In many ways, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 feels like the superhero film that its director, James Gunn, always wanted to make. Back in 2014, the first in this soon-to-be-trilogy was widely regarded as a bit of a risk for Marvel, its titular protagonists being a lesser known team of heroes than the Avengers. It did, however – aiming squarely for a joie-de-vive tone and a whole galaxy of mainstream fun – prove to be a rip roaring success. Such features are largely carried over into Vol. 2 (does this mean Guardians of the Galaxy is retrospectively Vol.1 now?), yet, with a soundtrack drawn more deeply from the nostalgia catalogue than the recognisable hits that peppered the former and a focus on character development over heightened stakes, Gunn’s is a more prominent and untethered directorial hand this time around.
If anything, breaking the conventional raisin d’être of sequels, Vol. 2 is a somewhat lower key venture than its predecessor – albeit one that expands its cast ensemble to include Hollywood big names Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone. After a prologue establishing a CGI de-aged (still impressive technology, still weird) Russell as having had a relationship on Earth with Meredith Quill (Laura Haddock) – mother of Chris Pratt’s Peter, the film picks up pretty much where the last one left off. That is, thirty four years later, with Baby Groot (voiced again by Vin Diesel) boogieing to ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’ in the foreground of the Guardians doing battle with a giant alien squid. A now infamous team, they’re supposed to be protecting intergalactic batteries for Elizabeth Debicki’s High Priestess of a race called the Sovereign, Ayesha, in exchange for erstwhile blue baddie – and sister of Zoe Saldana’s Gamora – Nebula (Karen Gillan). However, when Rocket (Bradley ‘frickin’ Cooper) steals a handful of the AAs, he ignites the wroth of Ayesha and forces the Guardians to flee through an asteroid belt in order to escape the Sovereigns’ fleet of remotely-piloted drones.
Their eventual escape is enabled by the timely arrival of a mystery ship which destroys the gold-clad pursuers in one fell swoop. Aboard this vessel is Ego (Russell), who announces himself to be Peter’s long absent, celestial, father. Peter being initially wary but later overjoyed, it is henceforth a familiar plot of paternal bonding and dark secrets that ensues, all leading to a climax in which the Galaxy is once again in need of Guardians.
The instant success of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is that it is a very funny film. Far funnier than both its former and any, even, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Gunn successfully milks the adorability of Baby Groot for all he’s worth, whilst Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer remains a wonderfully obvious joy to be hold and is supported well by the addition of Pom Klementieff’s empathic, but socially absent, Mantis. Bautista’s deadpan delivery of gleefully unfiltered one liners for the ages – ‘It would make my nether regions engorge’ – never fail to hit the mark in the film’s sharply self-aware script. It is a shame, then, that such endearingly comical characters have to be subjected to a narrative totally lacking the inventiveness of its set up. In plot, Vol. 2 is very by the book and frankly a bit naff. It’s a fine line the film treads between having low- and no-stakes.
Much more so than in Guardians of the Galaxy, the visual design of Vol. 2 is utterly bonkers. The colour scheme here is ‘Rubik’s Cube’ and a viewing of it is an experience akin to attending a disco party at a sherbet factory. It would come as little surprise if a behind the scenes featurette were to reveal that the whole film was captured through a kaleidoscope. Also vamped up is the eighties sci-fi look of the production, reminding often of Flash Gordon through an intentionally cheesy aesthetic. This is, naturally, amplified by a soundtrack comprising Cat Stevens, Fleetwood Mac and David Hasselhoff. That the early space chase is less one through an asteroid field than a piñata of sugar puffs is warning however that at times, it must be noted, the effect is a little overwhelming.
On the other hand, Gunn’s dedication to emotional pay off continues to work well, with his gift for pathos coming from all the most surprising of places. Drax is as bizarrely poignant as he was before and Mantis makes for a touching addition, whilst expanded roles for Nebula and Yondu (Michael Rooker) very much come from the heart.
It is this humanism that enables the film to rise above its faults. These may well be flaws more pronounced than before, but it’s unfailingly surprising just how easy it is to forgive such warm and tender awesomeness.