"Someone on Twitter asked James Gunn if the third GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movie could just be the team hanging out on vacation, but it turns out GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL 2 is actually pretty close to that dream. It’s a hang out movie with space battles, a film whose entire plot turns largely on emotion, not on ‘go there, do this’ action beats. Someone asked me about the plot of the movie and I couldn’t really answer it without getting spoilery.
This isn’t to say that GUARDIANS VOL 2 is boring, but rather that it’s quite unlike any other Marvel movie yet, and maybe unlike any superhero movie yet. Yes, there are galaxy-impacting stakes (that get shoehorned in during the third act, and that feel like an afterthought to an afterthought), but the real stakes of the movie are all relationship based. Father/son dynamics dominate the film, but writer/director Gunn slips in some sibling rivalry and even muted romance along the way. At the end of the film the biggest question wasn’t whether the Guardians would save the day, but rather whether the Guardians would have the cathartic emotional moments they need to continue growing as people.
The story begins shortly after the events of the last film, and the now-established team are heroes for hire. They battle a space beast at the behest of the gold-skinned people of the Sovereign, an advanced and haughty race of genetically engineered perfect beings. That legit job goes sour when Rocket can’t help but pocket some of the Sovereign’s crazy expensive Space Batteries. The Sovereign, piloting remote control drones that make arcade game sounds, call in Yondu’s Ravagers to help destroy the Guardians in retaliation. It turns out that Yondu’s Ravagers have been shunned by the larger Ravager community (led by Sly Stallone himself) because of the fact that Yondu ‘kidnapped’ young Peter Quill rather than return him to his father, as he had been contracted to do. This mission perhaps offers Yondu a chance to redeem himself.
Just as things seem to be too much for the Guardians, a mysterious figure appears, riding a spaceship like it’s a chariot. It’s Ego, and he tells Peter that he’s his long-lost dad, and that Peter has a destiny. And that’s where the ‘plot’ kicks in AND where things get spoilery.
Gunn has given himself a huge cast of characters this time; not only is he servicing the original Guardians but Yondu has an emotional arc, Nebula returns and has an arc, he introduces the character of Mantis who needs to be serviced and then there’s Ego himself. On top of that the Ravager side plot is pretty major, and there’s a lot of emotional back and forth happening over there as well. All of this makes GUARDIANS VOL 2 slightly overstuffed, but in a welcome way - it feels like going to a party and all your friends are there and you know you’re just never going to have to the time to hang out with any of them quite enough.
Faced with that dilemma, Gunn doubles down on Yondu and Rocket while making Quill something of a straight man this time out. Star-Lord, the beloved rogue from the first movie, has his edges slightly sanded off here as he becomes a shockingly passive protagonist, sort of going with the flow and making what feels like way fewer jokes. Quill sort of stands in the center of the movie, unchanging, as other characters relate to and bounce off of him. Which isn’t to say that Chris Pratt is lame here - he’s charming and funny and has plenty of scenes, it’s just that when you really look at it the story is not moved by his character, it’s moved by everybody else relating to his character.
All of this might make GUARDIANS VOL 2 sound kind of like a chamber drama, but it very much is not. It’s a huge film, and it’s got way more jokes per capita than the first. Gunn does not hold back his comedy here, and more than once he gets right up to the edge of undercutting his own drama with a gag. Every emotional beat in the first 80% of the movie is followed up almost immediately with a joke, and at some point you suspect that Gunn is purposefully deflating all of these moments. But if he is it’s just in service of an emotional wallop at the end; the barrage of humor gives way to some terrifically emotional and potentially tear-jerking climaxes at the end. It’s a testament to Gunn’s mastery of tone that he can make this movie so relentlessly funny while still getting us in the tear ducts at the end.
Visually GUARDIAN OF THE GALAXY VOL 2 is absolutely stunning. Most scenes are saturated in eye-popping color, and Gunn’s corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has long since left behind any grounded qualities. The film’s designs are hyper-science fiction, with many shots looking like 1970s scifi novel covers (or prog rock album covers) come alive. The shot of Ego riding his spaceship, waving at the occupants of the MIlano, is exactly the sort of over the top visual the MCU has been missing, and it brought me enormous joy.
Ego himself is a huge concept. I don’t know if this is a spoiler or not, but Ego is a character in the comics, and his full name there is Ego, The Living Planet. Yes, Kurt Russell is playing a planet that has taken the shape of a man (with a working penis, as Drax goes out of his way to establish). This brings another set of father/son dynamics - that of God/Christ, and while Gunn underplays it, the film’s third act feels like a criticism of evangelism (I’m assuming nobody pointed this out to Pratt, who is a serious Christian). It’s a big, big, big scifi concept, way bigger than ‘blowing up the world’ or ‘getting the stones,’ and it is pretty cool. I kind of would have liked to see it explored further, but that the film has Kurt Russell playing God to Chris Pratt’s Christ is pretty cool in and of itself.
Russell is great, and Gunn uses him to critique many of the masculine tropes that underlie the Star-Lord character himself. Ego gives a big speech about the 70s AM radio staple “Brandy,” talking about how the protagonist of that song - who loves Brandy but is wed to the sea - is very much Ego. It’s a puncturing of the ‘great man’ story, the Captain Kirk type who comes into port and romances the ladies but has to take off to see to the bigger issues of the day. It’s a fitting theme for a movie that is so obsessed with family (seriously, family talk is at Dom Toretto levels here), and I like how it subverts everything we expect from a character like Star-Lord. The way that Gunn is playing Star-Lord’s franchise arc is less about his domestication and more about his assumption of responsibility; GUARDIANS VOL 2 is, across all the character arcs, a movie that rejects the romanticization of irresponsibility. Every character in this movie, at one point or another, has to step up and take responsibility not just for themselves but for each other. Man, I really respect how Gunn works a theme.
If Quill has to be the straight man at the center of the maelstrom, Rocket and Drax get to have all the good bits. With Dave Bautista proving his comic chops in the first film, this movie sees Drax getting the lion’s share of jokes. He’s endlessly hilarious, and almost every sentence out of his mouth is a laugh line. But Gunn also weaves in a sweet relationship with Mantis, Ego’s personal assistant. Played by Pom Klementieff, Mantis is almost Drax’s exact opposite. Where Drax’s inability to read other people made him a surprise icon to the autistic community, Mantis has powers of super-empathy - if she touches you she feels what you feel. But that doesn’t make her any less socially awkward, and she and Drax make a terrific pair - a man who doesn’t feel enough and a woman who feels too much, each set socially adrift in their own way. I never would have guessed at that match up in advance, but Gunn nails the dynamics.
Rocket, meanwhile, gets the most action in the film, and he’s the most active protagonist. He’s playing dad to the still-growing Baby Groot (a constant scene stealer who, in another testament to Gunn’s mastery of tone, is often ALMOST too cute but always avoids becoming cloying) even as they get captured by the Ravagers. Rocket is dealing with his own asshole nature - his ceaseless need to push people away - and so Gunn teams him with Yondu, who has similar tendencies. Yondu, meanwhile, is caught between being a father figure to Quill and also dealing with the disapproval of his own father figure, Sylvester Stallone’s Stakar (and yes, that is the name of one of the original, futuristic Guardians of the Galaxy). Yondu’s arc is pretty great, and he and Rocket both grow immensely in the course of this film. Michael Rooker, long of James Gunn’s company of actors, really sinks his teeth into the character this time, finding layers of regret and sadness under the surface of this blue-skinned space biker.
If Quill is the straight man, Gamora is the straight woman. She seems like the character Gunn has had the loosest handle on in both of these films. This time her story is divided between relating to Quill - who believes they have an unspoken, Sam-and-Diane-from-CHEERS things happening - and her sister Nebula, who is looking for revenge. What I really like is how Gamora is forced to confront her own role in Nebula’s past trauma, which she does without self-hatred. The relationship between these two is so complicated and nuanced that you almost wish Gunn would give them more screen time to work it all out.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL 2 shares some beats and concepts with the first film - what is with Gunn and swarms of single-pilot ships? - but it is so much its own unique beast. It’s funnier than the first movie but it doesn’t have the element of surprise and discovery that made the original sing so clearly. VOL 2 is slightly overstuffed, but in a way that you like - these are great characters and you love them. There’s a feeling of indulgence onscreen, but it’s not in the service of empty spectacle or computer FX (although there’s plenty of spectacle and FX) but rather in the service of characters, relationships and jokes. Could you cut time out of this movie, especially in act two? Sure, but why would you? You’re getting a chance to hang out with so many great characters, played by such wonderful actors, cavorting in such beautiful environments, while having interesting and complex emotional arcs… while also being funny as hell.
If GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY was a great pop song, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL 2 is much closer to a prog rock concept album. The hooks are there, but the songs go on for six to eleven minutes and it’s a double album and the gatefold image is fucking insane and you like to lay it open while you listen and dump your weed on it to pick out the stems and seeds. It’s a truly different experience from the first movie, and I think it’s an experience that will be heightened by revisiting it again and again, giving yourself the luxury of sinking into the groove after you’ve given this concept album an initial listen."