How many times have you read that it’s really hard to duplicate the success of the first film in a sequel? Probably more than you can remember. Well, here’s a newsflash: “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2” pulls that feat off with only a little strain and a belly of genuine emotion.
Marvel Studios’ space-faring superhero-team-that-isn’t-really-a-superhero-team came together in 2014’s “Guardians Of The Galaxy.” James Gunn, along with a screenplay assist from Nicole Perlman, wonderfully demonstrated how a band of characters that were barely known beyond hardcore comic-book fans could transform into a band of charismatic and colorful characters that felt strikingly original. And Chris Pratt‘s star-making turn didn’t hurt either.
Peter Quill aka Starlord (Pratt, slightly less funny this time around), Gamora (a still-green Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista, master of comic timing), Rocket (a now unrecognizable Bradley Cooper) and Groot (well, a baby version, still somewhat inexplicably voiced by Vin Diesel) are all back in the fold. As this new adventure begins, the Guardians have been hired to protect a trove of valuable batteries for an alien race known as the Sovereign (a gold-plated bunch that look like they’d be down for anything at the club, but it turns out they are so full of themselves they’d insist on VIP). The team takes down the monster sent to steal the batteries easily as Gunn uses the battle sequence for an elegantly staged title sequence where Baby Groot is more into the music on the speakers than the mortal danger surrounding him.
After collecting their fee, custody of Gamora’s seemingly villainous sister Nebula (Karen Gillan with much more to do), they depart the planet only to have the Sovereign leader, High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki beating Cate Blanchett to the Marvel high-camp punch), send an armada of ships after them. Do you even need to ask why? Rocket obviously stole a bunch of the precious batteries for himself. The Sovereign are so uptight they operate all their warships remotely like a video game. This leads to an entertaining chase through a minefield where the fact that the Guardians could easily be killed means nothing to the Sovereign pilots back home. Luckily, a mysterious orb-like ship intercedes on their behalf and the Guardians barely make it out alive, their ship ending up crash-landing on a nearby planet. Before they have a chance to breathe, the mysterious ship lands and out steps a humanoid creature who announces himself as none other than Quill’s long-lost father.
If this movie had a cliffhanger it would be here, but we’ve got a long way to go.
Ego (Kurt Russell, having a blast) reveals the figure standing in front of them is an extension of his true self, a living planet on the other side of the galaxy, and that he’s been desperately searching for Quill for years. He’s accompanied by Mantis (scene-stealer Pom Klementieff), an empath who, thankfully, isn’t that good at keeping secrets. Quill wants nothing more than to know why Ego never returned to Earth to save his mother from cancer and why he thereby abandoned him after her death. Along with Gamora and Dax, they head to Ego’s planet, while Rocket and Baby Groot stick around to guard Nebula and repair the ship.
Meanwhile, the man who kidnapped Quill from Earth when he was a kid thereby getting him into this cosmic mess in the first place, Yondu (Michael Rooker, perhaps a career-best), is hired by Ayesha to capture the Guardians and return them to the Sovereign. Yondu, a leader of his own ship of rebel Ravagers, is dealing with a crisis of his own. After the revelation he kidnapped Quill as a child, the leader of the Ravagers (Sylvester Stallone, into it), has kicked him and his ship out of the pack for breaking “the code” by child-trafficking (they may be space pirates, but it appears they have some morals). Yondu easily captures Rocket and Nebula (although the raccoon puts up a very creative fight), but soon finds himself with a mutiny on his own ship.
As for Quill, Gamora knows something isn’t exactly kosher on Ego’s stunning planet (as the audience will immediately suspect), but Gunn gives it a personal twist that is not only surprising, but also heartbreaking. And, beyond the incredible world, visual effects, and cast chemistry, this is perhaps the film’s greatest strength. Gunn, who has sole screenplay credit, weaves a tale that is organically more emotional than the first film and finds a way to avoid making it even hint at seeming too saccharine (there may be one coda too many, but we’re not talking ‘Return Of The King‘ here).
Gunn actually has some things to say about family and fatherhood amongst this tale of aliens, space battles and space gods — those who raise you and instill values in you as opposed to your biological parents. A group of friends as an extended family is a narrative that has been played out on-screen for decades (most recently in the “Fast And The Furious” franchise), but in this case, it helps frame a theme of forgiveness — whether it’s between two sisters who were raised in the most brutal of circumstances, or a man who realizes someone he saw as an enemy saved him from a potentially horrific existence.
‘Vol. 2’ also benefits from having less of a connection to Marvel Studios’ ever-expanding cinematic universe. Beyond a few conversational references to Thanos, there are no direct tie-ins to other Marvel movies. In many ways, you could watch ‘Vol. 2’ and never realize it was somehow connected to “The Avengers” or Tony Stark. That gives it even more freedom than the first ‘Guardians’ had to set a tone that feels distinctive and unique.
The movie’s other secret weapon is production designer Scott Chambliss. Marvel Studios has gotten into a rut of using too many of the same below-the-line key creatives over the past few releases, and it seems like Chambliss, who designed J.J. Abrams’ two “Star Trek” films, has been given a freedom to create worlds that still inspire after four decades of sci-fi franchises in space. Ego’s planet is as beautiful as you’d expect, but the icy-party planet Contraxia is the true stunner. The details and mix of worlds is so interesting, you wish Gunn had the time to stage a longer set piece there.
If there is any minor complaint over this ‘Guardians’ film, it’s the continuing reliance on ’70s rock nostalgia to contrast with the cosmic exploits. It was cute the first time around, but it often threatens to get a little tired here. At worst, perhaps we can move into the late ’80s or ’90s the third time around? Would Quill discovering an old school hip-hop track be too much to ask? [A-]