Guardians Of The Galaxy was a welcome shake-up in the MCU a few summers back as a day-glow slice of 70s sci-fi goofiness with a cast of Marvel misfits lacking the historical reverence that the studio’s previous iconic origin tales with required. So, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 arrives without that sense of cinematic universe-shaking surprise that was the main selling point last time. However, unburdened with as much world building, and able to embrace his weirdoes’ wounded cores a with greater depth, writer and director James Gun has arguably created a superior film. Sure, many have complained that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 suffers from sequelitis and wonky pacing, and those complaints are valid. However, it’s also a more personal and melancholic blockbuster from a studio that is frequently accused of refusing to let their directors attempt either quality. But here it is, along with all of the trippy visuals, goofy gags, and lovable 70s pop music that made the last flick so successful. Hopefully, other people notice once the first wave of reactions pass.
The movie kicks off with a period prologue, showing a magically de-aged Kurt Russell in his early 80s John Carpenter leading man prime, seducing Peter Quill’s(Chris Prat) mother and promising her the world. Years later, The Guardians are in the midst of a big battle with a space beast, and Gunn cleverly uses it as the backdrop for a super cute Baby Groot dance to ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky in a remarkable single-take opening credits sequence. It’s a massive technical exercise and a small moment, which could describe the giant sequel as a whole. From there it’s space opera time with The Guardians pissing off an entire powerful race of aliens before being rescued by Russell, who isn’t just Pratt’s mysterious daddy, but an entire planet and somewhat of a god.
The bulk of the movie ends up being a detour with daddy as Quill comes to terms with some father issues, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) makes some sort of peace with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Drax (Dave Bautista) makes a new friend in the emotional psychic Mantis (Pom Glementieff). Meanwhile, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is separated from the gang to fix their ship, fight off the Michael Rooker’s Ravengers, and deal with the fallout from the early space battle betrayal. There’s a lot of plot in this one, but somehow it all comes together.
From the hysterical opening credits onwards, it’s clear that James Gunn not only has a far bigger budget this time, but knows how to use the big blockbuster toys at his disposal better after practice. The scale of the production is even more impressive than the last. The imagery is even more surreal, even more colourful, even more unlike anything on Marvel or any other studio’s blockbuster slate. The action is jaw-dropping, yet playful (like how a drone army is piloted from afar with 80s arcade bleeps and bloops). The pop culture references are relentless and giddily entertaining, ranging from deep cut Marvel shout-outs to the creepiest ironic David Hasselhoff cameo off all time, along with one winking use of old music technology that will likely make CGM editor Brendan Frye laugh louder than anyone.
The new soundtrack is just as amusingly nostalgic, but more often than not, a little sadder. That’s the first indication of where Guardians OF The Galaxy Vol. 2 differs from Vol. 1. It’s still about space battles, it’s still about jokey piss takes on comic book blockbuster conventions, and it’s still about freaks forming a family. However, this one isn’t about pure friendly acceptance, but the pains and struggles of family bonds and friendships. The way that the best friends and family aren’t always the ones we choose, and how learning to love the limitations of our bonds is as important as the fun stuff. It’s a movie that aches with raw emotion between all its pop art spectacle and that’s no easy feat, especially when the heart of the film proves to be the least likely character and cast member.
James Gunn delights in twisting blockbuster conventions and subverting expectations while still delivering crowd-pleasing romp, and once again, the cast couldn’t be closer to perfect (especially Michael Rooker and Kurt Russell, both gleefully toying with their screen personas). This time, it just all comes in service for a far more personal statement and complicated emotional core. The movie is weirdly devoid of ties to the larger MCU, especially considering the fact that The Guardians will join the rest of the heroes next summer in Infinity War. It’s clearly a project that James Gunn got to make with complete control and freedom as a reward for turning a second-string comic series into one of Marvel Studios’ most marketable properties.
That’s a special thing, especially given that this is a blockbuster made with a warm understanding of what it means to be a weirdo made by one biggest weirdoes in Hollywood, and now it’s about to be sold to the masses. It’s nice to know that can still happen within a blockbuster machine as rooted in established formulas as Marvel. Plus the colours are pretty, the explosions are exciting, and Baby Groot is insanely adorable. So you really get it all.