Guardians of the Galaxy was easily the most obscure property that Marvel studios have set their sights on adapting, and the only really surprising announcement since they made since the MCU’s inception. It was a risk that paid off though, with the film being arguably Marvel Studios’ most unique entry, both content and quality-wise. It certainly tends to lie near the top of any fan’s ranking (I’ve got it at 3 myself). With the addition of this sequel though, confidently the strongest ‘part 2’ of any MCU series yet, they might well prove to be the Studios’ biggest stars.
There were a number of factors that aided Guardians of the Galaxy in standing out from the superhero crowd; firstly that it wasn’t really a superhero film at all, baring more resemblance to fantasy space operas and taking place almost entirely off-Earth. Aside from that more obvious point though, it’s focus on a ragtag group of misfits somewhat reluctantly coming to work together led to a great deal of character-based comedy to go alongside the standard blockbuster action, and it’s factoring in a seventies pop soundtrack as an actual plot device.
Knowing how embraced these tactics were first time around, returning writer-director James Gunn approaches Vol. 2 with a clear degree of confidence, in fact the biggest criticism you could probably throw at this film is that it’s delivering more of the same, but that’s not such a bad thing when the results are still this purely entertaining.
Picking up very soon after Vol. 1 concluded, we first meet the team about to attack some hideous giant space monster. Gunn then turns what could have been a rather standard fight sequence into one of the most inventive and funny ones in recent blockbuster memory. Rather than letting the action play out in the forefront, the camera focuses entirely on the adorable baby Groot as he dances around to E.L.O. as the fighting all unfolds behind him. As a reintroduction to the GotG world, it hard to imagine this opening credits sequence being improved upon.
Although the McGuffin of the film is introduced very early on (Rocket stealing some batteries from a group of Gold-skinned people called The Sovereign), the first hour or so of the film is fairly loose on plot, instead coming across more as a series of comedy scenes, many of which flow naturally from the character dynamics between the team members. While Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill is nominally the leader of the group, he’s probably the least interesting member; serving more of an anchor linking everyone together (the team splits up at certain points). The stand-outs from the core-group are without doubt Dave Bautista’s Drax and Bradley Cooper’s Rocket. The overly-literal Drax is taken up a notch from the previous film, with his oblivious enthusiasm scoring many of the biggest laughs in the film. Honestly did anyone who watched him in his pro-wrestling heyday think he could be this funny on screen? Genuine Question.
Similarly, I’ve rarely seen a CG character invested with as much personality as Cooper brings to Rocket Racoon, with him landing an equal number of hilarious lines, and his exchange with a ridiculous space pirate named ‘Taserface’ is one of the absolute highlights of the film. Conversely, I shudder to imagine how much Vin Diesel was paid for what probably amounted to an hours’ work, to then be digitally altered to the extent that it’s unrecognisably him. The credit for Baby Groot, who’s highly entertaining in his own right, goes to the animators.
While all the MCU movies have an element of humour in them, this is almost certainly the funniest, with numerous huge laughs to be found in the first two acts. It also appears to be on the whole taking itself a little less seriously than most superhero fare does nowadays as well, but despite this it contains a couple of more weighty sub-plots. One of these concerns Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her sister Nubula (Karen Gillen), who are still working through the issues of rivalry and abuse suffered at the hands of their father Thanos. Dropping such a story into this light-hearted space-romp sounds like it could clash tonally but Gunn manages to make it work, giving us more insight into Thanos’ apparently evil character (he is supposed to be Avengers 3’s big bad guy) than any of the brief glimpses of him we’ve had so far.
Indeed, Thanos himself does not even appear, nor do any other MCU characters (bar one hard-to-spot end credits glimpse of a future character) making this possibly the most disconnected film in the MCU for some time. It’s particularly pleasing to see as, without spoiling anything, the events unfolding in a third act sequence could have easily been used as an excuse to shove in a gratuitous Avenger cameo of some description a la Ant-Man, which would only have been gimmicky and distracting. I’m glad Gunn opted out of such an indulgence.
That said, there is still some obvious ‘set-up for the next instalment’ work going on in Vol. 2. I was very pleasantly surprised to see Sylvester Stallone making an appearance early on in the film, but his small scene is largely pointless and he only appears once again near the very end, in a sequence with some other recognisable faces which only left me baffled; they’re a Marvel reference sufficiently obscure that I needed a friend to explain it to me after the movie. This choice may well go on to pay off handsomely in the future but for now it’s more confusing than anything else to see multiple recognisable actors swiftly appearing it what are for the moment, empty roles.
In addition to being the funniest Marvel movie as I mentioned earlier, it is also more surprisingly, probably also the most violent. I suppose this is a side of James Gunn’s past sneaking in (he did make the tonally jarring Super after all) but Vol. 2 contains a couple of the most brutal sequences seen in the MCU, which are played for both scares and laughs. A group execution scene may well prove to be particularly disturbing for younger viewers, but then there’s one of the best sequences in the film, in which Yondu (Michael Rooker) uses his whistle-powered arrow to escape whilst killing a large number of bad guys. It’s another of the film’s most inventive and fun action sequences but the numerous bloody deaths still astound me.
Yondu, played excellently by Rooker in arguably the film’s top performance is also part of the key storyline that comes into play in the film’s final third. Again Gunn makes a risky ask in investing a great deal of emotional weight into a character that was a relatively throwaway space pirate who just happened to have a fancy weapon in the first movie, but for the most part, it works, particularly when Rooker’s given his affecting if predictable big moment to shine toward the end. It’s remarkable to think that after decades of solid supporting work this will likely make Rooker more well-known than ever before.
While delivering a great deal more of what he knows worked from the first movie, James Gunn also manages to address and fix a few of that film’s problems. Firstly, the standard, massive aerial battle showdown that was so ubiquitous in Marvel’s Phase Two films. Gunn initially appears to be leading them towards such a finale with the Sovereign using a load of tiny space crafts to attack them, but he then amusingly subverts this by having them be powered remotely from a large station resembling an arcade. Gunn leans in on the videogame aspect leading to some further humorous moments as the Sovereign soldiers eagerly watch each other try and catch the Guardians.
(mild spoilers if you don’t know who the film’s villain is)
Most importantly, it’s the first Marvel film in forever to boast a memorable villain in the form of Ego, the living planet. I’ve put a spoiler tag there as while he’s suspicious, you don’t know for sure he’s the bad guy until a while in. Ego, whose human form is portrayed enthusiastically by Kurt Russell, introduces himself as Peter’s biological father leading to Peter’s central conflict of being torn between his new surrogate family and his father’s plans. Russell’s having a lot of fun here, as he was in the similarly family-themed Fate of the Furious last month, and at one point appears in a de-aged eighties form that’s terrifyingly convincing.
Despite overcoming many of Vol. 1’s setbacks though, Guardians 2 cannot quite elevate itself above the Marvel heap with its third act, which while admittedly different in scope, still boils down to being a massive expensive mess of CGI with undefined power limits and very little in terms of actual stakes. Although Gunn still saves a couple of the best jokes to deploy during this scene, it’s not enough and it’s still left with the feeling of; the studio requires all big superhero movies to end with a gigantic effects-filled battle.
While the theme of family is as unabashedly front-and-centre in this as it is in a Fast & Furious movie, Vol. 2 looks to be taking a further step in advancing a romance between Peter and Gamora. It’s something that could work, but also risks messing with the excellent team dynamic the Guardians have going on at the moment, and I feel like it would be better off dropping it.
The final ingredient that makes the Guardians films what they are are the soundtrack choices, and Gunn continues in very much the same vein as before, picking a variety of seventies pop tracks that vary from very well-known to a few that will doubtless be new to many younger viewers. The choice comes across a little differently as rather than being the pleasant surprise it was first time around, we’re now eagerly anticipating what he will use. They work very well again for the most part, accentuating and contrasting with the colourful space opera setting, but Gunn does succumb to a couple of more on-the-nose choices, including one scene where Russell needlessly explains the meaning of the lyrics to Brandy by Looking Glass.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is on the whole though, an immensely entertaining, crowd pleasing blockbuster that delivers on almost everything required of it. It’s hard to imagine any fan of the first movie not liking this on a similar level, I’d put it just above myself. It’s definitely one of the best movies in the MCU so far, and on a re-watch could even be a contender for the top spot. In just a few short years The Guardians have gone from relative obscurity are the Marvel property to beat.