Following up on the smash success of the first installment in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy series, you might think that James Gunn was ready to hit the ground running, tossing the universe’s favorite band of misfit quasi-criminals into another breathless and spectacular mission in the cosmos. You’d be half-right, as there are daring exploits and thrilling set-pieces to be found in the latest from Marvel Studios. There are plenty of new vistas and worlds, ripped from thousands of prog-rock daydreams, on display in this film. However, the worlds that Gunn seems most focused on this time aren’t the planets Contraxia or Ego, but the inner worlds of his band of titular Guardians.
Months after the team’s legendary victory over Ronan The Accuser in their last outing, tales have spread of their exploits, and contracts are plentiful. No longer eking out individually selfish existences, the group has come together to form a family unit of sorts, despite their individual propensities to bristle at attachment of any kind. We find Star-Lord, Gamora, Rocket, Drax, and a freshly-sprouted baby Groot doing their best to make it as a team amidst internal rivalries, arguments, and unrequited love. They’ve been forged by their experiences, but cohesion seems to have a bit of a learning curve. After an ill-advised pilfery by Rocket, the Guardians find themselves on the other end of a contract for betraying the trust (and taste) of The Sovereign, an intergalactic empire of snooty, golden tightwads with no sense of humor.
On the run from the forces of The Sovereign, and later their own former allies, The Ravagers, The Guardians land in the sights of a third interested party: Peter’s estranged father/planet, Ego. A smooth and inviting Kurt Russell is aces here, appearing in flashbacks in a stunning de-aged CGI form and telling the story of how he wooed Peter’s mother all those years ago, literally and figuratively spreading his seeds across the cosmos. But Russell portrays Ego with much more complexity under the (planet’s) surface, as a man whose suave and easy manner betray a deeper and more sinister need beneath. Using Kurt Russell to subvert his own type is genius. Ego filling Peter’s head with all the things he has yearned to hear, having a catch. He plays Pete like a fiddle, and his desire to fuel his plans with his own flesh and blood mirrors the deeper themes at play in the film, around how we fuel our own needs and narratives with the lifeblood and energy of those around us. How we choose to either use the bonds we’ve created with others to fuel ourselves, or give freely of ourselves to strengthen those bonds, and those we love.
Gunn once again brings his gonzo verve and craft, all blended together with the weirdo frenzy and genuine love of character we’ve come to expect from the outsider auteur. You’ve frankly never seen this much crazy comic book spectacle on screen. This film almost makes Dr. Strange look timid in comparison. However, the scope threatens to dwarf the original, just managing to avoid becoming totally unwieldy. Gunn has such bonkers sights to show you, lifting bits from Evil Dead and possibly even Shin Godzilla. Highlights include the surprisingly menacing sisterly battle between Nebula and Gamora, Rocket’s ambush of invading Ravagers, a side-splitting set of references to Asteroids and Pac-Man, and a 700 warp-point jump of psilocybic silliness. But powering through such abject awesomeness without a singular throughline tether, focus splits, and it can begin to feel flabby, despite the sharply ramped humor. It’s easy to say that Drax, Rocket, and Mantis nearly walk away with this thing, but that dismisses some very solid work by Chris Pratt, in the role he was born to play. His mix of vulnerability, bravado, and hapless charm is used to perfect effect here, though it teeters on being overwhelmed by everything else going on around him.
The supporting cast ably executes at every level, with Michael Rooker providing a beautiful standout performance as Peter’s adopted father Yondu, in a reprise of his more limited role from the first film. Star-Lord and Gamora, tediously pushed forth as our Sam and Diane, have negative levels of chemistry, but Gamora and Nebula are a delight as rival sisters with axes to grind, and Rocket and Peter bounce off one another as brotherly rivals. Rocket, Drax, and newcomer Mantis perform admirably in fully-realized and surprisingly fleshed-out roles. Surprise cameo Sylvester Stallone turns in an actually affecting performance, for what little screen-time he’s given to operate within, as Ravager leader Stakar. Showing up with a much bigger role than last time, Sean Gunn even gets an arc all his own as Kraglin, Yondu’s loyal second son, questioning his place in a family whose patriarch beams with secret pride in his golden child, Peter. For Kraglin, Yondu appears to betray all that he has professed sacred throughout his life the moment Peter’s needs warrant it. The dutiful younger child chafes at his adoptive brother’s apparent priority, causing a rift that can only be bridged by finding his own way forward and out from under the shadow of his adoptive kin.
That’s a pretty central component to what this film is doing. Throw a whistle-arrow at any character in this film and you’re going to hit them square in the middle of their own arc. Everybody has something to do, stuff to work through, and someplace to end up. If you’re looking for the kind of streamlined shenanigans of the first installment, it’s easy to feel lost in all the threads while you’re waiting for the plot to kick back in. If you’re worried that this film might suffer from juggling setup for further installments, you can put those fears fully to rest. This film is so focused on the group session that it couldn’t be more disinterested in what certain purple megalomaniacal couch potatoes with fancy gloves might be up to. These guardians have way too much to occupy them right there on Planet Daddy-Issue.
Like John Wick Chapter 2, it’s possible Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 suffers from being a followup to a beloved film, which already captured lightning in a bottle. But there’s enough weirdness, fun, hilarity, and character to make it a worthy adventure. The highs are stellar, but their placement within a framework of exhaustive emotional setup means that they might have trouble landing for those who are not on-board to jump on the couch with Quill, Yondu, Rocket, and Gunn. And I honestly cannot fault this emphasis on giving the cast complete arcs. Marvel’s trajectory of late is weird. They are seemingly invested in creating emotionally complex films searching for a sense of pace or economy. Like Civil War, this film eschews the pitch perfect pace and storytelling of its predecessor, opting instead to wallow in the inner lives of its cast and the themes that occupy them. This film is devoted to its characters’ emotional journeys and moral quandaries, possibly at the risk of splitting the sausage casing. You can see why Groot had to be a baby. This film cannot fit one more character. And even he has an arc around learning to listen to his family!
Gunn has recently said that he plans to come back for Volume 3, and I can see why. Nobody who spends this much time maturely parsing the emotional natures of these characters is ready to walk away. Rather, it seems Gunn was compelled to create a stepping stone. He, too, needed to work some $#!% out. And it’s plainly obvious that he has further steps he’d like to take now that all that catharsis is out of the way. Frankly, anyone who can build this much excitement and style into a high-concept character piece deserves a shot at landing the ship, now the gremlins are off the wings.
This thing is a ton of emotionally satisfying fun, but your warp mileage may vary.