Review: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Like most sequels, it’s not quite as fresh as the original, taking the endearingly quirky trademarks that made it so popular and pushing them to the point where it’s almost overkill.  Almost, but not quite, because “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is a stellar sci-fi adventure that holds its own with its predecessor as one of Marvel’s best films.

The first “Guardians” movie ended with its heroes—Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt); Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax (Dave Bautista); Rocket (Bradley Cooper); and Groot (Vin Diesel)—finally joining forces after spending much of the film at odds with each other.  “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” which is once again directed by James Gunn, opens with the dysfunctional space family on a mission to recover some batteries for Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the leader of the Sovereign race, in exchange for Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), who Ayesha is holding prisoner.  The opening scene, it which the Guardians battle a giant monster, features everything the first movie set us up to expect from this series: lots of action, gorgeous special effects set against colorful backdrops, 70s tunes, and irreverent humor flung back and forth amongst the characters.

That killer scene also sets up the feel for the rest of the movie, and it isn’t long before we find out what this story is really about.  After leaving the Sovereigns, the Guardians crash land on a planet and rendezvous with Ego (Kurt Russell) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff), his friend (assistant? pet?) who has emphatic powers, meaning she can feel the emotions of whoever she touches, and also influence those emotions.  Ego claims to be Peter’s father, who left Earth after Peter was born, and long before Peter’s mother passed away from brain cancer.  Peter, Gamora, and Drax follow Ego to his planet to learn more, while Rocket, Groot (who, by the way, is now an adorable baby, but is also still voiced by Vin Diesel because why not), and their prisoner Nebula remain behind to repair their ship.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2
The Guardians, from left to right: Yondu, Nebula, Peter, Gamora, Mantis, Drax, Rocket, and Baby Groot

The first “Guardians” drew many comparisons to the original “Star Wars” in terms of both its story structure and its fun, retro feel that is absent from most films in the sci-fi genre today.  Therefore, it’s fair to draw comparisons between “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and the “Star Wars” sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back.”  In Guardians, we not only delve more into the hero’s family history, but we also have the strained relationship between siblings Nebula and Gamora to contend with.  The band of protagonists is finally working together at the beginning of the film, but the story soon splits them apart for much of the rest of the film until it reaches the climax.  There are two main storylines—that of Peter and his father and that of Rocket, Groot, and Nebula—but there is a lot going on within each one.  Avoiding spoilers, we see the return of Michael Rooker as Yondu, the leader of the Ravagers who took Peter from Earth as a child and sort of raised him, and his second-in-command, Kraglin (Sean Gunn).  There are also some other fun minor new characters who make appearances here, but could play a larger part in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the future.  The point is that, despite all that’s going on, the film’s plot never gets too congested, and each side of the story is so good that you never find yourself watching one scene but wishing to go back to the other characters.

And that’s partly because the characters are still so compelling.  Baby Groot is mainly there for the cute factor, but he’s used effectively.  Rocket, the smart-mouthed raccoon-type creature, is overused just a tad, likely in response to his surprising popularity in the first film, as is Drax, who seems to find humor in just about everything.  Alternatively, Gamora isn’t given quite as much to do, but does appear to make some strides in her relationships with Nebula and Peter.  It’s Peter who is given the biggest character arc in the film, the emotions of which are downplayed more than they should be as the movie races toward its conclusion (again, avoiding spoilers, but his reactions to certain things that happen seem too casual for the situation).

This film ends much more abruptly than its predecessor, which works great as a standalone film.  “Vol. 2” begins introducing a lot more characters from the comics and working out a larger storyline to pursue in future installments, and it feels like Gunn and the writers weren’t sure where to draw the line, so they just ended it.  But despite its flaws—which really are minor—“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is a blast, and it’s the sort of breath-taking sci-fi adventure likely to inspire viewers in a way not-unlike the original “Star Wars.”  With the combination of wild colors, bizarre planets and creatures, and the integration of classic rock and pop songs into the story, writer/director Gunn has created something truly special that you don’t often seen carry over to sequels at the same level as the original.  There are so many worlds the story takes its characters—and the viewers—to, and so many different alien species we see that don’t all get backstories, or exist for any reason in the story.  They are just there, but they’re intriguing enough to make us want to see more, to know more, and that’s enough to elevate this film above typical crowd-pleaser, summer superhero movie status.

Runtime: 136 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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