Director: James Gunn
Screenplay: James Gunn
Starring: 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
Runtime: 136 Minutes
Although Marvel Studios might be the best in the business at delivering broadly entertaining and reverent adaptations of comic book source materials, they appear to have a recurring issue when it comes to direct sequels to their projects. Baring the Captain America series that only seemed to go from strength to strength, many of them have appeared as bloated and compromised features in which the narrative is left jogging in place for future instalments.
While Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has a strong enough narrative to overcome these hurdles, it suffers from a similar issue, but not necessarily in the same way.
The good to say about Vol. 2 is that James Gunn’s authorial stamp as both writer and director is fabulously more noticeable. His frenzied visual pallet of rainbow colours and alien worlds informed by retro charm and worship are louder than previously – boasting an equally enjoyable soundtrack of 80s tunes that are dropped at appropriate moments. With this greater autonomy, Gunn’s decision to focus on the characters as opposed to the world is something admirable. This feels like a much smaller film than the original in scope, while the emotional weight that is brought into the story through the re-emergence of father figure Ego (Kurt Russell) excels in its more poignant moments as Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) faces a crisis of following his real family, or the surrogate family unit that has formed around him.
That’s certainly something that the film has as a benefit to many of its brethren in the genre; the relationships that have been formed between these characters are strained and tested as they face more personal obstacles. Pom Klementieff’s wonderful new character Mantis, a creature with empathic powers, might be the key to unlocking the heart of the film as she exposes the real emotions lying behind the visages that they hold, with feeling and compassion seeping its way into scenes of sincere power.
The action sequences are actually of lesser interest to Gunn than the character work, and feel rather uninspired in the early stages and lacking in energy or major investment. The structure is rather steady and grows in tandem with the story, leading to an extended and admittedly bloated final act of computer-generated silliness where an awful lot is going on at once. But the sentimental anchor of the story holds steady for the most part thanks to the manner in which it develops, helped in large part by a fantastically nasty and irredeemable villain that the MCU has really lacked recently, and a rallying score from Tyler Bates.
What Vol. 2 suffers from is a constant undercutting of these more affecting moments under a bombardment of jokes and references that appear with greater force and quantity than previously. While it’s still fun to see this comradery in place, the tone inconsistently shifts in moments where it could be given space to breathe and calm down. Many don’t even appear to hit their intended mark, and a repetitive gag involving a character named Taserface is nowhere near as funny as the film and its characters appear to find it.
The performances here are still dedicated and brilliantly attuned to their characters. The connection between Pratt and Russell is strongly realised as he vies for his attention in contrast to Michael Rooker’s surrogate father Yondu, who undergoes his own transformation in the films admittedly less interesting B story – also ticking over is a revenge plot from Elizabeth Debicki’s fabulously villainous High Priestess Ayesha as the leader of the snobbish Sovereign people. Further fleshed out is the sisterly conflict between Saldana’s Gamora and Gillan’s Nebula, Drax’s (Bautista) personal tragedy manifesting in unexpected ways, Rocket’s (Cooper) existential hang-ups and much fun use of a young and sinfully adorable Baby Groot (Diesel).
While still an enjoyable film with a great ensemble cast of characters, it lacks the initial shock value of the original’s success. The continued rapport of the cast and its attitudes to genre distinguish itself in the landscape, and even though it is more of the same it works as an easy distraction.