Given that pop music plays such a central role in the film, it’s perhaps fitting that watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 occasionally feels like listening to a greatest hits album. Notably, the group dynamic that practically defined the first film is only really present at the beginning and end, writer/director James Gunn instead dividing his heroes up and sending them on differing quests. It’s a decision that often pays dividends, with each main character developed in interesting and meaningful ways, supporting characters given extended screentime, and the greater creative freedom leading to some scenes that are more effective than anything in the original. It has however come at the cost of a cohesive narrative, the film doesn’t really have a main plot, instead consisting of a series of loosely connected stories, one of which is eventually assigned primary status.
The major new introduction is Ego, a tremendously powerful figure (in all senses of the word) who is the natural father of Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the cocky space outlaw who is theoretically in charge of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Ego is played with equal parts gravitas and charm by Kurt Russell and his interactions with Quill force the younger man to re-consider just who he is and who he wants to be (yes, this is infuriatingly vague but to say much more would spoil things). Meanwhile, Drax (Batista or, if you’ve never watched WWE, Dave Bautista) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) are also both on Ego’s home planet with Quill. Drax is developing a relationship with Ego’s “pet”, an empathic creature called Mantis, that is equal parts touching and bizarre (Drax’s absolutely literal mind is once again mined to great comic effect). Gamora meanwhile is mostly occupied by a fight with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), a conflict which again forces them to re-evaluate their relationship and rethink life-long hostilities.
Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) on the other hand spend most of the film entangled in the power struggle between Yondu (Michael Rooker), a blue alien outlaw who just happens to be Quill’s adoptive father (well, kind of, he kidnapped him from Earth, it’s complicated) and his crew, which eventually mutinies and chooses Taserface (Chris Sullivan) as their new leader. Oh, and a weird gold race of “perfect” humans are hellbent on taking the Guardians down, their fury provoked by Rocket stealing valuable batteries, and Sylvester Stallone briefly turns up for no apparent reason, as some sort of outlaw leader.
Finally, after his sacrifice in the first film, the humanoid tree Groot is now a baby and his mindset has changed along with his physical form. Basically, Baby Groot just wanna have fun, and this casts Rocket in the role of stressed-out single dad, desperately trying to keep his little one safe from harm as the Guardians risk life and limb.
Needless to say, there’s a lot going on and even the best director in the world couldn’t prevent the whole thing from feeling a little disjointed. What James Gunn does do is handle each scene superbly, with Guardians 2, he confirms himself as a master of the modern blockbuster. Like Joss Whedon, he knows just when to shift from the comic to the serious and his pacing is superb, Guardians 2 is a long, complex film but it generally flies by, Gunn switching between action, comedy and soul-baring drama with ease. In fact, it’s tempting to view Gunn as the heir to Whedon’s crown but, given that there’s only five years between them, it wouldn’t be much of a reign. Still, I’d know who I’d trust the next Avengers film with, should something happen to the reigning king of comic book adaptations.
Most impressively, Gunn brings an auteur’s touch to a gargantuan, multi-headed beast of a production, despite all the different visual effects studios working on the project and the thousands of people involved in taking it from words on the page to a living, breathing, three-dimensional film, it’s still Gunn’s baby. It’s his passion and sensibility that make this weird collision of space opera and pop culture work and it’s immediately identifiable as a James Gunn film, the jokes, the irreverent attitude, the way it shifts from galactic sitcom to action movie to emotional drama; all of it is light years from the formulaic brush that comic book films are so often tainted with.
Gunn’s distinctive approach is evident from the opening credits, the Guardians are fighting a huge, tough-as-nails space creature with snapping jaws but the camera quickly gets bored and instead focuses on Baby Groot. Left alone, and with a toddler’s curiosity, Baby Groot plugs in the speaker Rocket brought along and dances around the chaos, the conflict fading to a blur as the tiny tree is picked out in an extreme close-up and jives and shimmies to the strains of Mr Blue Sky by the Electric Light Orchestra. It’s an immediate signal that the spirit of the first Guardians of the Galaxy is alive and well and that, whatever this is, it’s not your average action film.
Unsurprisingly, Baby Groot comes close to stealing the entire film, with another standout sequence involving his efforts to help free Yondu and Rocket. Locked in a prison cell, the two painstakingly explain where Yondu’s fin can be found and what it looks like, i.e. a red metal Mohican that is the source of his power. Baby Groot listens intently and sets off full of purpose before, again and again, bringing all sorts of miscellaneous items that bear little relation to what he’s been asked to retrieve. These include a small alien creature, a severed toe, Yondu’s underwear and, perhaps best of all, a metal desk which dwarfs him and which he pulls along with his roots. Each time, Rocket and Yondu are baffled and despairing in equal measure and there’s something about the contrast between the earnest determination of the little tree and the utter failure of his efforts that is absurd, touching and hilarious all at the same time.
Guardians 2 is full of little moments like these, but much of its emotional power comes from Yondu’s expanded role, he’s now far more than the roguish outlaw who kidnapped Quill, and the film delves into his backstory with Ego, Quill and the Ravagers, a group of outlaws from which he was cast out. We also get to see much more of what must be one of the most badass weapons in all of cinema, the telekinetic arrow which Yondu controls by whistling and which rips through one enemy after another, a glowing red line of destruction. These scenes of carnage are filmed with almost balletic grace by Gunn, bodies falling in slow motion and, in one highlight, the arrow taking out the lights before ripping through a group of ravagers, each one illuminated at the moment of their demise.
Last but not least, the film is a true visual feast, full of pyrotechnic space battles, and a giddily technicolor palette that leaps off the screen. It also really takes advantage of 3D, one early scene is set amidst swirling flurries of snow, Ego’s planet is an Oz-like Eden that features bubbles which quite literally pop with colour and, in a nice callback to the early days of 3D movies, Yondu’s arrow occasionally floats so close that you feel like you could reach out and touch it. The attention to detail is once again impeccable, Rocket’s fur and Baby Groot’s eyes in particular are a superb example of just what modern CGI can do.
Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is a superb film, a funny, inventive and touching adventure that confirms James Gunn’s exceptional talent. Its slightly fragmented structure sometimes gives it a disjointed feel but its highs are staggering – there are countless great scenes, we gain a greater emotional connection to the characters and there’s real emotional power to its conclusion. It is, in short, the absolute best of the modern blockbuster.