Guardians of the Galaxy occupies a unique space in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That is to say: outer. Okay, apologies. Lame jokes aside, what writer/director James Gunn was able to do with the first Guardians was deliver a fresh, eccentric entry to Marvel’s stable of teams and heroes, one with characters largely unknown to most people.
Yet trust in the Marvel brand had been earned by a consistent output of quality movies that audiences embraced this new band of plucky outsiders. Unlike most superhero movies, Gunn was really able to incorporate his personality, style, and sense of humor into Vol. 1; coupled with the relative obscurity of the characters, it felt more like a James Gunn space romp than a Marvel Studios mega production.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is, if anything, even more Gunn than the first. Here he is the sole screenwriter, as Nicole Perlman is likely busy preparing Captain Marvel. He indulges in the expectations imbued within a sequel: more laughs, more heart, more characters… and as a result, a slightly bloated running time.
It is good to note, though, that the confident swagger he brought to Vol. 1 is also here in spades, kicking off with a sure-to-be-fan-favorite opening credits sequence set to one of the many signature songs that make up the soundtrack. That careful deployment of pop classics is put to good use several times here (as in Vol. 1), in a way doing some of the heavy lifting in a story that has several plots running through it.
One of the advantages of a sequel is that we are already familiar with the core group of characters, so that after an introductory action sequence gets us reacquainted, the movie can then spend time fleshing out the new and/or minor characters. Gunn is able to do this with Peter Quill’s father, Ego the Living Planet (Kurt Russell), who gets a cheeky introduction and a Guided History of the Universe-type backstory.
Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Ego’s assistant, is another social outcast ripe with humorous faux pas potential who fits right in with the gang. Then there are holdovers like Nebula and Yondu, whose familial ties to certain Guardians carries over and is further explored (and strengthened). The erstwhile surrogate family that the Guardians became in Vol. 1 is here tested by actual relatives, cementing a theme that is already stronger than in the Fast & Furious franchise (and in a quarter of the time).
It’s actually all those feels that make up for the occasional pacing issues. There are three scenes in the middle that feature a character giving an emotional speech, which come consecutively. The weight can lose individual power and bog down the momentum. This is leavened somewhat by the abundance of jokes Gunn peppers throughout, from poorly-chosen names to cliché set-ups that allow for characters to zig when you expect a zag.
The chemistry of the cast remains as strong as ever, and the best jokes are the ones where personalities bounce off one another. The supporting players fit in well and no one hams it up to suck the oxygen out of a room. In fact, Rocket will probably go down in history as one of Bradley Cooper’s best roles. He gets to put so much personality in a talking rodent, it’s surprising how affecting Rocket can be when you realize he has PTSD from being a lab experiment most of his life.
Drax is played mostly for humor which lowers your defenses for an emotional payload late in the film. Quill and Gamora continue to mine their will-they-won’t-they dynamic. And Michael Rooker gets to further explore the daddy issues elegantly hinted at in the first film.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 may not be as lean and nimble as the first film, but while Gunn has certainly indulged himself, the things he enjoys are what gives these films character. It’s a delicious, artisanal cake that a has just a few too many layers, trying to defy that saying about having too much of a good thing.