How do you know "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" is going to be a hit?
A little scene clued me in: At a birthday party for kids over the weekend, the party was interrupted when the trailer for the new Guardians came on the TV. Ten rambunctious kids stopped rocketing into each other just long enough to watch Baby Groot try to figure out why he shouldn’t press the death button. Cue delighted laughter then back to mayhem. Repeat that a thousand or maybe a million times and there’s your captive audience already.
The Guardians of the Galaxy, former Z-list underdogs of the Marvel stable that rocketed to the prime time, are back for seconds and it’s about darn time. The sneak attack of the first movie may no longer be there but no worries, what we really came for was spending more time with a space pirate with daddy issues, an assassin, a strongman with a bad case of TMI, a talking twig, and a bad-mannered raccoon. They’re still rule-breakers and anarchists and Nebula wisely observes that the Guardians are always fighting each other but this largely misses the point: this is a family’s growing pains and they’re still getting on each other’s nerves.
"Vol. 2" is a strong entry in the Marvel cinematic canon, a worthy sequel and will tide over a lot of fans until "Spider-man: Homecoming" and "Thor: Ragnarok" finally arrive.
When last we saw the Guardians, they had just saved the galaxy by defeating Ronan the Accuser before jetting off in the Milano. This time, the team helps a race of golden 1-percenters called the Sovereign defeat a giant space octopus. After the mission, they become targets of the Sovereign because Rocket Raccoon decides to steal a bunch of batteries.
The team are would-be goners until an 11th-hour save by Ego (Kurt Russell), riding a giant white obelisk. Ego turns out to be Star-Lord’s dad and it is his arrival and his desire to reunite with his long-lost son that sets up the rest of the story.
Russell’s Ego is a welcome presence here and it’s easy to see how he and Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) are father and son. It’s "The Empire Strikes Back" as seen through the Marvel lens, with a rocking soundtrack and Looney Tunes vibe, so expect equal parts darkness and dumb jokes in this stellar sequel.
Pity though that while Star-Lord’s father issues take centerstage, Pratt’s old charm seems to be on mute. Maybe it’s because his love of '70s style music, which played such a huge role in the first movie, isn’t as integral to his character now but is equally shared with the other Guardians. Also, Star Lord doesn’t dance as much. Pratt is still a lovable rogue but he’s essentially the straight man here: upended by the revelation that he is the son of a Celestial and possibly one of the most powerful beings in the galaxy.
Gamora (Zoe Saldana) also gets short shrift in the script department. This is director James Gunn’s first solo outing as scriptwriter for the Guardians so it’s safe to say: he doesn’t have an ear for female dialogue. Saldana does the most she can but there’s only so much you can do with dialogue like: “Can we put the bickering on hold until after survive this massive space battle?”
Gamora’s squabble with Nebula (Karen Gillan) is advanced but I can’t help feeling that the prolonged fisticuffs is a retread of their previous fight on board Ronan’s ship. There are at least three scenes in this movie that bog down the narrative because a) they’re boring and b) they involve characters mostly shouting at each other. This was one of them.
The lightness, then, falls on the shoulders of the other cast members. Drax (Dave Batista) clearly steals the show here, getting the funniest lines while showing everyone why he remains a strong asset to the team. His scenes with Mantis (Pom Klementieff) are mostly played for laughs.
Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) still shows why he’s the brains of the Guardians while becoming even more abrasive than usual.
Yondu (Michael Rooker) gets even longer screen time: we finally understand why he didn’t turn over Peter Quill to his father. Star-Lord's issues with his two fathers, Ego and Yondu Udonta, make up the emotional core of Guardians' finale and will have you shedding a tear.
Baby Groot, on the other hand, is this movie’s secret weapon. Remember how Chris Pratt got his swagger bonafides dancing to “Come and Get Your Love”? This time, it’s Baby Groot dancing to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while the rest of the Guardians are fighting a starbeast. Say what you will about the rest of the movie but this scene rocked.
Gunn may be working out Quill’s daddy issues but he’s not above having a lot of fun in the process. There are “Cheers” references, a funny David Hasselhoff cameo and a pinball sequence where Rocket and Yondu warps through different dimensions. A mutiny among the Ravagers gets its comeuppance when Rocket won’t stop insulting the Ravagers’ new leader Taserface. Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) may be a gold-skinned high priestess but the whole race of Sovereigns is depicted as hoity-toity gamers.
And again and again, Baby Groot steals the show - whether its misunderstanding Rocket’s instruction on the aforementioned death button or stealing Yondu’s underwear from his ship.
And the colors, man. If the first movie went trippy with its generous of yellows instead of the usual black and blue expanse of space, this movie is absolutely magnificent with its use of every hue and shade available. There is a scene in the movie where Drax touches a floating liquid bubble that explodes into a riot of colors that made the audience go “Wow.”
This film is gorgeous, absolutely beautiful on the eyes and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen in town.
Final verdict: While there’s some narrative slog through the story, Gunn still gets it right. "Vol. 2" de-escalates the conflict and the threat becomes personal. Other critics may say that the CGI bonanza near the end deflates the story but there’s uplift there, too, with an unexpectedly emotional ending that is deeply earned.
"Guardians Vol. 2" wears its colors proudly, sometimes mischievously. Now let’s see what Gunn’s got for Volume 3.