Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow: you know these names as superheroes who comprise a team – the Avengers. Star-Lord, Drax The Destroyer, Gamora: these are also superheroes who make up a team – the Guardians of the Galaxy. So what – if anything – differentiates these two savior squads? An Avengers film thrills through action, while Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 strikes development depth and marvels at cosmic swirls of psychotropic ether.
By way of sequel furtherment, James Gunn has created far more than an offbeat Marvel franchise. His collection of misfits represent the most personal, emotionally-tethered personas across the entire MCU, soulful and composed beyond marketable costumes or A-list names. Soak in the psychedelics, kick out the jams and zoom alongside the galaxy’s zaniest outlaws once again – Vol. 2 rocks with the goofiness of an air-guitar virtuoso, even if storytelling skips a few beats (Nicole Perlman does not return as co-writer).
Where Vol. 1 was all about uniting the Guardians, Vol. 2 almost immediately dives into Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) unknown origin. Shortly after Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) draws Sovereign attention by stealing valuable battery plugs, the Guardians are rescued by a “tiny man” hurdling through space. After landing, the regular-sized Ego (Kurt Russell) introduces himself as Peter’s father. While Rocket and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) repair their broken cruiser, Peter, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista) accompany Ego (and Mantis, played by Pom Klementieff) back to his utopian home planet. Will it be a happy reunion of Quill men? Not if Nebula (Karen Gillan) enacts revenge against Gamora, or Yondu (Michael Rooker) captures the Guardians after being hired by Sovereign Golden High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki). All this and they have to babysit a curious, juvenile Groot.
The Guardians are pretty busy this time around. Like, overwhelmingly busy.
Gunn’s intentions are understandable in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. His heroes have only blasted their way through one adventure so far, and now it’s time to dig into core dramatics. Gamora fights a sibling rivalry with her droided-out sister (we learn that whichever sister lost a sparring match, Thanos would rip off a body part and replace it with something mechanical). Drax befriends Mantis, unloading inner sadness on the emotionally-absorbant mutant. Rocket pushes his friends away, Peter gets to play “son,” Baby Groot botches every task – Gunn dives deep this time around, but the pool feels overcrowded. Characters bump shoulders while embarking on self-evaluating journeys, pitting importance against too many competing arcs. It’s less wisecracking cowboy shenanigans (barely) and more one-on-one conversations and soul-baring admissions. In Vol. 2, everyone seems to catch a nasty case of feels with inopportune synchronicity.
To call Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 anything more than a live-action cartoon would be ignorant, yet Gunn embraces this classification as an advantage. There’s rarely a moment that fails to defy Marvel normalcy. Long-take comedic gags are ripped from Looney Tunes while even more absurd hallucinogenic space-freaks usher in some of the film’s most absurdly hilarious moments. For example: when Rocket, Baby Groot and Yondu have to “jump” (or a similar term) hundreds of interplanetary passageways, their faces are warped and distorted like that hand-drawn wolf who goes “AWOOGA!” upon seeing a fine-looking dame. For lack of better terminology, Gunn goes – ugh – guns blazing into sci-fi slapstick territory that would make even Ant-Man blush. Anti-gravity traps hurdle Ravagers, Peter weaves an entire lesson around Cheers and did I hear a Despicable Me quote (Mantis commenting about “fluffy” Rocket)? Someone might even hassle the Hoff, and points to anyone who spots the Rob Zombie cameo.
Realistically, this kind of humor will wear thin for some. That leaves actor chemistry to shoulder a heavy burden, which rests mightily on Drax’s burly shoulders – with the help of everyone’s favorite miniature tree-kid. Peter and Gamora tease their lusty desires while Ego injects a little fatherly heartache, but standouts are more obvious in this sequel excursion.
Dave Bautista bellows a champion’s laugh and blurts stone-faced facts about his legendary turds to make for a boisterously blunt battle golem, and Vin Diesel’s shrunken role as a Groot Scootin’ child hero *never* disappoints (whether puking motion-sick goo or cowering while walls close in, Baby Groot is your new religion). Heavier thematic elements burn duller than side-stories entire universes away (Yondu and Rocket become equals during/after a VIOLENT Ravager escape), but that’s not to say Pratt’s cocky charisma-flame ever extinguishes. The Guardians still delight in essence, it’s just that their purpose feels slighted and sectioned off.
That said, when action explodes the dust never settles. Sovereign fleets piloted by War Games wannabes blast their remote-controlled phasers while the Guardian’s wage war against a crumbling planet. Although, sequencing never tops a squid-alien-creature battle that opens Gunn’s highly anticipated B-side. When you introduce your film with Baby Groot dancing to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while his maverick caretakers are brutalized by a tentacled foe in the background, does it really get better? Rhetorical question, because there is no better usage of scene-setting playlist selections, operatic space action and the Guardians’ uncanny sense of humor (Rocket touching down to parent Groot, only to then be whacked by a slimy appendage).
Cinematically, Marvel’s cosmic realms are only bolstered by an infinite plethora of worlds and trippy backdrops. Visual pleasures are derived from idyllic locations spanning snow-covered nudie clubs to Ego’s too-perfect-for-words hideaway. Gunn cements individuality by differentiating between gold-painted Sovereign locals and jumpsuited space pirates more than he does by cuing renegade booty-kicking, but it’s still an all-around spectacle. Doctor Strange brought a kaleidoscope of swirling colors and folding skyscrapers, but Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 explores galactic wonder akin to Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Devious, awe-inspiring and kookily envisioned.
The Guardian films – and characters – mean much more to Marvel than universal connections or saving the world(s). A gun-crazy animal experiment with a nasty self-worth issue. An orphan and his blue criminal mentor. Warring sisters, a muscular metaphor destroyer, the vined runt with a bad attitude (Baby Groot continually beats on Drax like a pissed-off toddler). Together, they’re the most unlikely ingredients to form a superhero melting pot, yet even the likes of Pom Klementieff find sanctuary among James Gunn’s all-accepting loons. A mix of Cat Stevens and well-timed Ravager fireworks are enough to draw a tear, as a reminder of the heart that’s injected into an otherwise zany-brainy script.
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 is the deranged Marvel disco you’d expect from a filmmaker who wants to push the limits of an otherwise rigid and structured system. It’s so much more than action. When Baby Groot worries or fears, we too tense up. When he sits on Peter’s lap, holding a Zune earbud to his side-wood-ear-location (or whatever), a joyful innocence strikes sweetness unlike any other superteam could muster. James Gunn is not only saving the universe, he’s building a family of the most unlikely composition – and doing so on his own terms. In the Marvel cinematic machine, you can’t ask for much more – even if Vol. 2 drags on a bit too long where down-beats are concerned.
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 may not boast the same polished storytelling, but this Groot scootin' interplanetary disco once again kicks ass on James Gunn's own zany terms.