Following up 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy wasn’t going to be an easy task. By making a film about one of their least known superhero teams (one which includes among other members a smartass talking raccoon and a tree who repeatedly says the same single sentence) a critical and commercial hit Marvel proved they could make cinematic gold out of pretty much all of their comic book source material. Fortunately, Marvel recognized that the key to the film’s success was writer-director James Gunn, keeping him on for the sequel and seemingly granting him more freedom than they have been known to give most other directors under their employ. As a result, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an exceptional sequel that delivers more of the unique blend of comedy and heart that made the first movie so special.
Since saving the galaxy in the first movie, the Guardians have spent the last couple of months doing well intentioned mercenary work. After Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) double-crosses a client the Guardians find themselves under attack before being rescued by Ego (Kurt Russell), a godlike being who also happens to be the birth father of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). Here the influence of The Empire Strikes Back on Vol. 2 becomes obvious, as the Guardians find themselves split into two distinct groups until the finale, with Quill, Gamora (Zoe Saldanna), and Drax (Dave Bautista) remaining with Ego and his companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff) so Quill can learn more about his mysterious origins, while Rocket and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) become tangled up in the misadventures of Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Yondu (Michael Rooker).
One of the most beneficial elements of Vol. 2 is its unique structure. A gradual pace and the splitting of the team work wonders, allowing for deeper exploration of most of the characters. Coming off such a successful first effort many writers and directors would have been unwilling to change, only intending to repeat what audiences loved about the first film. Gunn admirably goes the opposite way, recognizing that as great as it is, the first movie isn’t perfect, and Vol. 2‘s script does an admirable job of stripping away what didn’t work last time around. There aren’t any boring space cops in Vol. 2 (which also means no wasting of talented actors in bit parts), nor is there any of the half-assed attempts at social commentary. Gunn instead smartly doubles down on his strengths, those being character development, jokes, and visual vibrancy (this is possibly the most wonderfully colorful superhero film of all time).
That all being said, Vol. 2 is itself imperfect. Technically the film is a bit of a mixed bag. Although Gunn constructs another wonderful soundtrack of beloved songs from the 70s and 80s, the original score is nothing special. Furthermore, there aren’t any really bold choices in terms of direction or cinematography other than the astonishing special affects and aforementioned color. Gunn elects to let the actors and script get most of the attention, and while both are strong enough to earn this faith it is somewhat of a safe choice. There isn’t even that much action in the film, at least not many beats that aren’t comedic in some way, with Yondu getting the only really memorable set piece. While this may be something of a problem for some viewers (most people reasonably expect a decent amount of exciting fisticuffs when they go to a superhero movie) it’s another sacrifice in favor of telling the most emotional and funny story possible. It really is spectacular how this film is able to either make one laugh or tug at their heartstrings in practically every scene. Unified by the idea of what it takes to keep a family together, Vol. 2 has some really touching character arcs. Yondu and Quill remain the best characters and Pratt and Rooker are the best things about the movie but pretty much all the major characters and actors have good showings. Bautista is hysterical, increasing the unique energy that made Drax such an unexpected delight in the original film. The violent sisterly rivalry between Nebula and Gamora is complicated in interesting ways and Saldana and Gillan make the most of some of the script’s most directly dramatic material (these are the only characters who aren’t really given any comedic beats). Mantis is the only character who falls somewhat flat, and Klementieff doesn’t make much of an impression, though that may be because she’s mostly paired off with the comedic gem that is Bautista. Rocket can seem like a jerk early in the film but this is in service of putting him through the most complicated development. All in all, Vol. 2‘s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses and it is a delightful experience, with an unapologetic, effective optimism that the comic book genre hasn’t seen since X-Men: Days of Future Past.