In the opening set piece from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the (in)famous bunch of intergalactic a-holes have been hired by the golden race known as the Sovereign, a haughty, arrogant bunch led by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) to protect super valuable batteries from a giant tentacle monster known as an Abilisk. The ensuing battle does exactly what you'd expect it to do, which is set up each character like a row of bowling pins. Star-Lord aka Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is slightly less funny and more leader-like this time around, chastising the self-destructive Rocket (Bradley Cooper, less obviously him this time) who has brought musical accompaniment to the deadly battle. There's still a touch of romantic tension between Quill and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), while the team's literal brute Drax (Dave Bautista) is as unhinged as ever, throwing himself into the creature's maw with warrior glee. And then there's the unbearably adorable Baby Groot (still voiced by Vin Diesel), who uses the fight and the blasting tunes to dance as the credits roll and his teammates get pummeled. Yep, this is Guardians of the Galaxy, alright.
But this isn't the same Guardians of the Galaxy, in that Marvel and writer/director James Gunn aren't just giving us more of the same. Okay, there's a lot that's the same, but the team dynamic is different. Each character has moved forward in different ways and that makes this sequel fresh with exciting new possibilities. Not all of them hit with the same emotional impact as in the original, but as Marvel's cosmic stepchild it's once again like we've been invited on the hippest road trip in the universe.
So what's the plot? Well, what was the plot of the first movie? Something about orbs, right? Well, this one doesn't even have that much of one. I'm not sure with these characters that a traditional plot would work, anyway. Gunn strings together scenes connected loosely by emotional themes and musical cues, like he's putting together a mixtape for all of us to listen to. The major theme is that of fathers and sons, friendship and family. It begins with Quill finally encountering his father, who turns out to be a Celestial being named Ego, who looks an awful lot like Kurt Russell. Russell is clearly having a ball here as the all-powerful patriarch, and he whisks Quill and the team away to his home planet to show his son what a complicated legacy he has to live up to. But then there's also Quill's adoptive father, Yondu (Michael Rooker), who has been hired by the Sovereign to capture the Guardians (because of Rocket's loose paws). He also has to put up with a mutiny within the Ravagers, ignited because of Yondu's affection for Quill who, despite all of his threats, he sees as his own son. There's more family drama in the form of Gamora's sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), who still wants to see her sibling dead. And then there's the doe-eyed empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who was taken in by Ego as a child but clearly fears the man who raised her.
Gone are the forced ties to Thanos that bogged down the first movie. The Mad Titan barely gets a mention this time as he'll be saved for Avengers: Infinity War. But there really isn't a true villain for the team to combat, either. There's a great deal of wind up before we get to the actual pitch, as Gunn sets up his chess pieces for one big battle. The Sovereign act like momentary nuisances played as comic relief. Their arrogant superiority doesn't match with their repeated failures in video game-like aerial combat with the Guardians. Since the mystery of Quill's father isn't an issue, we're only left to ponder if he's truly the David Hasselhoff-esque hero his son always hoped he'd be. And if you're thinking that Hasselhoff reference came out of nowhere, it didn't. This movie has some fun cameos, that's all I'm saying. Stan Lee's might be his best, and I'm not spoiling anything there because you knew he'd show up. He always does.
Imperfect as it may be, we love Guardians of the Galaxy because its narrative sloppiness is what gives it such a flippant attitude. It affords Gunn the freedom to take on a few exploratory gambles when it comes to the action. While there are bigger visual effects and more of a blockbustery-y feel, Gunn is at his most inventive in the smaller scenes, the best being Yondu's single-handed destruction of an entire army of rebellious Ravagers. His whistling arrow zipping through the air as he walks in slow motion, it leaves a deadly but beautiful crimson vapor trail that looks like a child's angry scribbling. This may also be Marvel's most gorgeous film, and a clear departure from the homogenized look that had become the standard for too long. Credit production designer Scott Chamblis (J.J. Abrams' Star Trek movies) whose rendition of Ego's planet is like the Garden of Eden on acid. There are other impressive locations the Guardians visit, such as the snow-capped party town Contraxia with all of its beautiful android call girls glistening against the wintry backdrop.
All of the bells, whistles, jokes, Abilisks, and death buttons wouldn't matter if we didn't care about these characters, and Gunn knows that. As mentioned before, nobody is in exactly the same place they were in the last movie. That also goes for the actors portraying them, specifically Chris Pratt who has settled into a traditional action hero role better than I'd ever thought him capable. Few actors combine his gift for comic timing, heart, and attitude, all traits that make Star-Lord unique. As a die-hard WWE fan I continue to marvel at Dave Bautista, who I think steals the show away from Baby Groot with Drax's tactless approach to just about everything. Drax is funnier this time, because the character is more comfortable being around his friends. It's a nice touch. People will come away thinking about Michael Rooker, and Yondu, in a different way after this. Rooker has been around a long time; remember him as the bad guy in Kevin Smith's Mallrats, but I don't think he's ever been better or cooler here. He shares a ton of screen time with Rocket, with the two finding common hang-ups nobody could have foreseen. But more than that, we see how Yondu may have been the best thing to ever happen to Quill, while always looking like the worst. And as for Groot...look, he's amazingly cute but he comes across as too much of a gimmick, and in one scene a literal mascot. As much fun as he is to look at with those big swelling eyes and childish smile, he's just as often a crutch Gunn relies on to save a few struggling scenes.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 wanders, but that doesn't mean it's lost. Gunn has a lot to say about the families we are born with and those we choose, a theme that's likely to carry on to the inevitable sequel. Of course there will be a sequel. Fans would riot if there wasn't, and Gunn has done a pretty good job of giving the fans everything they could want while telling a story that builds on what came before. Most of all, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is summer blockbuster fun done the Marvel way.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5