A surprise hit when it surpassed expectations back in 2014, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy raked in over 700 million at the box office, surpassing many of the tried and true super hero properties of the vaunted Marvel label. But what goes up must come down, and the element of surprise enlivening the first installment seems glaringly absent from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which more or less functions the same way as the previous film as concerns a ragtag group of superhero misfits, who, like Deadpool, seem more overtly concerned with selfish agendas and in-house squabbling than run-of-the-mill altruistic heroes.
Despite dancing around predictable beats, although this time around the focus shifting (like many franchise properties) into exploring the notion of what makes a cohesive familial unit rather than its characters being charged with explicitly saving the galaxy, Gunn manages to resurrect the same sense of scruffy charm, replete with (mostly) obscure vintage soundtrack references to make this second revolution more palatable than most of its continuously recycled Marvel cousins.
After completing a job for a race of bronzed elitist beings known as the Sovereign, led by the haughty Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki, reminiscent of a similar race led by Charlotte Rampling in Zardoz), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and his crew are now in custody of Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) rebellious younger sister Nebula (Karen Gillian), a being with a significant axe to grind with her sibling thanks to the abuses she endured growing up with their father. However, since the continuously ornery and disgruntled Rocket (the voice of Bradley Cooper) stole some of the precious batteries they delivered to the Sovereign, this leads to the Guardians being chased across the galaxy by the disgruntled priestess. In their flight, they are forced to crash land their ship in a remote locale, whereupon they are visited by the immortal being Ego (Kurt Russell), who informs Peter he is the long lost father he has always longed to know. Ego’s servant, Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who can read people’s emotions if she touches them, tips the Guardians off to Ego’s less than fatherly plans. Meanwhile, Yondu (Michael Rooker), the violent ravager who Ego had hired to bring Peter to him from Earth (but instead kept him and raised him to be a thief, as touched upon in the previous film), has been contending with being ostracized by the Ravagers, as exemplified by a tiff with Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone). As these storylines converge, Yondu, hired by Ayesha to capture the Guardians until his motley crew of subordinates stage a mutiny, is forced to contend with his own notion of legacy.
With dashes of ELO and Jay and the Americans among the glorious soundtrack highlights, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 plays like the kind of franchise installment assured of its success. Gunn, who this time around went solo on the screenplay, delivers endlessly witty exchanges with characters solely on hand for comedic relief such as Dave Bautista’s Drax, or the cutesy Baby Groot, the extension of the deceased character voice by Vin Diesel in the first film, here returning with a modified lilt.
Unfortunately, new additions to the cast are rather leaden, such as Karen Gillan’s husky voiced Nebula, or Kurt Russell’s amused immortal, neither of whom are handled with the same lightness as other core players, perhaps as a way to exemplify the angsty foundation of both Peter and Gamora. Vintage references abound thanks to Peter’s obsessive nostalgia for his youth, comparing his hampered romance with Gamora to that of Cheers, while a Mary Poppins reference plays for great laughs.
Gunn grants Michael Rooker the best character arc of all this time around (the actor has appeared, usually quite memorably, in Gunn’s previous films Slither and Super), while lead Chris Pratt gets wedged into a father-son dilemma clearly modeled after Luke Skywalker’s patriarchal woes from The Empire Strikes Back. Considering the plot contrivances of the first Guardians weren’t necessarily groundbreaking, the happenings of Vol. 2, by default, seem even less memorable since we’re dealing with epic storyline parameters with characters who are, by design, peripheral.
Plenty of actions sequences abound, including the requisite showdown between opposing forces, but most of these seem too computer generated (particularly Mr. Russell’s confectionary kingdom) to inspire awe (in fact, nothing really measures up to a goofy opening credit sequence where Baby Groot dances to “Mr. Blue Sky” as his colleagues battle a slithery, tentacled monster). Still, those seeking big budget, escapist entertainment should easily be won over by Gunn’s sequel, which is insistently witty (and sometimes, unfortunately, to the point of belaboring itself), even if its storyline doesn’t hold up past the credits.