“What a mystery this is.”
No matter how popular the Marvel Cinematic Universe is, and no matter how impressive the feat of creating an ever-expanding cinematic universe may seem, the films of the MCU have a reoccurring problem: they’re visually flat. No matter how talented a filmmaker Marvel may snare, these films end up having the same color scale as a Sears parking lot. So it was like a breath of fresh air when Marvel released Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014, a film popping with vibrant colors and an actual visual sensibility. Even better, though, was that the film had a personality and individuality that other Marvel properties lacked. These characters were not as popular as Captain America, and therefore could be handled more freely, with less rigidity. Marvel enlisted former Troma director James Gunn to adapt a second-tier comic series and, thankfully, let Gunn go nuts and create a funny, entertaining space opera with a delightful pop music score. The end result was, and still is, Marvel’s best film.
A sequel was inevitable. In fact, a sequel was announced before the first film even hit theaters. And now here we are, with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Unfortunately, the law of diminishing returns has set in — though thankfully not by much. Gunn is still Marvel’s best asset, a filmmaker who knows exactly how to apply his unique vision to these films while other, more renowned directors seem to get lost in the machine. Here, Gunn gets more creative visually, staging several jaw-dropping sequences that the first film can’t even touch. But the problems arise on a plotting level. The first film had the burden of introducing us to these new characters, but as a result it forced Gunn to be more focused. Here, the filmmaker no longer has to worry about introductions, and is free to let the characters run wild. At the same time, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is introducing new characters while also giving those who played a smaller part in the first film more screen time. It backfires: the film is all over the place, both literally and figuratively. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 can’t sit still for more than a minute, and you might get whiplash as the narrative jumps from one planet to the next.
At the start of the film, the Guardians themselves — Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and the recently regenerated Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) get into hot water when they rip off a race of smug gold-colored aliens led by a tragically underused Elizabeth Debicki. The Guardians narrowly escape a space battle with their new foes before they meet Ego (Kurt Russell), who claims to be Peter’s long lost father. Gamora’s psychotic sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) is along for the ride, and Peter’s abductor/mentor Yondu (Michael Rooker) is closing in on them. On Ego’s planet, the characters meet Ego’s assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an antennaed alien who knows more than she’s letting on. As Peter and Ego bond, the other characters intermingle, allowing Gunn to further develop everyone. Yondu in particular seems to have received the biggest boost here, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is more his story than Peter’s. Indeed, Pratt, who broke into the mainstream in a big way in the first film, is a bit of an afterthought here. Gunn seems far more interested in all the weirdos around him, which is fine as almost all of the actors rise to the occasion. Bautista is the stand-out here, playing Drax to the hilt, laughing uproariously at almost every scenario he’s put in. Cooper brings some depth to Rocket, revealing an emotional fragility that the first film only hinted at. Pom Klementieff is a welcomed addition as Mantis, an incredibly charming character that will hopefully get a lot more to do in eventual sequels. And yes, Baby Groot is pretty darn cute, but Gunn wisely uses him sparingly — no matter what advertisements may hint at, this isn’t the Baby Groot Show. The only two main performers who falter are Saldana and Gillan. Gamora remains the most underwritten member of the team, and as a result Saldana often seems unsure of what to do with her. Similarly, Gillan’s Nebula is given an emotional arc that never quite comes together.
The sloppy nature of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2‘s script should, in theory, derail the film. Yet when the film works, it works astonishingly well. For one thing, Gunn seems to be the only filmmaker on the Marvel roster who can drum up real emotion. While GotG Vol. 2 never manages to be as funny as it thinks it is — many jokes fall completely flat — it is remarkably touching. The Fast and the Furious films may get a lot of credit for their oft-quoted “family” themes, but GotG Vol. 2 manages to make similar ideas seem genuine. There’s an emotional honesty here that other MCU films can’t even touch, particularly involving how Peter deals with meeting his father. Russell, as Ego, is as wonderful as ever, bringing his usual swagger to the role. But there’s more than meets the eye to Ego, and Russell shines brightest when the character’s motivations become more clear. To say more would be a spoiler.
Beyond the strong emotional elements, Gunn stages some vivid sequences that once again burst off the screen like pieces of pop art. One glorious sequence involves Yondu, Rocket and Groot moving through a ship as Yondu’s free-wheeling arrow tears across every conceivable inch of space, all while “Come A Little Bit Closer” by Jay & The Americans plays. Characters fall from lofty heights in slow motion like snowflakes all while Yondu and company stroll confidently forward. It’s a hilarious and exhilarating sequence that makes you forget all about any script problems. That seems to be the running theme of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2‘s production: whatever the film lacks in one department it more than makes up for in another. There’s more inventiveness, and more honest to goodness heart in this film than the last four MCU films combined. And the soundtrack isn’t too bad, either.