Just when I think I have figured out what writer-director James Gunn is capable of, he goes and makes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and shows me he’s capable of so much more. There’s no getting around the fact that his first go-round with the Guardians team was a whole mess of pure, undiluted entertainment. Certainly the most colorful and expansive of all the current crop of Marvel films, Gunn got a chance to build a universe more or less from scratch (acknowledging the comic book source material, of course). This is unlike the other Avengers-linked movies that all seem to be firmly rooted here on a version of earth very similar to our own. No two characters in Guardians of the Galaxy even looked the same or were the same species, let alone color.
Set just a few months after the events of the first film, Guardians Vol. 2 almost immediately does something I wasn’t expecting: it shows us how much the core team members have changed. Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) isn’t quite as reckless with his planning and actually seems to be showing signs of maturity and even affection for his newfound “family.” There’s a flirtation with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) that is less about banter and more about genuine emotion, although he’s not quite ready to admit that to her. The strongman Drax (Dave Bautista), once a stoic to the point where he had trouble knowing how to react to jokes, is now downright jovial at times, almost as if he’s overcompensating, but still a lot more fun to hang with.
As if to offset the balance, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) seems even more bitter and hardened. However, his pain may be a combination of the feelings for his new friends finally forcing the suffering he went through in his life before the Guardians to rise to the surface, leaving him no choice but to deal with them. And his attachment/partnership with Groot (now infant sized, still voiced by Vin Diesel) seems all the more important to Rocket as the team enters a new adventure that requires them to once again save the known universe.
Some of the elements that Gunn utilized to make Guardians of the Galaxy so special are still in place—a new classic-rock soundtrack (“Awesome Mixtape #2”); the Ravagers are still a source of much annoyance, although even that dynamic has changed as Yondu (the fantastic Michael Rooker) seems less inclined to betray his old charge Quill; and there are many more references to beings in the Marvel cosmic universe. Among these new characters are a race of gold-skinned beings, led by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), whose drive toward physical perfection and moral superiority makes them easily offended, especially when Rocket steals something from them just because he feels slighted by them, thus kicking off a retaliation of epic proportions.
The true kicker of Guardians Vol. 2 is the presence of Kurt Russell as Ego, a being so powerful in the galaxy that he has created his own planet around him. He also happens to be Quill’s biological father, and as we might suspect he tests Peter’s loyalty, asking him to weigh his feelings for his chosen family over those for his newly rediscovered blood. The concept of building a family around you that is more supportive than your actual relatives is a recurring theme this summer, but somehow Guardians gives the idea some substance.
For example, there’s the continuing struggle between Gamora and her “sister” Nebula (Karen Gillan), who were both raised as instruments of destruction by Thanos, and were treated quite differently by him. I never expected to feel bad for Nebula in these movies, but her suffering at her adoptive father’s hands is palpable, and when the truth comes out about the nature of the sisters’ past shared life together, it stings. The film’s biggest surprise is the elevating of Yondu to a member of the Guardians after being overthrown by the Ravagers for being soft. As much as Yondu has been something of a cartoonish hillbilly scoundrel up until now, Gunn fleshes him out, gives him a wonderful heart, and proves that Quill’s belief in building a family around you came from this man. Hell, Gunn even manages to make us care about Sean Gunn’s Kraglin character, who was little more than a parrot on Yondu’s shoulder in the first film.
I might argue there isn’t a disposable scene in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but not every sequence is about forwarding plot. The visuals are essential, especially as we tour Ego’s expansive world, that we realize, as we take it all in, is a temple devoted to the character, with images, creatures, shapes, and phenomenon that is simply impossible to explain or describe. And it’s ever-changing, especially during certain action sequences, because Ego can simply will the landscape to alter. Almost lost in the mix is Ego’s sidekick Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an empath who seems to exist to calm his mind enough to sleep. At one point, Drax refers to her as Ego’s pet, and she doesn’t correct him, and for some reason that made me weirdly uncomfortable until her true purpose in the film is revealed.
Of course there is action and plenty of it, both more physical, grounded-in-reality encounters and space battles. They are great, for certain, although they seem a little less essential because the rest of the film is so strong in terms of character building and performances. And I haven’t even mentioned the mysterious appearance of Sylvester Stallone or Stan Lee’s epic cameo (that might actually explain why he’s in every Marvel movie), or the new Ravager leader Taserface (Chris Sullivan), whose name evokes…well, mostly laughter; I’m not going to lie.
There are a lot of moving pieces in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and they all somehow make sense and help grow our understanding and affection for these misfits. In the end, it isn’t about whether it’s a better movie than the first installment; like most of the characters within, it’s more mature and substantial and doesn’t rely on past accomplishments to make it great. And knowing that the Guardians will be in the next Avengers movie and in a third film of their own (still written and directed by Gunn) warms my heart the way most family reunions do.