Originally published May 5th, 2017 on thedistantcloseup.com
To a certain extent, each stand-alone series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has their own identity; that thing that just makes it so they stand out from the others. Captain America is the posterchild for a wholesome vision of American idealism, Iron Man brings the charming, if conceited wit – or, wait, it’s not just him, is it? – and Spider-Man is the compellingly awkward nerd. Though Ant-Man would have been the same had Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish stayed on board, there is no other series so thoroughly defined by both the personalities within and the ones behind the camera than Guardians of the Galaxy.
Long before Deadpool became the proper cinematic torch-bearer for all that is irreverent and subversive in superhero films, the Guardians came swooping in as a refreshing break from the overwhelming choice of serious tones the other series had begun adopting, with Age of Ultron being the proper midpoint for the Universe’s arc. Now that Civil War has launched the final sprint toward Infinity War, we find ourselves in a similar position requesting James Gunn and Co. to provide for us all of the clever humor and heart we can handle.
As expected, the Guardians shtick we’re accustomed to doesn’t always stick the landing as cleanly as the original, but when it does, Vol. 2 is still a funny, wholly engaging superhero sequel with even greater emotional depth.
It would be just like Gunn to start the film by simultaneously giving the audience what they want most as well as a cheeky middle finger. Among almost everyone’s favorite MCU post-credit scenes is young Groot (Vin Diesel) dancing to the Jackson 5, nervously stopping when a joyless Drax (Dave Bautista) turns away from polishing his knife, so why not offer up the opportunity for fan service, this time to Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky”? As Baby Groot merrily gets his boogie on, the focus on him takes away from the film’s opening set piece, presumably because Gunn knows the audience can afford to miss a majority of one fight scene in a superhero flick that’s 136 minutes long.
Perhaps it would have been funnier if we missed the whole fight for dancing Groot, but that’s neither here nor there.
The rest of the first act gets us reacquainted with the gang and their ticks, and though there a few jokes here and there that slightly miss the target, Bautista consistently steals the screen as the ever straight-shooting, blissfully unaware of his own humor Drax – that is, whenever Groot doesn’t have the spotlight on him, instead. We enjoy and accept what Peter (Chris Pratt) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) bring to the table, even find them just as affable the second time, and while we can sense that Pratt and Cooper know their respective characters inside and out, their punchlines aren’t always as strong as they were in the first film.
Michael Rooker tends to play himself no matter the character, and Yondu is no different as he dominates amongst the other minor characters, with Karen Gillan reprising her role as Gamora’s (Zoe Saldona) evil sister, Nebula, and introducing both Pom Klementieff in a charming turn as Mantis and soon to be Vol. 3 antagonist High Priestess Ayesha, played by Elizabeth Debicki. The world has wondered, however, how Kurt Russell would approach the role of Ego, and the results are decent. Russell’s portrayal is respectfully workmanlike, but it’s mostly the narrative’s doing that helps the audience assume Peter’s spellbound perspective and read Ego as a convincingly suave, roughly elegant father figure.
The narrative structure is almost entirely different from the original, which is both to this film’s benefit and occasional detriment. Come the end of the first act, the story breaks apart into three to four different subplots that, admittedly, give the film a better chance to individually develop these characters and further excavate various opposing dynamics, as well as better explore darker themes while maintaining a buoyant, yet level-headed tone. Until they neatly converge come the second act’s conclusion, however, the pace becomes more gradual without a unifying purpose that can give the story proper focus and direction. It’s hardly plodding, but Gunn’s measured tactics with the material do make the product feel just overlong, though tiding viewers over with a sheer abundance of colorful visuals.
The story hits the final act with real attack, however, and momentum is finally restored with the innate eccentricity that made the first film so enthralling. It bears a similarly conventional and tragic structure to other superhero sequels, but all of the players involved help those emotions resonate without descending into the darkened hopelessness that has become the trend amongst other popular, less successful franchises. Our spirits are lifted soon after, and not just because of the film’s, once again, stellar soundtrack.
At once both exhilarating and exhausting, Vol. 2 firmly primes us for one final go-round with these characters – at least once their done with the upcoming Infinity War films. Many other filmmakers would be a solid complement to the sort of material the Guardians bring forth, but there isn’t any doubt that James Gunn elevates it to heights others possibly couldn’t achieve with the right mixture of positive vibes and suspenseful, dare I say dramatic thrills. Not to mention, he’s quite possibly the only MCU filmmaker who could get away with five post-credit scenes, self-reflexively acknowledging the tropes while candidly embracing them.
Sounds like a microcosm of these films, if you ask me.