The clue’s in the name: Guardians of the Galaxy. The galaxy’s a big place. The first of these movies, from 2014, concerned a magic orb that had fallen into the kind of wrong hands that might twist it open and obliterate the entire universe. But the movie was made of minor miracles. The plot dealt with galactic genocide; the characters dealt with each other. They were D-list antiheroes plucked from the furthest reaches of Marvel’s universe, and two of them came directly from a computer. One was a genetically-engineered raccoon played by Bradley Cooper’s American Hustle accent. The other was a tree.
His name is Groot. He’s a stalk of braided twigs played by Vin Diesel, and he reads his one line (“I am Groot”) with such oral elasticity that you can’t even comment on the irony of a wooden actor playing a wooden character. This second movie has reduced him to a boisterous, boogying sapling, but his personality has grown outwards. Everything else has, too. The first volume felt scaled down and lightened up in a way that so-called superhero movies usually don’t, but it also featured a planet that was a giant floating head. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 goes one better. It features a planet that’s also Kurt Russell.
Russell’s character, Ego, is part-planet, part-deity, and part-time daddy to Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill, the nominal leader of the Guardians who was sucked into space as a child. In the first movie, to the bafflement of most of its characters, he was a self-styled intergalactic outlaw who wanted to be known as Star-Lord. Since then, very little has changed. He’s swapped out the mixtape in his Walkman for “Awesome Mix Vol. 2”, another medley of 70s pop classics that cowriter-director James Gunn deploys as the movie’s giddy soundtrack. But he’s still harbouring a crush on Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the green-skinned assassin who, in the last movie, defected from her family’s evil galactic dynasty. Quill’s romantic and familial hang-ups account for a lot of the drama here, which is a smart way of allowing the movie to run in place without sabotaging any of Marvel’s plans for the broader continuity.
This is hardly a surprise. The first movie was well-received, but Gunn’s screenplay never got the credit it really deserved for the economy of its storytelling, the sophistication of its humour, or how ably it balanced an ensemble cast of misfits while making each character individually interesting and important. Volume 2 frees itself from the ponderousness of superhero sequels by doubling-down on deeper character work; the entire galaxy is once again at stake, but the Guardians’ quest is limited to only a handful of locations, and their success is dependent on the various members working through their personal baggage and interpersonal conflicts. It’s intimate without feeling constrained; reserved while still being wildly irreverent. Gunn’s genius lives in those spaces, where the movie should be one thing and gradually reveals itself to be another.
Take, for instance, Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a muscled colossus whose skin is embossed with scarlet filigreeing, and whose humourlessness is one of the movie’s most reliable sources of humour. Here he gets a companion in Ego’s empathic assistant, Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and their relationship is as spectacularly awkward as it is funny and strangely moving. That’s another thing about Gunn: how he can pump up a scene with thematic weight and then instantly deflate it with a smart, well-timed joke, and how he can take something fundamentally ludicrous and have it move an audience to tears. Most other writers couldn’t have Gamora bond with her cyborg sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), over their mutually-abusive childhoods in the same movie that a baby tree dances to Fleetwood Mac, but Gunn can. And certainly, nobody else but him could have that same baby tree cuddle up to Chris Pratt while Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” plays through the cockpit of a spaceship. This is the fifteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that moment, incredibly, might be the most profoundly emotional in any of them.
Here we are, though. What has always worked about this property is how loose and experimental it feels alongside the neater, less-ambitious mainstays of Marvel’s canon, but what works about Vol. 2 in particular is how it retains that tongue-in-cheek sensibility while grappling with a surprisingly complex plot setup and some seriously abstract science-fiction concepts. The particulars find the Guardians on the run from a genetically-engineered, gold-skinned super-race known as The Sovereign, whose vengeful queen, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), enlists the Ravagers to help track them down; the Ravagers, you’ll remember from volume one, who already have a problem with Quill, and who’re led by his blue-skinned buccaneer father-figure, Yondu (Michael Rooker). There’s a part for Sylvester Stallone, and another for Chris Sullivan, who plays a mutinous usurper whose dastardly plot also sucks in Rocket (Cooper) and Baby Groot. How all of this connects to the projected human avatar of a god-planet and a strapping orphan’s daddy issues is someone else’s plot point to spoil.
None of this is as straightforward as it should be. Still, I love that it allows for a slow-motion mass-murder sequence that plays to a jaunty whistle. I love that it devotes so much time to soul-bearing conversations about the characters’ various anxieties, and that Groot sits on Rocket’s shoulder now, instead of the other way around. I love how hateable Russell’s villain is. And the happiest surprise of all is that it still works just as well now as it did before.
Sure, there’s something missing. Vol. 2 lacks that cinematic equivalent of a new car smell that wafted into theatres with the first movie. But it makes up for it with a more thorough exploration of these characters, who’re still great, and still impeccably well-cast. And Gunn might be the closest thing to a legitimate auteur talent currently handling any property in Marvel’s stable. He doesn’t come from Hollywood action or big-time television; he served his time at Troma Entertainment, a B-picture schlock factory. He moved himself in, and he’s claiming squatter’s rights while he redecorates the walls. These are the movies directors like Zack Snyder would love to make: fun, funny, and light enough to float into space.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.