Three years ago, Guardians Of The Galaxy was a D-list Marvel property handed to a cult director whose last two films failed to make back their budgets at the box office. This week, the sequel lands as Marvel’s most-anticipated follow-up since Avengers: Age Of Ultron. How times change.
It’s no surprise, then, that writer and director James Gunn has brought plenty of swagger with him the second time around, and it’s right on display the very moment the movie begins. From the soundtrack choices to the production design to the script, there’s barely a single moment where this film isn’t delighting your senses. We won’t make you wait for the one-line verdict: if you loved the first one, you’re going to love this one too.
Indeed, the team’s reintroduction feels like a genuine contender for one of the great modern blockbuster action sequences of recent times. As soon as it was over I wanted to see it again. It’s almost a shame this particular sequence comes at the start, because it sets the bar so high that the film can’t quite reach it a second time. Beyond that, you know the formula: deft comedy, a selection of well-curated pop songs, and a group of people who can barely stop bickering with one another long enough to aim in the same direction. What’s not to like?
Set just months after the first Guardians movie, the gang are getting by as heroes for hire, living up to their reputation as troublemakers-turned-galactic saviours. But of course, word travels fast, and when they’re not making more trouble for themselves, trouble is now actively finding them. Rest assured that saving the universe hasn’t made them any smarter or more pious. If anything, it’s had the opposite effect.
With the character groundwork done in the first, the sequel spends a lot of time pulling its main cast apart and giving them obstacles that challenge who they are. Quill remains the focal point of the story, but everyone gets an arc, and an unexpected thematic thread develops. It’s a film about parenthood and responsibility, and how you might reconcile your adopted family with your biological one. There’s a lot to unpack, and it seems to me that those ideas will reveal themselves on subsequent viewings.
Where the first Guardians movie used a combination of speed and variety to keep us engaged with characters we were still learning about, the sequel takes almost the opposite route. Arguably the high point of Avengers: Age Of Ultron was the bit where the team decamps to Hawkeye’s farm to talk about their feelings. The first half of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2 feels like that, but with fighting. When the team is eventually split up, the dynamics it settles on look odd on paper (Rocket/Yondu? Drax/Mantis?!) but prove engaging on screen.
It shows just how comfortable and complete these characters are, and that gives Gunn the freedom to work with them in fun ways. In The Avengers everyone in the team can land a note-perfect wisecrack. In Guardians, the comedy comes more out of how their screwed up personalities spark off one another. Even the romantic subplots, as conventional as the very idea seems, are so idiosyncratically hilarious that they’re in danger of undercutting the actual emotion.
This is usually the point where we’d start complaining that Marvel has failed to find a decent villain yet again, but for a change that’s not really the case. The actual villain is revealed quite late in the day, and until then a selection of sympathetic antagonists give the team meaningful things to fight against, with actual stakes. It goes without saying that there’s no Loki-challenger here (we’re starting to think there never will be one) but at least there’s no Ronan/Malekith/Ultron either.
Despite the gushing praise thus far, it’s not as though Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2 is perfect. A couple of plot threads felt undercooked (Gamora definitely deserved more to do) and the momentum of the film occasionally flags under Gunn’s decision to keep half of the team exiled to a single world for most of the running time. Every decision made about the movie seems to have been the right one, but it’s missing an X factor that would elevate it that extra rung. Right now, with a gun to my head, I’d still choose the original.
Maybe that’s just because I’ve had more time with it. Certainly, the sequel is as funny as the original, and as well-crafted, and as certain of its ability to entertain. But it’s also more of the same, for better or worse. The final set piece in particular steers perilously close to Marvel-by-numbers. Unlike Marvel’s best – and for me, I’m thinking specifically of Avengers, Iron Man 3 and the first Guardians – Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2 broadly feels stuff we’ve seen before. That’s why, even at its heights, it’s meeting, rather than exceeding expectations.
Still, when expectations are so high that’s arguably a feat in itself, especially since not a frame of the movie qualifies as a disappointment. After the apparent risk of the first movie, this one is something of a victory lap. Cameos, in-jokes, references and textual winks get piled on top of great characters, story, music and visuals. The experience of watching Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2 is one of unreserved joy, and news that Gunn is directing a third comes as absolutely no surprise. Based on this, we’d pre-order our tickets today if we could.