If you know me, you know the first Guardians of the Galaxy released back in 2014 is, to date, my favorite that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has to offer. Guardians completely knocked me off my feet, delivering an epic and colorful space opera about a group of losers that both expands the MCU and yet completely removes itself from the restraints of Earth-bound plotlines. Now, as we get into the bulk of Marvel’s Phase 3 and officially enter the summer blockbuster season, director James Gunn returns to the fold with the biggest A-holes in the galaxy and hand delivers us another round of sci-fi wonder; but the big question is does it live up to the original? In short, no.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) takes us through the motions of any sequel and develops the world-building while providing bigger action sequences and higher stakes. It’s consistently funny in a way similar to the original, but there are certainly gags that either fall flat or go on for too long a time. The film delves deep into Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill discovering his father, Ego, played by none other than Kurt Russell. I’ll be the first to admit, Kurt Russell is one of my favorite actors ever. Russell has been going through somewhat of a renaissance, returning to the fold of Hollywood blockbusters. He’s made appearances in two Tarantino films in the past decade, and is the highlight of the two most recent Fast & Furious movies as Mr. Nobody. As Ego, Russell has a blast completely owning the roll and allows audiences to understand his purpose. Ego and Quill’s bond throughout the movie is certainly the core of Vol. 2 and the other side+plots mirror the father/son or father/daughter relationships we’re familiar with from the first Guardians.
We certainly see a different side to characters like Karen Gillan’s Nebula, who goes into explicit detail about the horrors that her father, Thanos, has put her through over the years because of her sister, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, constantly besting her. Thanos and the Infinity Stones aren’t in this movie – merely mentioned – and it’s a smart move on Gunn’s part to ignore advancing the MCU once again and focus on the characters and what makes them special in this section of the universe. Michael Rooker’s Yondu is also cast in a different light this time around. In my opinion, Yondu is the best part of this whole movie, as he gets promoted from secondary antagonist to bonafide team-member. Yondu comes to terms with his own father/son dynamic with Quill and what that has meant in the absence of Quill’s real father. Bradley Cooper’s Rocket comes to terms with how he was treated by scientists who never gave a damn about him, and Baby Groot gives the team an opportunity at learning some group-parenting techniques. Yes, Baby Groot is adorable; but as I feared, his adorableness completely clogs parts of the movie and more scenes revolve around his cuteness than necessary.
Vol. 2 has some heavy moments and scenes where I found myself choking up, but where Gunn really struggles in his story is compromising scenes for what feels like a grocery list of moments. Moments in movies are awesome – think E.T. on the bike flying by the moon or a young Tom Cruise sliding into the living room to Bob Seger. Moments can be transcendent and leave lifelong impression on a moviegoer. It’s probably the reason why I constantly make references to movies with my friends, even if they don’t get the reference half the time. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is chock full of moments where time slows down or the composition is just right and the score swells up and pretty much tells you how to feel. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) suffers from this “moment frenzy” greatly and it shows as scenes sort of stumble into one another and there’s no graceful movement throughout the film.
In Vol. 2, Gunn attempts to separate the team, a la The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and instead of characters developing to reach a common meeting point by the end, it feels like characters are being moved into place for the next moment. The ‘grocery list effect’ of these moments is painfully on display as we see situations and tropes from the first Guardians play out again, only bigger, louder, and/or funnier. For every beautiful moment in this film, there are at least three or four that feel shoehorned in because at the end of the day, the movie needs to be “entertaining” so it can make money and Marvel can keep this train moving (even if the plot doesn’t set up Avengers: Infinity War (2018), ticket sales and reactions are just as much of a driving force towards Marvel’s)
endgame). Peter Quill’s ‘Awesome Mix’ of music gimmick makes a return with a new playlist of hits, but where the first film uses these songs as diegetic background music, in Vol. 2, the team makes audiences aware, on multiple occasions, that they can only seem to fight with a song on in the background – instead of the song just so happening to be on as events unfold.
It is certainly worth noting that even though the pacing can be off and transitions from moment to moment can be jarring, this is a gorgeous movie. James Gunn certainly, once again, delivers on a colorful look at the world. I have no idea if it’s too early to make a claim like this, but I am anticipating this movie being on the short list for cinematography nominations, come award season. The colorfulness Gunn gives us, along with sci-fi camera techniques and production design calling back to Fritz Lang and even Ridley Scott, make for a wonderful movie to look at. Gunn clearly did his homework when paying homage to science fiction greats, and the aesthetic of this and the original make me excited that he is already signed on to wrap the trilogy with the eventual Vol. 3. The digital effects are worth noting as well – especially Ego’s Planet and the ability to make a raccoon and a baby tree express emotional integrity so acutely. It’s an impressive feat for CGI and Gunn takes full advantage of immersing us in a world of glamorous set pieces and jaw-droppingly impressive practical makeup.
I was never expecting Gunn to top his first run at the Guardians, but I woud not call this movie a waste of time either. There are certainly flaws in the story structure and an aggressive case of trying to please fans by just recycling what worked in the first film, but at its core, Vol. 2 gives us insight into the sins of our fathers and certainly packs an emotional punch when it counts. It’s loud, it’s colorful, it’s funny, and it’s endearing. If you were a fan of the first, you’re sure to enjoy the second. However, if you’re looking for the greatest movie in the MCU to date, it’d be wise to level those expectations.
PS Great cameo from Sly.