With planet-sized (pun intended) expectations surrounding its release, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and writer/director James Gunn automatically face a tremendous challenge: can a second adventure starring Marvel’s most bizarre band of misfits retain the same quirky charm, sense of freshness, and overall weird and cosmically comedic tone of the first movie, while pushing the franchise forward? The answer is both yes and no.
There’s no question that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is missing the sheer delight of discovering this corner of the Marvel Universe onscreen for the first time. The joke of seeing a potty-mouthed talking raccoon fire off snarky asides while blowing away enemies with high-powered weapons is clearly not a surprise anymore. And all the odd little denizens and Easter eggs lurking in every corner of Gunn’s richly imagined universe are, while not predictable, certainly more anticipated.
But Gunn wisely decides to focus on adding more depth to his team, not to mention their allies and enemies, and they’re still such a likable, entertaining bunch that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 succeeds more than anything else as a character piece. Everybody gets a turn at bat; almost all the arcs in the film are satisfying and in several cases, quite moving — and that is just enough to keep the movie compelling and captivating despite a generally slender plot and a structure that essentially consists of a terrific opening and a knockout ending bridged by a meandering second act.
When we catch up with the Guardians at the beginning of the film, they’re as cantankerous as usual but have got their groove down: hired by an artificially created race called the Sovereign to get rid of some pesky extra-dimensional monsters, they work as well together as the Avengers but with sillier (I mean that in a nice way) one-liners. Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) barely holds it together as team leader, while an exasperated Gamora (Zoe Saldana) tries to keep the boys in line. Drax (Dave Bautista) and Rocket (voiced again by Bradley Cooper) march to their own drums in battle while Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) successfully walks the thin line between overly cutesy and hilariously naïve.
The Sovereign, led by their high priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), have captured Guardians nemesis (and Gamora’s adopted sister) Nebula (Karen Gillan), and the Guardians are interested in taking her back with them as payment for the job. But of course the team can’t do anything without getting in trouble, and they soon find themselves pursued by an entire space armada (amusingly controlled from what looks like a massive game arcade on the Sovereign planet).
Things look grim until a new figure injects himself into the situation: Ego (Kurt Russell), who saves the Guardians and makes a shocking revelation — he is Peter’s long-lost father, who impregnated Peter’s mother back on Earth and later sent Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his Ravagers to retrieve his son. But Yondu adopted Peter as a potential Ravager along the way, and Ego has been searching for his progeny ever since.
Meanwhile, Yondu is also searching for Peter at the behest of Ayesha but finds himself dealing with his own personal crises as well. What happens after that is best left for viewers to discover themselves, but several conflicts are set up that revolve around the central idea of family. Alliances shift and more is revealed until the expected big finish, which is capped by a genuinely moving conclusion.
With the exception of one laugh-out-loud jailbreak, the middle section of the movie is where it runs into trouble. Gunn dishes out a lot of exposition here, but he’s lucky enough that he’s got Russell to deliver it. With a twinkle in his eye and an enigmatic yet regal quality to his manner, the veteran actor is eminently watchable even if other characters are basically standing around during Ego and Peter’s scenes together. Also helping things along is Pom Klementieff as the empathetic Mantis, Ego’s servant who brings a sweet-natured innocence to the proceedings.
Gunn eventually makes sure to not leave anyone behind; although she doesn’t get much to do for the first two-thirds of the movie, Nebula has a searing, powerful speech which Gillan — who’s excellent — delivers with a piercing undercurrent of hurt and anguish. Saldana almost matches her, giving Gamora a vulnerability we didn’t quite see in the first film. Another utility player, Rooker’s Yondu, is shown to have more depth and emotional complexity than the first film let on as well; his storyline may be the most poignant of all, and the vastly underrated Rooker — one of our best character actors — gives it everything he’s got.
The film’s final third turns into a somewhat more predictable onslaught of CG and pyrotechnics, but at least Gunn is smart and talented enough to mostly keep the focus on his characters and integrate their own personal stories into the raging battles and explosions. Without his eye for that, as well as his skill at filling the screen with all kinds of interesting visuals and his unerring instincts with musical cues, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 could have easily gone too big for its own good or simply rehashed the tricks of the first film without adding anything to them.
Instead, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 answers questions posed by the first movie by exploring its cast of colorful miscreants in a way that almost makes it an anti-blockbuster. The strange pacing and stop-and-start plotting may feel awkward compared to the headlong rush of the previous film, but spending a little over two hours with these folks is still a hell of a lot of fun. It will be intriguing to see how the Guardians emerge from the coming apocalypse of Avengers: Infinity War, and even more fascinating to see what lies ahead for them in their own third adventure. If the biggest challenge facing Gunn, his cast and Marvel is keeping us interested in this weird little gang, they’ve met it handily.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is out in theaters May 5.