Deep down, I think we all knew we’d only get one Guardians of the Galaxy. Sure, there’ll be sequels, tie-ins, crossovers, and probably spin-offs as long as they keep making money. But James Gunn’s gonzo 2014 space opera was wonderful in part because it felt so fresh and different—it was weird, irreverent, and stylistically and tonally unmoored from everything that came before it in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In other words, it was, by its very nature, a phenomenon that’s almost impossible to replicate. There’ll be plenty of attempts—look no further than the Thor: Ragnarok trailer, with its ’70s rock soundtrack, retro fantasy vibe, and roller-rink visuals, for proof that the alchemy is already becoming algebra.
Even Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t quite Guardians of the Galaxy, though it comes pretty darn close. It’s goofy, imaginative, and eye-popping, and it all but dares you not to have fun. Maybe the difference is that now we know what to expect, and Gunn has a formula to which he must diligently adhere. I guess having a rulebook is kind of a drag, even if you’re the one who wrote it.
There’s also the looming specter of the upcoming Infinity War crossover that will tie together the Guardians and Avengers franchises. It’s hard to shake the feeling that, as Gunn and his intergalactic misfits are reeled into the Avengers orbit, there’s some pressure to stand up straight and act a little more like a conventional superhero movie. Vol. 1’s approach to stuff like plot and character arcs was casual at best, and that looseness was appealing as hell—there was an awesome sense that everyone was just wandering around doing random stuff and, oh yeah, an Infinity Stone! Vol. 2 isn’t exactly tightly plotted, but, if I have some minor qualms, it’s that the movie saddles Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), with ho-hum daddy issues and a backstory-driven character arc that rob him of some of his dopey charm.
Of course, playing it straight is a relative concept in a Guardians of the Galaxy story in any medium, and this installment has the added bonus of casting Kurt Russell as a magnificently coiffed, god-like being known as Ego, whose mission to roam the galaxy and bone females of every sentient species eventually produced Peter.
Peter doesn’t know any of these details, of course, and when Ego drops in to save him and his fellow Guardians from being pulverized by a race of gold-skinned aliens from whom they’ve stolen some important batteries (just go with it), Peter welcomes the chance to get to know his dad. This involves an extended stay on Ego’s planet, which is essentially the universe’s biggest and most gorgeous prog-rock album cover.
It’s immediately clear to everyone besides Peter that Ego has an ulterior motive for tracking him down, but his associates have pressing family issues of their own: Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is still fending off her psychopathic sister; Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) is playing dad to Baby Groot (voice of Vin Diesel); Drax (Dave Bautista) still grapples with the death of his wife and daughter; and Yondu (Michael Rooker) has been exiled from the impromptu family of space pirates known as Ravagers.
The first film wasn’t subtle in casting the Guardians as a dysfunctional but loving family unit, so the sequel’s emphasis on family ties isn’t out of place. I just wish it didn’t force Pratt into a father-son storyline that buries so much of his rakishness.
So the middle stretch of Vol. 2 doesn’t always earn the emotional beats between the funny banter and the dazzling space battles. But talk about a third-act rally—the final moments might be the most heart-wrenching sequence Marvel has put on film so far. Regardless of its weaknesses, Vol. 2 proves that Marvel is still successful in the area that so consistently trips up its main competitor: It genuinely cares about the characters, and they make sure we do, too.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is playing at Regal Riviera Stadium 8, Regal Knoxville Center Stadium 10, AMC Classic Knoxville 16, and Regal Pinnacle Stadium 18.
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