Film Review: "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" remixes its rock-n-roll space opera formula with gleeful confidence
If 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy was Marvel, still euphoric from the ungodly success of The Avengers, tentatively dancing, then Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is Marvel shuffling on shrooms. It's a more confident and bonkers romp, is what I'm saying, gleefully free from the narrative requirement of introducing each member of this ragtag gang of cosmic misfits.
The first set-piece of the movie features the Guardians trading affectionate insults, attempting to destroy some giant interdimensional beast while their littlest member Baby Groot grooves to some 80s tunes - all captured in one long fluid edit by the way. This perfectly sets up the excitement, humour, and space fantasy whimsy that powers the rest of its 2-hour plus runtime. Aside from mechanical introductions, what's also left in the veritable space dust is the obligatory McGuffin thingy (Infinity Gems, if you want to be a goddamn nerd about it) that compels the protagonists to embark on some treasure hunt quest, a pretext in which to assemble a bunch of personalities who wittily & hilariously & touchingly play off one another. But by now we know the Guardians well enough that in this outing their backstories and familial conflict are plot-heavy enough to dramatise on this psychedelically drawn canvas that writer/director James Gunn has carved out for himself in the far reaches of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Seriously, this is one Marvel production that can't be accused of looking like an expensive television show. It's audacious, sometimes unhinged in a way that suggests a Pop Artist in the throes of wild creative abandon. Hitherto, only Ant-Man and Doctor Strange hinted at the druggy weirdness/psychedelia, but Guardians 2 is swimming in it, delighting in it. And Guardians 2 has the added benefit of not being an Iron Man redux like the former two.
Although one does get the sense that the story here is being stretched, especially during its middle act. Cutting ten minutes or so would've been no bad thing, if only because its visual inventiveness and imagination is sometimes brushing up against a story with twists and turns that are predictable, save for one revelation which was a genuine shocker. At my most ungracious, I would categorise the story as “functional” and the visuals as “jaw-dropping”.
The Fantastic Four are Marvel's First Family in the funny books, which are just now being mined with reverence and love by folks who grew up on them like James Gunn, Joss Whedon, and the Russo Bros. But while the Fantastic Four are busy navel-gazing in some dimly-lit grey/blue lab in Vancouver or wherever the crap under Fox's chaotic regime which produces masterpieces on Tuesday (Logan) and clunkers on Wednesday (X-Men Apocalypse), Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy series can now be said to hold the title of Marvel's First Family in the movie-verse, something which also differentiates them from the All-Star team that is the Avengers.
The Avengers might soon face a future without Captain America and Iron Man, and that'd be okay. But I simply can't imagine the Guardians of the Galaxy without the literal-minded, alarmingly straight-talking Drax (Dave Bautista); the wisecracking scoundrel determined to hide his heart-of-gold Rocket (Bradley Cooper); goofball child of the 80s Star-Lord (Chris Pratt); the taciturn, tough as hell Gamora (Zoe Saldana); and of course Groot (Vin Diesel). And unlike the Avengers, they need each other a lot more than any world does.
Guardians 2 deepens those bonds and shades them with more emotional nuance by laying bare the cracks and strains in tandem with the camaraderie and love; by showing how they'll twist each other's nerves too easily, and yet despite all that, how they'd rather die than not be together. If Guardians was about why they formed their unconventional family unit, then Guardians 2 is about the natural follow-up question: How do they live together? The answer is: Not always well. It's messy, lovely, infuriating, but, above all, essential. If there's anything these two movies impart, it's that a metallic hull, or even the powers of a god, isn't nearly enough to protect against the deathly cold of space. The worst fate you can be condemned to in the Guardians series is not to have your life snuffed out by some weird mutant space thing, but to be chronically incapable of forming relationships. A cavernous loneliness is what motivates the god-like villain, who triumphantly exclaims “I'll no longer be alone!” upon laying bare his nihilistic designs.
Two supporting characters, Gamora's sister Nebula (Karen Gilan) and Star-Lord's surrogate father Yondu (Michael Rooker) benefit from a script that serves them better than the first outing, and ingratiates them more neatly into the story and familial themes, sometimes to disarmingly poignant effect. Newcomers Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Ego the Living Planet (the legendary Kurt Russell) are terrific additions, perfectly of a piece with the cutesy awkwardness/starry-eyed 80s love that are the two key ingredients to the Guardians series, in addition to the good-natured charisma that megastar Pratt radiates and the faux-Shakespearean theatricality that Bautista's Drax exudes.
In every way it's an improvement on the first Guardians, but don't expect a mind-blowing redefinition in the vein of Captain America: The Winter Soldier; it's what you love about the first one only now there's more of it, complete with a plot that's a lot more character driven and, despite the grandiose nature of it all, intimate. Does it astonish in the same way that the first installment did? No. Who knows if such a thing is even possible for a sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy – a film that so many were sceptical of; I certainly didn't go into it thinking a living tree voiced by Vin Diesel who only says “I am Groot” could make me cry, but that was a thing that happened.
Nevertheless, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is worthy and it's a hoot and a half to boot. Word 'round the campfire is that James Gunn will follow up with a third, which would presumably be his last. If the Final Tour is equally as good and passionate as Vol. 2, then this will shape up to be one of the most cohesive and idiosyncratic trilogies of all time.