A lot of reviews for this film are going to open with the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy was a massive hit, but a surprise one. And while I want to acknowledge my amazement at the fact that little kids are running around shouting “I am Groot,” —the singular catchphrase of a comic book character so obscure that most fans probably couldn’t have named him offhand a few years ago— there’s really not much to say about it. We live in interesting times, for sure. The nerds won (because Hollywood figured out how easily we are parted with our money) and here we stand at the fifteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
Even as a superfan, I can sympathize with people feeling fatigued by this Golden Age of Superheroes. But this film is a remedy for that, far more of a comedy-driven space adventure than it is a superhero film. And this entry is even more removed from the larger MCU. Of course, it helps that James Gunn is one of only 2½ true auteurs working within this franchise (the other being Joss Whedon, and Shane Black counts for the half). And if anything, the success of the first film only seems to have given Gunn even more freedom this time around. And luckily, he has chosen to eschew the typical superhero approach of stuffing too much into the sequel, and mostly focusing on the characters established in the first film.
The film opens with Peter/Starlord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Groot (Vin Diesel) in the middle of a job. Of course, it goes wrong. The primary plot sees Peter, Gamora, and Drax leaving with the mysterious Ego (Kurt Russell) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Meanwhile, Rocket and Groot have to deal with Yondu (Michael Rooker), Nebula (Karen Gillen), and more fallout from the previous film. I won’t go into more detail than that for the sake of spoilers, but also because the film is very light on plot.
That’s where much of the joy in these films comes from anyway. Splitting a group of characters with this much chemistry can be a risky proposition for a film, considering that despite its episodic nature we don’t get as much time with these characters as we do on television, but Gunn strikes the right balance. And even better are the new combinations that develop. Pairing off Rocket and Yondu reveals a lot about each of them, and really deepens those characters in a completely organic way.
But beyond the writing, Gunn is also a visual auteur, of course. The first movie was stylish and filled with color, and this one doubles down on that aesthetic. Each object in the film pops with color, detail, and texture, the perfect remedy when so much of Marvel’s other output is muted and stark (ha!). Additionally, there is less quick cutting, and the action is easy to follow, even in IMAX 3D. Apparently a good 40 minutes of the movie uses that format’s expanded aspect ratio, but I didn’t even notice some transitions. It is also the best use of 3D in the Marvel films, which is usually completely superfluous.
The original film is a modern classic, but this one might be slightly better. The first film suffers in its third act, where its final showdown between heroes and villain feels largely anti-climatic. In that film, it was undercut by comedic choices (the dance off is funny, but it undercuts the drama a lot), and is also hampered by the fact that Ronan is barely a character. Sure, in this film the timing of the villain’s plan and the motivation are a bit sketchy, but it is easy to dismiss those as conventions of the genre especially because there is so much emotion that grounds their conflict.
The jokes are even funnier in Vol. 2, as they continue to mix nostalgia with self-deprecating remarks about the genre itself (Bautista continues to be the comedic standout). They’re a bit edgier too overall, and it is nice to see James Gunn keeping his crude sense of humor in this entry. And the action is better, more inventive (quantum asteroids!) and even less shy about pushing the boundaries of what can be done within this universe.
And while not overly graphic, this film is violent, and has the most visible onscreen deaths in a Marvel film, as well as more crude humor than we’d ever see from Captain America. These things also help it stand out as more distinct among the rest of these films. It’s all done in a cartoonish and stylized way, and hopefully this pushes Marvel to bigger and more interesting visuals in future movies. This film, along with last year’s Doctor Strange seems to have Marvel finally embracing the art that fills the pages of its source material, and not just the intellectual property, and it is a trend that should continue.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 stands proudly as its own film, and continues to blend action, humor, and an emotional core into its unique, awesome mix.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan has been writing thoughtful film reviews and pop culture commentary on and off for over a decade. He spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area. His other interests include comic books, coffee, experimental beer, discovering new music, and books.