Considering the wide variety of obscure Marvel characters, from Squirrel Girl to Spider-Ham, then the likes of Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Rocket Racoon and Groot are not too out of left field. The only question was whether audiences would be receptive to an Odyssean epic set against the backdrop of 70s and 80s tunes, where a human space pirate, emerald assassin, vindictive warrior and an anthropomorphic raccoon, along with his tree sidekick, joined forces to save the universe. Yet, with due faith in the Marvel brand and an innovative script from James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, Guardians of the Galaxy ended up being one of the best breakout hits of 2014, praised for its touching characters, visual splendor, humor and unpredictability. Just as the superhero genre was becoming stale due to a bevy of uninspired films like Iron Man, Thor and the X-Men sequels, Guardians gave new life to the genre. The film helped propel other eccentric and outlandish properties, such as Ant-Man (2015), into the mainstream zeitgeist. It goes without saying then, that the Guardians sequel is expected to have the same swaying power. While it mostly succeeds, providing an exhilarating adventure, ultimately Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 mostly feels like a retread of the original to the point that it tries to succeed too hard.
Though Vol. 2 takes place only a few months after the first film, the characters find themselves in slightly different places. Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is comfortable leading his intergalactic band of misfits and newfound family on exciting excursions, yet still wrestles with identity issues and questions his parentage. His insouciant and carefree personality clashes with Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) professionalism, who remains the voice of reason on the team. Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) attempts to navigate through social norms, but it does not take him long to give up and resort back to smashing things or slicing up villains with his knives. Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is still a kleptomaniac, though he did become Groot’s (Vin Diesel) guardian.
The team, benefitting from their rise to intergalactic stardom after defeating Ronan the Accuser, are hired by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debecki), leader of the Sovereign, to protect nuclear power batteries from a monstrous multi-tentacled monster called the Abilisk. The Guardians succeed but after Rocket steals a few of the batteries for himself, Ayesha sends an entire squadron of Sovereign warships to destroy the Guardians. Just as they are about to perish, a man named Ego (Kurt Russell) destroys the ships and brings the Guardians to an unknown planet, then revealing to Quill that he is his father.
The plot is thin in some parts, but this does allow for the characters to develop and fill in this void. While the first film was about how the Guardians came together as a family, this time around director James Gunn pushes characters to their limits and explores how the Guardians are able to stay together. The amount of bickering, arguing, name-calling and teasing throughout makes it seem as though the Guardians are truly siblings, simply fighting and vying for the audience’s attention. More elements are given to Peter’s backstory and it feels surprisingly grounded. Drax’s dry humor and his inability to comprehend idioms and adages apart from their literal meaning make for the most hilarious moments in the film, which balances well with Rocket’s self-deprecating humor. Surprisingly, Yondu does a lot of things in the film and his character is revamped from an avaricious mercenary to someone who genuinely cares for Star-Lord. Kurt Russell takes an amusing, if slightly boring turn as Ego, whose exposition-driven role awkwardly stands next to the more dominating personalities.
Likewise, it was disappointing to see Mantis (Pom Klementieff), the newest member of the Guardians, get little screen time and become more of a plot device to hurry the story along. And, of course, Baby Groot steals the show. His gecko-like mannerisms and ferocity make him both adorable and a force to be reckoned with. A particularly memorable scene occurs as the team is fighting the Abilisk; the camera focuses solely on what Groot is doing throughout the battle. Given his size, it is funny to see his sole goal as saving the speakers and insuring that they keep on playing music or chasing smaller creatures that annoyed him, instead of helping out his teammates.
The film does not take place across a wide spectrum of locations, instead focusing on a few sectors of the galaxy. But, credit where it’s due to the director of cinematographer Henry Braham, who fleshes out each locations with sophisticated detail. The color palette is spectacular and since so many of the characters are vibrant, they either magnify the bright set pieces, or contrast nicely with the darker tones. The action pieces are also marvelous, with Braham capturing the one-on-one fights with just as much grace as the crazy intergalactic space battles.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 also succeeds as a true, standalone sequel. Easter Eggs abound with many blink-and-you-miss-em cameos (Sylvester Stallone even pops up), but as far as implications to the wider Cinematic Universe or the forthcoming Avengers: Infinity War, the film is quite conservative, which is a bold and admirable move. Gunn lets the characters take the reins of the story and does not incorporate any dizzying connections. Thus, he gives the film a fresh and welcome reprieve. Likewise, though it’s hard to name a stand-out track from “Awesome Mix Vol. 2,” the eclectic soundtrack compliments the frenzied tone of the film.
Unfortunately, not all of the characters are given enough screen time and, in terms of pacing, the film struggles in the middle before accelerating at light speed to produce a coherent ending. Also, the film is practically bursting at its seams with humor and nearly every serious or dramatic moment is undercut with a joke.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 attempts to one-up its predecessor by going bigger in every way. It does this while also (admirably) trying to expand on the character’s stories. This serves as both the film’s greatest strength and weakness, because the number of characters means some receive shallow development, which ultimately results in an entertaining but somewhat hollow film.
Zachary Lee is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org