You have to hand it to Marvel Studios. Not only have they successfully mastered the seemingly unrepeatable construction of a cinematic multiverse that grows richer with each new installment; they’ve accomplished this using second and third-tier characters, such as the titular Guardians of the Galaxy, who weren’t already licensed to rival companies like their heavy hitters were – namely, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man. The secret to making even C-listers successful is taking likeable and relatable actors and dropping them into likeable and relatable roles, all while emphasizing the fun factor that’s key to comic book adaptations. Zack Snyder, please take note.
With that said, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is a triumph of commercial and corporate-minded franchising, and it’s also unquestionably one of the best and most satisfying films Marvel has produced to date. Writer/Director James Gunn has accomplished the rare feat of crafting a sequel that builds upon its predecessor’s foundation, using its characters to broaden the scope and explore new vistas in a way that’s organic rather than calculated. It’s “universe building” rather than “universe rehashing”.
The first “Guardians of the Galaxy” was an oddball film that, for so many reasons, should have crashed and burned on takeoff; instead, it worked wild and unexpected magic on its audience. A surprise success can end up poising a brand for unreasonable expectations and diminishing returns — the quirkier and more original a concept, the more difficult it is to replicate, or build upon. Rarely does lightning strike twice in the same place, much less present itself for easy bottling. Thankfully, In the case of the second “Guardians of the Galaxy,” we have an “Empire Strikes Back” rather than a “Matrix Reloaded.” Richer and darker, more mature and resonant, yet as compulsively consumable as a bag of Doritos washed down with a six-pack.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is a difficult film to discuss, or at least summarize, without venturing into spoiler territory; I shall refrain, as the journey is half the reward. It’s a massive film due largely to its ensemble nature, a roster that continues to grow as new characters are thrown into the mix without any narrative stumble. We see the return of cocky, 80s child Star-Lord (Chris Pratt in the role he was born to play); the sullen and emotionally disconnected Gamora (Zoe Saldana); literal-minded bruiser Drax (Dave Bautista); pissed off malcontent Rocket (Bradley Cooper); and the absurdly adorable Baby Groot (Vin Diesel). Expanded roles are given to returning actors Karen Gillan and Michael Rooker (shining unexpectedly as the film’s MVP); newcomers Kurt Russell, Elixabeth Debicki and Pom Klementieff add new comic and dramatic foils to a cast that thrives on interpersonal dynamics. There’s not a weak link to the bunch, and they’re juggled perfectly.
This balancing of so many faces, familiar and new, is the key to the film’s success: every character has an arc, all of which are interwoven, or reflected off one another. The interplay, fueled by the themes of family and loss that were first hinted in the predecessor, are the heart of “Vol. 2,” lending unexpected emotional punch and elevates the sequel to heights rarely seen in genre films of this sort. The third act, in particular, its epilogue, contains such sincerity and resonance as to catch its audience off guard, and yet it’s tempered by organic, character-based humor that’s every bit as honest. In the end, it’s a film that leaves you laughing while choking somewhat on the lump in your throat you never expected to find there. A lesser film might fumble these opposing forces, sliding unintentionally into melodrama, or underserving the thematic material by employing too light a touch; Gunn avoids the maudlin and saccharine so effectively that it’s almost astonishing how well earnest sentiment works in a movie about wisecracking raccoons and sentient planets.
While less concerned with continuity than other films in the ever-widening Marvel cinematic universe, “Vol. 2” contains numerous hints, clues, and in-jokes, all of which tease both the unfolding “Guardians” narrative, and the Infinity War-themed “Avengers” two-parter still to come. As such, “Vol. 2” contains not only the customary post-credits stinger, but four additional mid-credits scenes to boot. Marvel mastermind Stan Lee’s obligatory cameo is particularly notable for the characters with whom he’s sharing the frame; casual filmgoers won’t catch it. Neither will general audiences register the significance of featured cameos by Sylvester Stallone, Ving Rhames, and Michelle Yeoh, or their implied significance. However, these are Easter Eggs for fans to enjoy, and don’t in any way create issues for less continuity-minded viewers. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is almost stubborn in its refusal to be burdened by intercompany crossover, making it once again a somewhat outlaw entry in the Marvel Universe.
With a stellar cast, a unique vision, and another toe-tapping soundtrack, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” justifies its existence as a sequel; yet it’s the aim to transcend its earlier success that makes it essential, not simply for films of this genre, but for franchises in general. It’s a film that dazzles you with its effects work and rollercoaster set pieces, packed with more consistent humor than any other comedy this year. It’s a perfect date movie, or for a night out with friends, or even a slightly edgy flick to share with the kids (as long as you warn them not to repeat the dialogue later on at the dinner table when Mom’s around).
But its emotional core is the true marvel of “Vol. 2”, and it reminds us that it’s okay to be a little corny sometimes, just as long as we’re all invested, and the sentiment is earned. “We are Groot,” indeed.
Directed by James Gunn (II)
Written by James Gunn (II)
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and brief suggestive content