Marvel Studios has gotten . . . odd. After starting things off with the relatively down to earth Iron Man (2008) and quickly building up to The Avengers (2012) with notable characters like the Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, everything seemed to be heading down a pretty logical course for the studio. Then, in 2014, we were given the gift of James Gunn’s bonkers Guardians of the Galaxy.
Featuring a talking raccoon, a living tree, and pro wrestler Dave Bautista, that first film was a gamble that paid off and earned the company nearly $800 million and cemented the notion that they were capable of just about anything. With characters like Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and the Guardians of the Galaxy themselves proving to be hits with audiences, it looks like that might just be the case.
Enter Vol. 2, and Marvel has outdone themselves in the weird department. Featuring a bevy of cameos, most of which will have casual fans tapping at their phones during the credits to bring up a dozen Wikipedia pages, and Marvel’s most outrageous villain to date, things have definitely gone down the rabbit hole of crazy that we all equally hoped and feared it would go down. Sure, zany action and references upon references are cool, but do they work? Is Guardians able to balance these elements with actual storytelling? Let’s talk about that . . .
The film starts off with the whole gang — Peter Quill, aka Starlord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) — fighting off a tentacled inter-dimensional monster on behalf of a group of high-minded golden beings called the Sovereign, who are led by the high-strung Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki). Unfortunately, after Rocket slights the Sovereign, the group is attacked and nearly killed, only to be saved by a character very few could guess would debut in these movies: Ego the Living Planet (Kurt Russell). Turns out Ego is Peter’s father, and it’s time for equal parts bonding and explanation. This interaction splits up the group, and things go even crazier when the Sovereign hires the Ravagers, headed up by Yondu (Michael Rooker) to take down the Guardians of the Galaxy.
Lots to unpack, right? Well, not really. One of the biggest surprises of this sequel is just how simplistic it is, at least as far as narratives involving living planets and golden aliens go. While I left out the return of Nebula (Karen Gillan) and the introductions of Ego’s assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Ravager big shot Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone), the basic plot amounts to little more than a really good episode of Star Trek. In fact, the separation of characters and focus on their development reminded me of Star Trek Beyond (2016). The most complex element here is the family dynamic constantly being explored through the eyes of each team member, whether it’s Gamora and Nebula’s sisterhood or the fatherhood angle played out between Peter, Ego, and Yondu.
Digging deeper, there’s also a message about family and ambition, and how the two can both coexist and eat away at each other. This theme, which has already been explored by the Iron Man films, is successful, if a little heavy handed. Any savvy filmgoer will be able to pick up on it very quickly, but that doesn’t stop it from adding a profound component missing from other superhero movies.
Gunn does a brilliant job weaving these relationships through the various subplots and action scenes, generally employing the latter to strengthen those connections. His sense of humor and whacked-out aesthetic is on full display here, to the point where the tonal consistency is constantly threatened but never upturned. Considering that one of Marvel’s biggest issues is being tone deaf in the face of drama, it’s surprising that this mostly comedic thrill ride has some of the most tears-inducing moments. Also, his music tastes are second to none, captured brilliantly in another playlist that completely overshadows the (presumably) hard work of composer Tyler Bates.
The cinematography from Henry Braham (The Legend of Tarzan) is gorgeous, and features some of the best composition in any Marvel Studios production. Often placing characters in a far corner while taking in gorgeous alien vistas and filling the screen with bright, complementary colors, his collaboration with Gunn is very impressive. They’re aided significantly by the RED Weapon Dragon 8K camera and 3D that — gasp — actually adds to the film! That’s right, it’s time to hand over that extra lump of cash, because the 3D version is actually the way to go this time. Complete immersion via one of the most vilified gimmicks ever? It really is a brand new world.
Now, for the big question everyone has every time a new Marvel flick comes out: what about the villain? It’s difficult to go into too much detail, since the plot is so threadbare and the twists pretty easy to solve, so let’s just keep this short and sweet: the villain is fantastic, and definitely doesn’t share the same problems as most Marvel foes. There are elements to this character that don’t go perfectly, and I can think of one major issue that some fans have with Marvel’s handling of its antagonists that is consistent here, but overall Vol. 2‘s villain a big upgrade over Lee Pace’s lackluster Ronan the Accuser.
If I had to complain about anything, it would be that the script does take the easy way out at times, and in particular contains one twist that felt overly mean-spirited, even in a film where the main characters commit mass murder to the beat of Jay & The Americans’ “Come a Little Bit Closer”. Its use makes sense within the narrative, but it also felt very heavy handed amidst the slew of twists throughout and when placed against the fantastical elements that make this such a fun ride. There’s also a sense of detachment that comes with any sequel to an origin story, and one that’s made greater by splitting up the group.
Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is everything I want in a comic book flick. It balances humor, drama, and the fantastic with an expert’s touch, only occasionally dipping too far into any given side. Excluding one very disturbing twist that, in my opinion, went a little too far, it’s a masterclass in juggling all of the elements necessary for a phenomenal popcorn flick.
Oh, and Baby Groot’s pretty darn cute.