Directed by James Gunn
Written by James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillian, Pom Klementeiff, and Kurt Russell, with Sylvester Stallone and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel
Runtime: 136 minutes
The expectations of a sequel to not only perform at the box office as well as the previous film but to be as good or better is really kind of unfair. Typically, sequels have difficulty recapturing the magic of the first film, largely because the filmmakers want to try to repeat what worked instead of building on the groundwork they laid. James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 doesn’t try to rehash the plot from the first film nor does it try to recapture the antagonistic attitudes held by the main characters throughout the first installment. What Gunn did is he let his characters grow between films, and instead of trying to top the massive ending in the last one, he scales down the confrontation, though the stakes are just as high or even higher.
The story picks up a few months after the previous film, which explains why Groot (voiced again by Vin Diesel) is just a baby. The loosely knit group consisting of Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Rocket (voiced again by Bradley Cooper) are taking jobs beating monsters and defending property and the like. They work together much better than before, showing that they actually like each other now. After an encounter with an inter-dimensional being they were contracted by a people called The Collective to keep from stealing precious batteries (the opening battle is wonderful and very unexpected), the group encounters a man named Ego (Kurt Russell) who claims to be Peter’s father. Drax, Gamora and Peter go with Ego and Mantis (Pom Klementeiff), his servent, leaving Rocket, Groot and Nebula (Karen Gillian) (their prisoner and payment for stopping the beast) to repair the ship that was damaged because Rocket stole some of the batteries they had been hired to protect. Meanwhile, Yondu (Michael Rooker) is hired by The Collective to hunt down the Guardians and deliver them to be killed for Rocket stealing the batteries. Eventually, Peter, Drax, Gamora learn that Ego wants to destroy the universe and remake it in his image with Peter helping him. Yondu, Rocket, Groot, Nebula, and Kraglin (Sean Gunn, writer/director James Gunn’s actor brother) make their way to Ego’s planet (which is Ego, the person is just an extension of the planet) and help in the fight against Ego.
Gunn’s script builds on what he accomplished with Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014, blending comedy, action and character into one full piece that starts strong and never flags. This time around, he uses a kind of standard second part formula: he breaks up his main characters and lets them have their own adventures while simultaneously building an overall story that culminates everyone’s stories by the end. Gunn doesn’t waste time on throwaway gags or pointless storylines, though while you’re watching, the point to some threads, like Yondu’s, won’t become evident until later in the film. Gunn also answers a question brought up by the first film, which is who Peter’s father is without mincing words or being coy. He makes the revelation in the very first scene, before the credits, flashing back to 1980 where a young-looking Ego is courting a young Meredith Quill (Laura Haddock, reprising her role from the first film). There is an effort here to keep the action personal and character-based, following a newly-established pattern set by Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange. In so doing, he brings his characters closer together by the end, both in physical space and emotionally and fills out many of the characters that didn’t have much going for them last time.
As a director, Gunn lights up the universe, giving us lots to look at, introducing new species and new locals as well as introducing how these interstellar travelers actually get from one system to another (through jump points, which isn’t really explained, but seem to be wormhole-like access points). Gunn also gets some very good and nuanced performances from his actors, builds the tension between them while keeping the atmosphere light and his comic timing as sharp as ever.
The cast regulars all give great performances and all look like they’re having a lot of fun with their roles, especially in how they get to expand on them from the first film. The people who appear to be having the most fun, however, are the newcomers, specifically Russell and Stallone, the latter giving one of his best performances in ages (coupled with Creed).
It’s also worth noting the music here, which is as important (possibly more so) as it was in the first film. Lots of big hits from the ‘70s and ‘80s are there, informing a lot of the mood and emotions. The non-song score, again by Tyler Bates, has some great cues as well and manages something that most other MCU pictures haven’t: a clear theme for our heroes. It’s as rousing as many of the musical selections and keeps the action going beyond the songs.
What Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 spells for the MCU in general, no one can say right now, but the breakout success of the first one forced them in a funnier direction, reinforced by Ant-Man and many parts of Captain America: Civil War and the edict given to director Taika Waititi to make Thor: Ragnarok funnier than Thor: The Dark World (which wouldn’t be all that difficult, considering that is one of the darkest MCU pictures to date). While lightheartedness and humor have been part of the MCU since it began back in 2008 with Iron Man, the emphasis on funnier films has been evident since the first Guardians of the Galaxy. This is a good move, as it sets up an even clearer line between the MCU and the DCEU, which is largely joyless, dark and serious (which isn’t inherently a bad thing).
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a well put together, fun ride of a movie. It accomplishes all of what it seems to set out to do and then some by skirting conventions of sequels and letting the characters grow as people. It’s exciting to consider what Vol. 3 will be like in the light of these changes, but we won’t have to wait the three years it will take for that to hit theaters. As it’s promised in at the end, the Guardians of the Galaxy will return, in Avengers: Infinity War due out in May 2018.