GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell. Directed by James Gunn. 136 minutes. Rated M (Science fiction themes and violence).
The first ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ film spent much of its running time establishing the tone of Marvel Studios’ first foray into outer space. As co-writer and director, James Gunn brought his signature blend of caustic wit and tried-and-tested emotions to the standard Marvel formula, to wit, an unlikely team gets brought together, bonds in the face of impossible odds and ultimately saves the day. It was a huge hit, making stars of its cast and crew and proving that the Marvel brand was nigh infallible. However, to paraphrase one of Marvel’s other characters, Peter Parker’s seemingly cursed Uncle Ben (doomed to die onscreen with every new iteration of the character), ‘with great success comes great freedom’. With ‘Vol. 2’, Gunn has been given free range to take the Guardians in whatever direction he pleases, and this liberal looseness is both the film’s greatest asset and its biggest weakness.
The plot runs along two converging paths. The Guardians are back and trading on their fame to bag high-paying mercenary jobs. There’s human outlaw and former Ravager, Peter Quill a.k.a. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), alien assassin and daughter of the ultra-powerful Thanos, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), literally minded warrior and beefcake, Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), wise-cracking technophile and science project of unknown origins, Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and talking tree, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), now in baby form after sacrificing himself at the conclusion of the first film. The opening scene reintroduces the Guardians as they protect a cache of powerful space-batteries from a giant beast for a race known as the Sovereign, with Baby Groot dancing through the mayhem as the credits roll. Their foe looks like a cross between a naked mole rat and a starfish, its fleshy pink appendages arranged around a mouth ringed with needle-like teeth and capable of shooting blasts of rainbow energy at its assailants. Set to ‘Mr Blue Sky’ by ELO, the sequence is bold, shockingly colourful, fun and funny; so far, so Guardians Vol. 1.
After slighting Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the leader of the Sovereign, the Guardians are chased off their planet, only to be saved by a man claiming to be Star-Lord’s father. He is Ego (Kurt Russell), the Living Planet, who manifested himself a human form to explore the universe. Ego is one of a race of ancient gods known as Celestials, and he has been trying to reunite with Peter for years. The gang, now with Gamora’s villainous sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), in their midst, travel with Ego to his planet, where they meet Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an alien with the ability to read and control emotions, who has grown up on Ego and is therefore utterly clueless about social interactions. While there, it become clear that there may be more to Ego’s motives than paternal love.
The second plot thread chases Yondu (Michael Rooker), the blue-skinned leader of one of the Ravager clans and the alien responsible for raising Peter after nabbing him from Earth as a child, who maintains his control with a head-mounted-fin-and-whistle-controlled arrow. Yondu hears that Ego has caught up with Peter and understands that this can only be bad news. Of course, at this critical juncture, a fellow Ravager called Taserface (Chris Sullivan) leads a mutiny against him – Yondu needs to survive the rebellion and get to Peter’s side to help him tackle this new threat, and the Guardians may have to save the galaxy one more time.
My two gripes with the film are its villain and its pacing. Marvel Studios has long struggled with a villain problem, creating boring and undercooked bad guys that the protagonists easily dispatch. Their heroes are great – no one cracks wise like Iron Man or performs death-defying parkour like Captain America – so this problem hasn’t crippled their films. They’ve gotten away with it on the strength of their leads. Ego, who is quite transparently the villain from the get-go despite Kurt Russell’s best efforts to hide it with his megawatt charisma, is another dud baddie. Gunn spends too long trying to conceal his true nature to allow his villainy the chance to make an impact when it is unveiled. Then there’s the pacing; the movie seems to slow down and speed up almost at random, with an unusual structural layout that doesn’t conform to a normal three-act film. Arriving on Ego, the action plays out very slowly, but everything prior moved at a chaotic pace. The climax whirrs past only for the coda to slow right down again. The looseness makes for a film that feels slightly less coherent and fresh than its predecessor (although ‘Vol. 1’ was such a surprise that this perhaps isn’t much of a quibble).
Enough of the negatives though – when it works, ‘Vol. 2’ is a blast. Dave Bautista and Pom Klementieff are both hilarious as socially inexperienced aliens. Baby Groot is unbearably cute. Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana’s playful ‘will they-won’t they’ chemistry is still as compelling as it was in ‘Vol. 1’. Bradley Cooper’s vocal performance seems more in tune with Rocket as an emotional Michael Rooker, given a vastly expanded role in the sequel, gives the movie plenty of emotional punch. The last reel delivers numerous touching moments, most of them rooted in the concept of family: what it means to be a part of a family, and how surrogate familial relationships can be just as important. The movie revels in its own weirdness – if ‘Vol. 1’ was constructed to bring the team together and establish the dynamic of what takes place amongst the stars, then ‘Vol. 2’ fully embraces that world and explores it freely. The musical cues, drawn from 1960’s and 70’s, continue the tradition of the soundtrack of ‘Vol. 1’ by blending well-known and more obscure numbers into a delightfully toe-tapping and moving musical journey. The cinematography by Henry Braham (joining the Marvel brand for the first time) is a gorgeous explosion of rich, bright colour, bordering on retro – forget the overwhelming dull greys of DC Comics’ films. The post-credit scenes, now an integral part of the Marvel Studios brand, are numerous (I counted five!), fun and intriguing, and develop plenty of room for the recently announced ‘Vol. 3’ to navigate.
‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ is a Marvel Studios product through and through. Over the past 15 films, the Marvel name has become synonymous with films that don’t take themselves too seriously but also don’t laugh at themselves. They’re a perfectly steeped blend of humour and heart, and ‘Vol. 2’ is another sure-fire winner. I’ve been as critical of the film as I can, and even then, I want to go back and watch it all again. It’s out of this world.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out April 24.
Walt Disney Studios.