Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
By Matthew Huntley
May 16, 2017

The hero we need!

Supposed definition of a good Hollywood sequel: a movie that continues, rather than simply repeats, the original story and develops the characters further. If this is true, then Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a sequel to the much-beloved Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), should be considered great. Not only does it continue the original's story and expand the characters' personal stories, it does so with wit, humor, and, surprisingly, emotion. And it's real, earned emotion, not sappy or artificial. Nevertheless, fans of the first film, based on a lesser known Marvel Comics property (of course), can rest assured knowing Vol. 2 retains the same irreverent, flippant attitude to keep things spicy and moving. It's a sequel all right, but it's fresh and exciting and not preoccupied with merely doing the same things as before.

This is all the more unexpected given how financially successful the original Guardians of the Galaxy was, which would make one think the studio and filmmakers would try to recreate the same magic to better ensure fan turnout, and thus, profitability. But to the credit of writer-director James Gunn and his crew, the goal seems to be creating another kind of magic, and with new, interesting characters at their disposal and new depths applied to pre-existing ones, they're able to do just that.

Plot-wise, things more or less pick up from when we last left our squabbling interstellar friends - Peter, a.k.a. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), a sort of Han Solo wannabe; Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green-skinned alien with superhuman abilities; Drax (Dave Bautista), the former human turned muscle-bound being who often breaks out into uncontrollable laughter; Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), the competitive, foul-mouthed raccoon; and Baby Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), a talking tree with limited speech and intelligence but an undeniably adorable face (it remains a mystery to me why Vin Diesel was even cast given that his voice is so electronically manipulated, but never mind).

After the events of the first film, this motley crew of former thieves and hunters have been charged with protecting the chaotic cosmos in various ways, shapes and forms. Their latest job finds them battling a giant, slug-like space creature in order to retrieve valuable batteries for the Sovereign race, and of course the team members are all arguing with one another about how it should be done. Peter thinks Gamora should use a sword instead of a gun; Drax thinks punching it from the inside will do the trick; Rocket thinks he has a better chance of maneuvering around the creature compared to Peter; and Baby Groot, well, he just drowns everything out while listening to ELO's “Mr. Blue Sky.” This diverse unit still has a love-hate relationship, but they know, just as we do, they've become not just a protective mercenary group, but an unorthodox family.

In fact, it will be their familial ties that get tested the most as the plot continues to unfold. After the Guardians defeat the monster and deliver the batteries, the Sovereign leaders hand over Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora's sister, who holds a deep-rooted grudge against Gamora for not protecting her from their adopted abusive father when they were kids. Nebula vows to destroy Gamora the first chance she gets, and as if she weren't enough trouble, Rocket, for no other reason than to prove he can, actually re-steals the batteries they just returned. The Sovereigns consequently send a fleet of drones after the Guardians and nearly obliterate their ship, but they're rescued by the mysterious Ego (Kurt Russell), who reveals himself as Peter's long-lost father (his romantic affair with Peter's mother opens the film).

Ego invites Peter, Gamora and Drax back to his paradisiacal planet and explains he's a Celestial being, or “god with a lowercase 'g',” and that Peter himself is a half-deity of sorts. What Ego ultimately has in store for his son, I'll not reveal, but Ego's pet empath, Mantis (Pom Klementieff), with her bug-like eyes and antennae, has the ability to feel what others feel, and she knows a truth about Ego that she almost reveals to Drax as they develop a relationship of their own.

Meanwhile, Yondu (Michael Rooker), the excommunicated, blue-skinned Ravager who kidnapped Peter as a child because “the boy was good for thieving,” answers the Sovereigns' call to destroy the Guardians. But circumstances and changes of heart complicate matters, and it just so happens Yondu and Rocket become unlikely allies against Yondu's once-loyal band of followers.

All of these plot threads eventually come together in a rather traditional climax, replete with all the usual battles and explosions, including an entire planet getting destroyed, but each carries its own weight, and Gunn doesn't allow any of the storylines or characters to get short-changed. He balances all the working parts exceptionally well, and as action-heavy and “comic book-ish” as it is, we become invested in the narrative on more than just a silly and funny sci-fi adventure level. We come to really care about what happens, even more than we did with the original, and respond emotionally to the characters' struggles and growth. The integrity with which Gunn treats the “light and mindless material” encourages us to not let our expectations of the genre dictate our overall impression and we appreciate “Vol. 2” as a thoroughly entertaining movie with lots of heart and intelligence.

Of course, the production values are also top-notch, although with a $200 million budget, how could they not be? It's clearly been money well spent, as the special effects in particular are right up there with “Dr. Strange,” another Marvel Comics Universe entity. And for anyone who's seen “Dr. Strange,” which I'm guessing will be a lot of the same people who see “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” that's saying a lot.

If nothing else, and whether or not you're familiar with the material, the movie is just a whole lotta fun and embodies what's best about Hollywood blockbusters. Its mix of playfulness, sarcasm, emotion and romance reminded me of the first three Indiana Jones pictures, and just like those classics, Star-Lord and company, and the actors who play and voice them, have a lot of chemistry that makes them likable and down-to-earth. Plus, with music artists like ELO, Sam Cooke, Jay and the Americans, and Cat Stevens on the soundtrack, it's hard to walk away from “Vol. 2” not feeling happy.

It's funny, but at the end of my review for the first Guardians of the Galaxy, I commented on the idea of a sequel by writing, “I would encourage the filmmakers to combine their attitude with more depth. As amusing and appealing as the characters are, I’d personally like to see them in a more original story - one with a greater purpose. It’d be great if the filmmakers could retain the movie’s current wit and audacity but expand upon the substance.” I'm almost certain the filmmakers didn't read my first review, but I am certain they've answered my call.