'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2'
‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ felt like the sci-fi daydreams of an imaginative kid staring at psychedelic albums covers and stacks of Jack Kirby comics while listening to pop radio hits in the late 1970s. Writer/director James Gunn would likely be the first to admit that he was that kid. While his first bite at the Marvel apple was arguably the most entertaining entry in the MCU, his follow-up is surprisingly emotional and achingly personal.
It’s also likely to be the most giddily entertaining blockbuster of the summer. To do both things in a sequel is pretty damn impressive. Toss in the almost offensively adorable Baby Groot and you’ve got yourself a damn good excuse to choke on buttery popcorn.
Since we last met the Guardians of the Galaxy, they’ve been flying around doing the Serenity/Han Solo thing of being noble space pirates for hire. We dive into the middle of their latest adventure for an amazing virtual single-take of Baby Groot dancing to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while the rest of the team battles a giant tentacled space beast in the background. That focus on something small in the midst of something huge sums up James Gunn’s approach to the sequel. This is an MCU adventure with no reference to the rest of the MCU and a massive space opera that’s really about family, friendship, freaks, and the inevitable pain that connects them.
A bungled job and bizarre digression splits up the team. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) learns that his father is the planet/god Ego (Kurt Russell). Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) bond and battle. Drax (Dave Bautista) makes an emotionally psychic friend named Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and worries about nipple-chafing rocket suits. Rocket (Bradley Cooper) feels more dejected than ever but makes buddies with Yondu (Michael Rooker) once he’s banished from the Ravagers. The movie has a lot of plot, but it all serves a purpose.
Marvel movies have a tendency to depend on formula and deny their directors from making personal statements. ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ proves that’s not always the case, but the fact that it lacks the novelty value of the first misfit space adventure will likely ensure that most viewers won’t notice. That’s too bad because Gunn has clearly been allowed to do whatever the hell he wanted with this massive blockbuster sequel and delivered something unexpectedly pained and personal. Even though everything that made the first film work still appears, the core feels achingly intimate for the director. Without delving into spoilers, ‘Vol. 2’ packs an emotional wallop that hinges on the most unlikely character and serves as a massive metaphor for the pains and pleasures of family that Vin Diesel only wishes his ‘Furious’ franchise could achieve. It’s a mainstream movie for the masses about being a weirdo and an outsider and the ways in which we inevitably hurt the ones we love. That makes for a surprisingly potent movie if you let it in. Fortunately, it’s also a wild romp.
If anything, the psychedelic visuals are even trippier and more beautiful this time, creating a plastic cinematic reality true to the space tales that Jack Kirby cranked out for Marvel while still playing as contemporary entertainment. The ’70s pop soundtrack is just as magically catchy, but with an added emotional heft to suit Gunn’s pet themes. The action is beautifully choreographed. The wisecracks are expertly crafted. The pop culture gags and ancient Marvel comics references fly by at an impressive clip. Somehow, Gunn has managed to top himself as a practitioner of pure entertainment, while also deepening the emotional and thematic impact of his bubblegum blockbuster.
A huge reason why it all comes together is the impressive cast. The core team return and are equally gifted in comedy and badassery (just with Groot babyfied this time for added cuteness). The team is strong enough to carry the planned ‘Guardians’ trilogy and beyond. Marvel is right to lean on them for the future. However, it isn’t just that cute CGI tree nub that steals the show as the trailers suggested. It really comes down to two veterans of the 1980s cinematic culture that this franchise emulates and quotes so expertly. Kurt Russell and Michael Rooker are excellent here and not the way you’d expect. Gunn gleefully toys with both of their screen personas and the actors thrive in return.
That’s the appeal of ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ in general – the movie is everything that it should be, but never in the obvious ways. Gunn’s stretching his own creation and making a case for Marvel blockbusters as personal statements. While MCU fatigue might ensure that those inclined to poo-poo the sequel on sight shall indeed poo-poo as planned, those who still enjoy this series and the work of James Gunn in particular should leave the theater with big dumb grins on their faces and freshly wiped tearstains on their cheeks. In other words, there might not be a better blockbuster all summer even though the season is just getting started.