Guardians of the Galaxy came as a pleasant surprise amidst the summer blockbusters of 2014 as it continued Marvel Studios’ dominance in the multiplexes. It was a breath of fresh air in the comic book superhero movie genre by eschewing filmmaking by committee in favor of the singular vision of James Gunn. He took a bunch of relatively unknown characters and transformed them into a bickering yet lovable rag-tag team that saved the universe. The movie’s success demonstrated the strength of the Marvel brand and the expansion of their cinematic universe into the cosmic realm, which had been hinted at in The Avengers (2012).
The phenomenal triumph of Guardians of the Galaxy ensured that a sequel was inevitable with Gunn returning to writing and directing duties. This time out, his goal was to deliver more of the same from the first movie while going deeper into the characters and the dynamic between them with the focus on Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) learning more about his mysterious, extraterrestrial father.
Taking place only a few months after the events depicted in the first movie, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) starts off on a high note as the opening credits play over Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) grooving to “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra while his fellow teammates fly around trying to stop an inter-dimensional monster from destroying valuable batteries belonging to the Sovereign race, bantering and bickering in the most entertaining fashion.
Naturally, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) pisses off the Sovereigns by stealing some of their batteries and the Guardians find themselves fugitives yet again as they barely escape a giant space battle, rescued at the last minute by Ego (Kurt Russell), the Living Planet and Peter’s father. Meanwhile, Yondu (Michael Rooker) has been exiled from the Ravagers and hired by the Sovereign to find Peter, but along the way his crewmates mutiny, leaving him defeated and in a dark place.
Vol. 2 has a lot more heart than the first movie and this is due in large part to the relationship between Peter and his father and also between Peter and Yondu, fleshing out his backstory. The scenes between Chris Pratt and Kurt Russell have genuine warmth to them as Peter has to figure out if he can trust Ego while the latter wants to bond with his son. Fortunately, there is more to their relationship than that and this complicates things, leading to an epic and emotional showdown. Michael Rooker, a favorite of Gunn’s, also gets more substantial screen-time resulting in a surprising turn of events for his character so that he is more than a perpetually pissed-off mercenary.
We also get additional insight into what motivates Drax (Dave Bautista) and delve into the strained relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). This means more screen time for all of them and this enriches these characters in a surprisingly satisfying way that several of the Marvel sequels (Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 2) failed to do but that Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) was able to thanks to having the same screenwriters as the first movie thus having stable continuity much like what Gunn has done with this franchise. It also helps that these characters have already been established and so he doesn’t have to spend time introducing them, which frees up more running time to examine them in more detail.
The cast is uniformly excellent once again, each actor getting multiple moments to build upon what they did in the first movie and so Chris Pratt starts off being the smart-ass Star Lord we all know and love and then gets to convey some genuine emotion as his personal stakes in what happens rise dramatically. Even scene-stealer Dave Bautista gets to have some playful banter with new team member Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an alien with empathic powers.
Vol. 2 features another fantastic soundtrack of classic rock, from Fleetwood Mac to George Harrison, with an even stronger collection of songs that Gunn marries so well with a given scene, like when Peter serenades Gamora to Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me” or George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” playing while Peter and the others arrive on Ego’s planet. As with the first movie’s soundtrack, this one elicits a wide range of emotions, from romantic notions to melancholy to elation. Gunn, more than any other filmmaker working for Marvel Studios, knows how pick the right song for the right scene and the right moment.
If the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie introduced us to these colorful characters and the galaxy they inhabit, then Vol. 2 goes deeper, allowing us to get to know them better. The first movie was about the formation of a family of misfits, of strangers, and the sequel examines the importance of it. If the first movie had a flaw it was a rather generic villain. This one does not make the same mistake as the baddie is fully developed with a valid motivation that is personal and therefore poses a more meaningful threat to our heroes. Gunn has managed to make an exciting, action-packed space epic that has an intimate character study at its core. Vol. 2 feels even more personal of a movie than the first one and without sacrificing the splashy spectacle we’ve come to expect from these kinds of movies.