambitious technique.

In other respects, though, Vol. 2 becomes exaggerated to a fault. That’s to say, it takes a lot of things that work the first few times, such Drax’s hysterical laughing or the cloying on about the values of family (I’m sure it’s just coincidence Vin Diesel is in both this movie and the newest Fast & Furious), and then runs them out of steam. The wit isn’t quite up to par with the first film either, whose script was nearly airtight and more narrowly focused, and the movie instead relies on increasingly frequent vulgarity and crude slapstick as its crutches. Taken alone, there probably isn’t a single bad gag or unaffecting sentiment in the movie; the problem is that Vol. 2 occasionally takes too much of a good thing to the point it becomes over-the-top.

But don’t think for a second that the negative is what you’ll come away from the theater thinking about. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a load of fun that not only keeps you laughing throughout the entire film, but can also put a lump in your throat when its characters face a personal struggle or stick their neck out on the line to save one another. It’s a little too long, a little too much, and a little too saccharine, but it gets it right where it counts: dopey, romantic, pulpy, and sincere fun with a ’70s soundtrack, a B-Movie spirit, and A-Movie spectacle. It isn’t as focused or cohesive as the first one, but it’s still a great time at the movies, and a heck of a start to the summer movie season.

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