Director: James Gunn
Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista
Three years on since James Gunn brought in the first Guardians Of The Galaxy film and its stock has changed considerably. When that movie rode in on the coattails of Captain America: The Winter Soldier it was a relatively unknown commodity; something of a gamble for Marvel Studios. Fortunately – and thanks in no small part to Gunn’s comedic sensibilities – it was a huge success. The anarchic and irreverent tone set it apart from its peers. This underscored it’s rank-outsider status. Despite a story line which stayed firmly on template for the MCU, it felt unique in their expanding pantheon of titles. And it quickly became beloved.
With the weight of expectation the outsider is now the establishment (whisper it – it always was), and as with most artists looking to capitalise on their runaway success, Gunn plays it safe now that he’s gotten everybody’s attention. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 is more. More of everything you liked the first time. More colours. More scenes, generally. And absolutely more emotions. The MCU trades in shorthand sentimentality all of the time, but Guardians Vol. 2 is by some distance their most overwrought offering. The movie’s riotously enjoyable opening sequence sees Drax (Dave Bautista) throw himself willingly into the yawning mouth of a hideous beast in order to chop it to pieces from the inside out. Vol. 2 is about going inside of things. It’s about interiors. It’s introspective.
And it’s about family.
On the run from a bunch of prissy golden dudes that they’ve fleeced of some expensive batteries, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and co. find themselves aided by a mysterious individual flying around in a giant tic tac. This man (Kurt Russell) reveals himself to be named Ego; Quill’s long-lost galactic daddy. The absent father element of Quill’s character was a string played rather eloquently in Gunn’s first film but here it takes centre stage, casting our Star-Lord as an emotionally handicapped man-child throughout. It’s a legitimate character type, for sure, but as Gunn doubles down on the weight of this experience for Quill, he effectively removes him from any of the fun elements orbiting this central story line (one which offers nothing new to the stereotypes already in place).
Playing alongside this as an underdeveloped B story is the emotional fallout between reunited siblings Gomora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillen); sisters set against one another by, again, a bad dad. This dynamic is a little more interesting than the one between Ego and Quill, yet Vol. 2 already bursts at the seams with material and so is left to play itself out around the edges. Still Saldana and Gillen make much out of little.
This leaves the lion’s share of the laughs in the hands of the sidekick characters; Drax, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel). The cutesiness of Baby Groot is milked for all its worth and largely that’s just fine (the film’s opening titles in which the dancing tree is most certainly the star are, perhaps, the most enjoyable in Marvel’s history). If anything Bautista’s Drax manages to steal the movie; his lunk-headed literal approach which was established in the first movie is exploited repeatedly for laughs and Gunn achieves every time. It’s the same joke played over and over, but the delivery makes it work regardless. Again, Gunn is happy to trade in a delightfully puerile sense of humour with across-the-board crowd pleasing results. Rocket, meanwhile, is left with more or less nothing, save for a growing personality disorder that previously played as comically grouchy, but which here threatens to turn into something far more sour. Still, the reduction of Rocket’s screen time isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Keeping things colourful, Vol. 2 also makes room for Yondu (Michael Rooker), Quill’s adoptive father whose allegiance to his ward threatens his standing as an intergalactic pirate (needless scenes with an awful Sylvester Stallone) and the series also adds Mantis (Pom Klementieff) to its cast of unusual characters; an empath who slips easily into an enjoyable ‘odd couple’ routine with Drax.
That isn’t even everybody. Vol. 2 feels the bloat of servicing so many characters and the running time stretches out accordingly. You can feel Gunn’s passion for the universe he’s playing in, and his desire to give everybody (except Rocket) their fair shake is admirable, but this generosity stalls what could’ve been a sprightly film had a good 40 minutes been excised. Vol. 2 loses all sense of momentum once Quill and Ego are united and, following the (very enjoyable) action finale, trundles through nearly as many protracted codas as Peter Jackson’s Return Of The King. Indulgence is nice sometimes and fan service has its place, and nothing here feels too egregious (five post-credits scenes though?). Still, Gunn has his cake and eats it and we’re left with the slight feeling that desert may have been a course too far.
But part of playing it safe is giving the audience more of what they identify with the product in the first place. Visually, Vol. 2 is every bit as dazzling as the first, probably more-so. That opening fight against a giant lizard monster makes Pacific Rim look positively monochrome. While Gunn’s established predilection for casting his space opera to a mixtape of soft rock favourites eats up more screen time than previously. Vol. 2 occasionally feels like an advertisement for its own soundtrack album. So there’s a sense of maximalism at every turn. Of having, perhaps, too much freedom.
Fortunately for Gunn, his particular style and product generates an awful lot of goodwill. The excesses of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 make it rather ungainly, but if this is a universe you enjoyed exploring the first time around, there’s generosity at every turn here and, with Gunn on board for Vol. 3, this former underdog looks likely to become Marvel’s candy-coloured behemoth for the next few years at least.