There’s no magic formula at work in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2. If you liked the first one, you’ll like the second one. It really is as simple as that. The latest Marvel outing has all of the elements that made the original Guardians of the Galaxy such an unexpected hit, delivering an entertaining blockbuster with offbeat performances, colourful locales, and plenty of jokes that keep coming no matter how dire things get for the protagonists.
The new film is a bit more predictable, with a character-first approach that gives all of the individual players a little more room to breathe. After saving the galaxy and becoming heroes, Peter Quill/ Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Baby Groot (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, and Vin Diesel, respectively) have been skipping around the galaxy taking work for hire. When their latest job goes awry (largely through self-sabotage), the team meets up with Ego (Kurt Russell), a god-like being who also happens to be Peter Quill’s long lost father. He whisks Quill, Gamora, and Drax away to his own private planet, while the other half of the team matches wits with a group of bounty hunters led by Quill’s surrogate father Yondu (Michael Rooker).
The result is a film that feels smaller than the original, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most superhero sequels try to up the ante, assuming that a bigger movie with a bigger villain will have bigger explosions and will therefore be a better film. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 wisely zigs in the opposite direction, condensing the cast and narrowing the focus to the core team. If the first film was about the creation of a strange surrogate family, then Vol. 2 is about the relationships between the individual members.
In other words, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is The Fast and the Furious in space. The vehicles are different, but it’s all about family. The Guardians – including Yondu, Nebula (Karen Gillan), and a delightfully laid back Ego – spend the movie trying to weigh their commitments to the relatives they were born with against their commitments to each other, and those emotional arcs comprise the bulk of the narrative arc, as well. It’s not at all clear what the Guardians of the Galaxy need to guard the galaxy from until roughly two-thirds of the way through the film. The rampant insecurities of the key players are a far more pressing concern, which is appropriate in a movie in which one of the characters is literally named Ego.
It makes Vol. 2 one of the most self-contained entries in the Marvel universe, a movie that relies on the fantastic chemistry between the leads instead of convoluted world building. There are no Infinity Stones. There’s no Thanos. Save for one of the five post-credits scenes, there movie does nothing to set up future cinematic endeavors, and even that one scene seems to be of middling importance. Sure, there are lots of Marvel Easter Eggs. But they all pass in a flash and you’re not missing a whole lot if you don’t pick up on them.
Having said that, Vol. 2 does lack some of the spark that made the first film so memorable. The sequel simply can’t catch you off guard in the way the first one did, but that doesn’t stop it from trying. In the early going, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the movie is straining to be the thing that everybody remembers.
Fortunately, the movie’s formalism saves it from disaster. Guardians of the Galaxy landed with a splash because it seemed to come out of nowhere, arriving as technicolor explosion that completely redefined what a superhero movie could be. The sequel, on the other hand, succeeds because it follows the rules of traditional Hollywood. It’s a well-constructed film with charming performances and a solid script, with plenty of minor flourishes that loop back for predictable yet satisfying payoffs during the finale. It’s good old-fashioned filmmaking, albeit filmmaking with a talking raccoon, an infant sapling, and an entire planet of genetically engineered gold people with thin skin and an inflated sense of self importance.
So yes, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is enjoyable. Once it gets going, the pacing is excellent, the special effects offer delicious eye candy, and the jokes that land far outnumber the ones that don’t. It’s hard to make a bad movie when all of those components are in place. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is not as groundbreaking as its predecessor, but it is a competent facsimile, and that still makes for a pretty good time at the theatre.