In the years since Guardians of the Galaxy became a massive hit for Marvel, it’s become harder to remember just how much it seemed like it might be a massive miss for the studio. While Marvel Studios has largely had to deal with characters who were considered B-list heroes before their films came out (because honestly, it feels weird to think that Iron Man and Captain America aren’t A-list these days), the characters who made up the Guardians of the Galaxy were more like…Z-list. A talking raccoon and a sentient tree? What kind of weird shit was Marvel getting into?
As we know now, the right kind of weird shit.
Guardians of the Galaxy wasn’t just a hit for Marvel. It outperformed Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel’s other big hit that year. It made a bonafide movie star out of Chris Pratt. There was clamoring for merch with these characters, particularly the adorable dancing Baby Groot highlighted in the credits. The success of Guardians made Marvel’s decision to move forward with their plans for Doctor Strange plausible, and opened up the doors for the dramatic shift in tone that we’re seeing for this year’s Thor: Ragnarok.
But for all the good that the film has done for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, when it comes to this one particular series, there’s a lot more potential for failure with the Guardians. Guardians of the Galaxy managed to be the right film at the right time, something wildly unexpected. Now that there are expectations, can the team that created the film pull it off again?
The short answer: no. That being said, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does manage to throw in a few surprises that may still appeal to audiences, depending on what they’re looking for in a sequel in the first place.
Not too long after the events of the first film, the Guardians of the Galaxy have taken on a new challenge: to protect extremely valuable Anulax batteries, at the request of the High Priestess of the Sovereign (Elizabeth Debicki). Soon, though, the team finds themselves split apart after the mysterious Ego (Kurt Russell), the long-lost father of Peter Quill (Pratt), makes his presence known.
There is, of course, more to the film, but the joy of the film is experiencing it with as little knowledge as possible. That’s harder to do this time, since these characters have permeated pop culture more thoroughly since the first film. Like most sequels, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 goes for “more” of what worked with the first film – more humor, more action, more vivid color. For all of the humor and quirkiness that seemed to define the first film, though, what made it work is the heart that beat underneath the film. The opening scene of that first film, where Peter watches his mother die on Earth, set up the emotional core that was quintessential to the first film. And for all that Vol. 2 builds on the typical sequel concept of “more,” that heart is what gets the biggest renewed focus with this film.
That heart is explored through the concept of family, and while that’s not necessarily new for a blockbuster (even one starring Vin Diesel), I can’t think of one where it’s dominated so thoroughly. There’s the obvious relationship between Peter and Ego, of course, but there’s also the fractured relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan). The connection between Peter and Yondu (Michael Rooker) also is explored, and Yondu’s side of that relationship is also explored through the bonding between Yondu and Rocket (Bradley Cooper), which in turn explores Rocket’s relationship with the rest of the team. Drax (Dave Bautista) develops a rapport with Ego’s servant, Mantis (Pom Klementieff), that brings up unresolved feelings of loss and regret with his deceased wife and daughter. And of course, there’s Baby Groot (Diesel), who’s developed a familial relationship with everyone as he slowly grows.
The film gives all of these relationships some room to develop, with some getting more emphasis than others. It’s a lot to absorb, and the film’s lengthy running time does give some room for these various relationships to develop. Some of them have the benefit of having roots in the first film, which not only makes it important to have seen the first film, but does suggest a rewatch may be necessary going in.
These, by the way, are welcome developments, and I applaud writer/director James Gunn for choosing to delve deeper into these characters. In the long-term, these steps feel necessary, and they diverge just enough from what we’ve grown accustomed to in a superhero film to feel unique. In the short-term, though, these decisions do result in a film that’s not quite as taut as the first one. Tonally, the film tends to jump around quite a bit more than the first film; while that’s fine in many cases, sometimes the shifts become a little too jarring. It’s tricky terrain, narratively speaking, and while I wouldn’t say that Gunn fails with this, he doesn’t completely succeed either.
Gunn does succeed in other areas, though. While the first film was more colorful than we’ve come to expect from either a Marvel movie or a space-set film, it has nothing on the candy-colored spectacle that is Vol. 2. Showing all of the different planets that come through the film, each one feels unique and otherworldly, distinct from each other. The gold-colored world of the Sovereign and the beauty of Ego’s Planet are two of the particular highlights.
There are also some unexpected cast highlights. Both of the Guardians films are ensemble-driven, but Peter was unquestionably the lead of the first film. While he does have a significant storyline here, it’s the other members who get more impactful storylines or scene-stealing moments.
Obviously, Baby Groot is a scene-stealer, and having Groot in this much smaller form this time around changes the dynamic of the entire team. It also reframes some of Groot’s aggression and simple-minded actions in new ways. The film knows he’s adorable, and he’s referred to as such in one specific (and hilarious) line. Drax also gets plenty of new material to work with here, and he becomes a secret weapon for the film to use when it needs a good laugh.
The most surprising character, though, is Rocket. The first film clearly established that Rocket is a bit of an asshole, and the second film shows that this has only grown worse. Rocket’s a jerk to pretty much everyone, and is responsible for a large part of the mayhem that ensues in the film. It’s that attitude that lets him create a bond with Yondu, though, and it generates some intriguing complexity for the talking trash panda.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 had quite a lot to live up to, considering how the first film went over with critics and audiences alike. If it doesn’t meet those standards, it’s not for a lack of trying. The final product, though, is one of the most enjoyable, and occasionally emotional, films that we’ll see this year. It offers much more than two hours of Baby Groot, which – let’s be honest – would have been a much safer way to make a guaranteed box office hit.