Director: James Gunn
Really fun follow-up to 2014's first Guardians film.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the 15th movie in the ever-growing Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Unlike most of the MCU films in the last several years, though, a viewer does not need to see multiple previous MCU films to fully enjoy this one. Seeing the original Guardians movie is really the only recommended prerequisite to staying up to speed with volume 2.
Volume 2 does a really nice job offering a different narrative from the first movie. Whereas much of the first was a typical "meet the players and get the team together" tale, this one involves seeing how the five "Guardians" deal with themselves and relationships their teammates while being splintered from some of the others. Circumstances force several of them to ally themselves with enemies introduced in the first movie. While this device can feel a bit awkward and forced in other movies, writer and director James Gunn handles it well. We get some fun combinations of heroes, anti-heroes, and outright villains in ways that are often highly entertaining.
Probably the one element that separated the first Guardians movie from other MCU offerings is the highly playful, irreverent tone. The sequel gives us just as much subversiveness as the first, and perhaps even a little more. While there are certainly a few moments that go for sentimentality, they are done fairly well, and they never rob the movie of its seemingly primary goal of kicking the legs out from under many standard tropes of action/adventure movies. It's not an easy balance to maintain, but Gunn has shown himself rather adept at the trick.
The humor is still right on par with the first movie, as well. While not every one-liner or gag lands perfectly, more than enough of them do. It helps to have several actors with solid comic chops, most notably Chris Pratt, Michael Rooker, and Bradley Cooper's voicing of Rocket. These and several other lesser players strike just the right balance between the rollicking intensity and the snarky fun that have become the hallmark of this segment of the MCU. One of my big concerns for this movie, after seeing the trailers, was that the movie would overdo the "cute" factor with Baby Groot. Fortunately, Gunn didn't lean too much on the admittedly adorable tiny version of the ponderous tree creature. Groot certainly has his moments, but I didn't feel that he was shoe-horned into scenes just to keep the attention of viewers under the age of 10.
One of my few issues with the first Guardians film was that the third act devolved into a fairly typical massive-scale fireworks show against a one-dimensional villain. Though Volume 2 certainly ends with plenty of color, explosions, and manic action, the primary adversary shows a little more creativity and novelty than the rather dull Ronan of the first film. This villain isn't exactly the most sophisticated or complex in terms of their grand scheme, but they are a relatively unique entity, not unlike Dormammu in Doctor Strange.
In the grand scheme of the MCU, I have this one in the upper half of the canon. I don't find it quite as consistent, imaginative, or fresh as what I've found to be the very best movies (The Winter Soldier and the first Avengers are still my favorites). But this is still a great popcorn movie that offers fans of the first film the same brand of fun, with a welcome dash of alterations to the original. I'm already planning to go to a second viewing.
Spoilers Ahead - Fair Warning
So just a couple of things about certain, specific plot and character elements.
Firstly, I'm pretty happy with how the characters were handled, all around. One of my few gripes about the first movie was that we didn't get to see quite enough of Drax or Gamorrah fighting, given that they were reputedly galaxy-class weapons of destruction. We get a somewhat better idea of it in this one. I especially like the showdown between Gamorrah and Nebula on Ego's planet. Nebula reaches the potential suggested in the first movie. As for Drax, I love how he's written and handled - his penchant for bellowing laughter in the most awkward or dangerous situations just doesn't get old to me. Nor does his oblivious disregard for social niceties.
Curiously, I didn't exactly find Ego to be the most compelling villain. I think his nature as "The Living Planet" is actually interesting and creative, but once again Marvel comes up with a villain whose ultimate plan is basically to simply take over the universe. For what, exactly? Well, that's not made completely clear. I will admit that Ego does a better job of justifying and explaining it than certain other superhero movies (I'm looking at you, Thor: The Dark World and Suicide Squad), but it's still nowhere near as fascinating as a well-conceived, if smaller-scale, villain like Civil War's Zemo.
I'm curious to see just how the Guardians tie into next year's Infinity Gauntlet, seeing as how Starlord presumably no longer has the power to handle Infinity Stones. I feel that Nebula is more likely to play some sort of direct role in the tale, given her burning desire to avenge herself upon her sadistic, adopted father Thanos. This was a nice setup to that massive picture for next year, without having it feel terribly forced in this one.