Like the US government, the big whigs at Marvel have a sordid history of interventionism. Professed “creative differences” drove visionary Edgar Wright from Ant-Man, ran Patty Jenkins off Thor: The Dark World and kept Ava DuVernay at bay from Black Panther. The films in the MCU are larger than any standalone film; they must click and connect in complicated corporate webs, webs that have given us material such as the infamous Thor in a sauna scene in the widely forgotten Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which makes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a film written and directed by one man, James Gunn, such a wildly fresh breathe of air.
Ant-Man had four writers, Doctor Strange three. Sure Joss Whedon was technically the only screenwriter his second time out avenging but there was a lot of backroom bartering and we’ve already touched on how that turned. I guess Iron Man 2 was the sole prosaic product of Justin Theroux (strange right?) but those two aforementioned films, perhaps more so than any other in the Marvel collective, feel more like in-world product placement for future endeavors than the artistic undertakings of a solitary mind.
Which brings us back to Guardians, a series that, while intermittently connected to the larger goings-on of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, doesn’t have that same feeling of an awkward shared birthday party. There’s no questions about where Iron Man and Captain America and the Hulk are hiding because the collection of characters – including Chris Pratt’s snarky but lovable Star Lord, Zoe Saldana’s capable and green Gamora, the cantankerous and roguish raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Dave Baustista’s meaty and blunt Drax and, of course, Baby Groot (somehow voiced by Vin Diesel) – is so fun to hang around with that you’re never longing for reinforcement of any kind.
We’re reintroduced to his rag-tag group of assholes as they defend priceless batteries from a monstrous gnash of teeth and tentacles. Gunn immediately taps into something magical, juxtaposing this early action scene over Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” (one of many welcome entries to the rip-roaring playlist of classic 80s jams), putting the focus on Baby Groot’s toe-tapping through the scene as the Guardians stave off the intergalactic beast in the background, more often than not out of focus. It’s a brilliant little scene that sets the sardonic tone and chipper, music-heavy good vibes that will wash over us in splashy waves throughout. This isn’t about spendy-looking space battles, Gunn nudges us, it’s about opening yourself up to having a good time. If watching Baby Groot glide across the stage to ELO while his compatriots blitz a baddie behind the scenes isn’t doing it for you, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 will likely be hard to bear. For those in favor, you’re in for a treat.
In exchange for their efforts fighting off the toothy space octopus, a race of gold-tinted megalomaniacs called The Sovereign hand over Gamora’s estranged sister and Guardians villain Nebula (Karen Gillan). But Rocket, being the inconsiderate dick he is, has other plans and ends up swiping the batteries he was hired to protect anyways, eliciting the wrath of the prideful race of gilded bipedal who chase the guardians throughout the galaxy, sworn to destroy the shipful of scoundrels that publicly humiliated them so. The Sovereign make up a decent portion of the threat posed to the Guardians and their ridiculously coiffed antics and one silly quantum asteroid field space race is played for satisfying laughs.
Continuing on threads left dangling in the first installment, there’s a lot of familial angst raging through Vol. 2. Quill and Rocket bicker like arrogant brothers, vying for the honor of Top Badass, while Gamora and Nebula’s feuding involves driving spaceships into one another or firing bus-sized gatling guns at each other’s faces. But it’s the litany of daddy issues – Quill’s most of all – that most ignite Guardian’s real emotional thrusters. While Gamora and Nebula reach an uneasy truce over their hate of daddy Thanos, Peter Quill struggles to accept the arrival of his biological father, a man who is not quite human, while also coming to terms with his quasi-adoptive father Yondu.
Surprisingly, Michael Rooker’s blue-skinned scoundrel is treated to the most succulent character arc of the film while he and his whistlin’ arrow also earn one of the most memorable visual effects showcases the film over. And while I expressed doubts about Bautista before, I am willing to eat my crow and fully admit that Drax steals the show in Guardians 2. He’s become the heart and soul of this ragamuffin collective, his hilarious deficiencies with social niceties amplifies the true good that lays in his heart. Bautista’s throaty explosion of a laugh is more than often enough to elicit the same from audience members happy to join in on the fun.
Also enlisted is Kurt Russell who features as a literal planet named Ego and Pom Klementieff as a bug-esque empath called Mantis. The former factors heavily into the Quill’s personal plot to discover his heritage while Mantis plays perfectly against Drax and their chemistry and a repeating in-joke about her beauty becomes one of the film’s comedic highlights.
There’s not anything particularly groundbreaking about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 nor is it a thematic or stylistic departure from its predecessor but, as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it and the formula, while definitely shaping into becoming just that: formula, is certainly one that continues to work. The characters remain snarky and quick with a quip, the soundtrack, which includes the likes of Fleetwood Mac, George Harrison, Sweet, Cheap Trick, Sam Cooke, and Cat Stevens, is as rhythmically entrancing and head-bobbing as ever while trending towards more mellow, introspective tunes, and Gunn remains an expert captain, sewing so many disparate parts together into something that’s hilarious and sincere and lovable all over again. Sure, it’s the kind of movie that watching it back on FX two years down the line won’t “hold up” but as a single-serving popcorn affair, it’s hard to ask for much more.
CONCLUSION: As watchable as a Baby Groot dancing GIF, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ merrily continues the saga of its lovable band of space rascals. Upping the emotional ante and providing truly stunning intergalactic set pieces while leaning heavily on a pitch perfect playlist, James Gunn creates a sequel that, while very much in the same vein of its forebearer, is an effortlessly enjoyable summer blockbuster sure to please most inhabitants in this galaxy.