by Philip Price
With the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” I went (or at least wanted to go) into the film with little to no expectations. Of course, with ‘Vol. 2’ it would be next to impossible to do the same unless one had skipped the first which, of course, would then only mean it would be next to impossible to fully understand or better yet, appreciate, what this second film has to offer. And so, despite having some expectation for “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” there wasn't much beyond suspecting that writer/director James Gunn might hand pick a new list of late ‘70s/early ‘80s hits to set something of a remixed version of the original's events to while pushing whatever story points the Marvel overlords needed pushed forward. If this sequel teaches us anything though (and it does try to teach if not at least say something significant) it's that sometimes expectations aren't detrimental to the overall effect a piece of art can have. That's right-I'm calling a Marvel movie, and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” specifically, a piece of art as well as stating that it surpasses all expectations. I'm saying this loud and clear because I feel like it would be easy to think otherwise about the rather unconventional super hero movie that “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” actually is. It seems it might be easy to be disappointed in the sequel because it doesn't exactly fit into the conventions we've become conditioned to expect. How does ‘Guardians 2’ buck this trend that Marvel has so perfectly perfected as of late? Well, the first thing it changes is that of setting up a convenient villain in the form of another Thanos crony looking for world domination (Gunn literally thought bigger this time, going for galactic domination) while also giving our heroes a real and emotional investment in the plight of the antagonist. Sure, the film opens with the guardians on a for hire mission that sees them doing battle with a large CGI monster for the purposes of getting paid handsomely by a race of snobby and rather pretentious Goldfinger/Goldmember lookalikes, but this is essentially only a framing device and reason to usher Michael Rooker's Yondu back into the fray. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is instead mostly about the relationships between the members of the titular team and developing those dynamics in exchange for progressing the overall Marvel arc. Where Vol. 2 really exceeds though, is in balancing the exploration of these relationships with that of still telling an effective story, the guardians story, and there's just something special about a ginormous, big-budget, special-effects extravaganza that feels this personal. Also, Baby Groot.
So yeah, the film opens with a good ole fashioned CGI-fest that gives way to one of the better title sequences you'll likely see in theaters this year. From here, though, the film takes something of an unexpected turn when the reveal of Peter Quill's (Chris Pratt) father comes in the first fifteen minutes rather than prolonging the inevitable and thus forcing the guardians to split up. With the arrival of Ego (Kurt Russell) and what is more or less his personal secretary in Mantis (Pom Klementieff) who desire to whisk Quill away Gunn makes the gutsy move of splitting up the winning chemistry of the fab five giving the necessary relationships breathing room while allowing what new relationships are set-up to be justified by the narrative. As was hinted at in the first film and teased in the trailers for ‘Vol. 2’ much of what makes up this sequel's runtime is the meeting, bonding, and discovering of the father/son relationship that Ego and Peter never had prior. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista) accompany their fearless leader back to Ego's home planet while Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper with Sean Gunn providing the on-set acting) and baby Groot (voice of Vin Diesel) stay behind to repair their ship that has crash landed while also keeping an eye on their prisoner, Nebula (Karen Gillan), who still has it in her mind to kill her sister. Leave it up to Rocket to steal some of what they were supposed to be protecting from the race of golden-bodied perfectionists known as The Sovereign and their leader, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debecki), who in turn recruits none other than Yondu and his gang that includes Kraglin (Sean Gunn) and Taserface (Chris Sullivan) to chase down the guardians, kill them, and return to The Sovereign what rightfully belongs to them. With such pieces in place Gunn has allowed his film to be of the world in which it exists both in terms of the MCU as well as that of the universe established in the first film. The guardians are still very much a rag tag group of heroes who rely on their own strengths and quirks to guide them through the tough spots they face together, but while “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” could very much have been another series of scenes where the team chases down a MacGuffin it instead establishes each of its various scenarios in order to better get to know its characters while simultaneously using said scenarios to build to something that will profoundly affect the dynamic of that team moving forward.
Point blank: we grow to care a lot more about these characters due to the fact Gunn isn't afraid of breaking them out of their comfort zone. Like I said, this sequel could have very easily followed the mantra of "bigger is better" and more or less derived itself from its predecessor, but while “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” also opens with a flashback to the eighties, the rest of the film carries a very different tone. Whereas the first film delivered the obligatory origins of the team and how they each came to know one another, this second film in the series has each of the guardians not just fleshing out their relationships with one another, but more evaluating their own lives and how they came to be at this point in those respective lives. Right out of the gate we see that while Rocket and Groot are still very close Rocket is no longer able to depend on his companion in the same ways he was previously. Quill and Rocket are constantly at one another's throats; fighting to prove they're worthy of the titles they wish others would bestow upon them. Quill is also dealing with that "unspoken thing" between him and Gamora while mostly trying to digest the fact his father has finally found him and has some surprising news concerning his lineage. As far as Gamora is concerned, there is no "unspoken thing" between her and Star Lord, though we all know there is. Still, props to Gunn and his screenplay once more for not simply resorting to romance in order to keep Gamora's storyline active, but instead delving into her past with Nebula for slices of insight that cut to the core of the character and provide genuine understanding of how these two sisters came to despise one another to the point they can't help but to want to kill one another, but are never able to actually bring themselves to do so. Furthermore, it is through Ego and Yondu that the film offers its best cases of turning expectations on their head as neither operate on the wholly good or bad side of things, but more in a definite gray area on the morality scale leading the audience to not simply dismiss them as one thing or another, but be surprised by who they place first-themselves or the ones they love. This brings about the above referenced "something more" that Gunn was reaching for as one could easily deduce the director is making a plea for the quality of the time we have rather than the length of time we're given, but more it is that Gunn and his film take the time flesh out this point with its own relationships rather than state it without leading by example.
Without delving too much into spoiler territory this theme that is explored is largely due to the nature of the villain and the fact his quest for domination comes not only with eloquently stated justifications, but actions that are filled with tough choices we know this antagonist had to make. Still, that he makes/has made the ones he does we know where his priorities lie and how they differ from that of the guardians given what they learn about one another and discover about themselves in this installment. The entirety of the cast is all kinds of charismatic and none of that is lost in the transition to this sequel where we are treated to more introspective performances all around rather than just re-treads of what we saw in the initial film. Pratt's Star Lord is truly struggling with who to believe and which perspective to trust when it comes to his father and the camaraderie he has always yearned for while Gamora can't help but to feel something more nefarious is going on. Saldana and Gillan may very well come to be one of the more underappreciated aspects of the film due only to the fact it's the most familiar, but at the same time it is the revelations of how Nebula became more machine than woman and how Gamora treated her in order to escape such mental torture that give the audience pause to just how understandable Nebula's motivations are when it isn't she who must answer for a lack of mercy. Even Bautista's Drax, who along with Groot is largely enjoyable and liked for a single personality trait, is given the opportunity to develop a new friendship with Mantis that not only allows for organic plot momentum, but for Bautista to share different shades of his very literal alien life form that prove to be equally as funny as the aura he developed in the first. Bautista could have very easily resorted to making Drax little more than the guy who laughs at everything and makes the obvious joke here and there, but instead of taking that easy route Gunn gives Drax a new, innocent personality to play against and the combination is rather fantastic. It doesn't hurt that Klementieff is pretty great too. The real MVP though? Rooker's Yondu. Not only does this somewhat underdeveloped player from the original completely find redemption here, but he becomes the heart of the theme Gunn is exploring with what is easily the best and most memorable line in the film. Gunn's visual style and soundtrack picks are once again both interesting and more revealing than they might suggest on first glance. Of course, any movie that sets its opening credits to an ELO song is already a winner in my book, but that “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” only continues to thrill, surprise, make us laugh, and make us think only reiterates what a wonderful, intimate treat of a summer blockbuster this really is.