Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

guardians2-posterEveryone has heard of the “difficult second album”: after a wildly successful effort, whatever a creator follows up with is going to come under extreme scrutiny. For whatever reason, no one expected 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy to be a success, even though it was the tenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Irreverent and different to the rest of the films in the series, Guardians of the Galaxy worked. Writer/director James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) has returned for Vol. 2, and has made a film that has much in common with what has come before — but this time it’s more personal, more abstract, and Groot is smaller. Now that it’s a guaranteed success, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a markedly less commercial outing.

The Guardians of the Galaxy — leader Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt, Passengers), green assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana, Live by Night), literal-minded warrior Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista, Heist), resourceful raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper, War Dogs) and baby tree person Groot (Vin Diesel, The Fate of the Furious) — temporarily separate after Peter meets his long lost father, Ego (Kurt Russell, Fate of the Furious) and Rocket has to repair their ship. As Gamora has troubles with her estranged sister Nebula (Karen Gillan, The Big Short) and Peter catches up on lost time, Rocket has a series of run-ins with Peter’s former employer/captor Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker, Guardians of the Galaxy).

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 boasts nowhere near as many planets as its predecessor, but it feels somewhat overwhelming. When its story is revealed — and it takes a while — it’s a lot to take in, both on an abstract philosophical level and in a literal sense. Gunn dresses his high concepts in psychedelia that never looks quite real, setting them on a planet that could never physically exist, and setting the film to a gentler, less rocky and poppy, soundtrack than his previous effort.

If the overall story is dense, and more for the hard sci-fi crowd than normal, Gunn does play up to the audience in other areas. Baby Groot, the breakout character from the first film despite appearing for less than a second, becomes the film’s mascot. He’s easy comic relief, it’s true, but a lot of pathos can be wrung from the little guy. The set pieces feature more jetpacks than ever before, and key sequences feature characters who would seem unfeasibly powerful in any other film but just come across as cool here.

There’s room for an awful lot of sentiment from multiple characters, with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 making it explicit that this group of misfits is a family, almost as if there’s a rider in Diesel’s contract that he can’t make a film that isn’t about family. By setting this film so close to the first you overcome the normal setbacks of team sequels, like The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, that see the members somewhat regressed. The group are friends, but they’re not airtight. While every character gets a decent character arc, it is both Rocket and Yondu who receive the best material. Rooker, here allowed to lend nuance to a character who was once little more than a joke cannibal, would carry the film were it not for all of the other carefully tuned character notes going on all around him.

Newcomer Mantis (Pom Klementieff, Ingrid Goes West) is a bizarre character who plays off Drax in an optimal fashion, whereas Elizabeth Debicki (TV’s The Kettering Incident) suffers for an intense solid gold makeup regime that continues the series’ bizarre habit of featuring few women playing their natural skin tone. Much should be made of Russell’s performance, which is played across a spectrum of subtle shading. Apart from everything else, Gunn knows how to assemble an ensemble, not least of whom is brother Sean (Netflix’s Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life).

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t as much of a surprise as its predecessor; this is James Gunn taking his hundreds of millions of dollars and trying something more personal and heartfelt than one might have expected from a film whose ensemble include a trash panda, a twig and a woman with antennae protruding from her head. Whether it has the crossover appeal that Marvel relies upon remains to be seen, but one man’s risk is indeed a specialty audience’s reward.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opened in Australian cinemas on April 25, 2017.

Directed by: James Gunn.

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki and Kurt Russell.