Five or so years ago, Marvel Studios surprised everyone when they announced they would be venturing beyond Asgard to make a film about…the Guardians of the Galaxy? Even to those with a decent understanding of the Marvel Universe like myself, it raised eyebrows. Star Lord, Gamora and Drax would regularly feature in cosmic events and had their fans, but they hardly seemed obvious choices for Marvel to rely on as their gateway into the cosmos. But a terrific script, winning combination of humour and pathos and perfect casting made the film a rousing success.
Fast forward three years and the team are back again, this time with expectations far beyond the first. With writer-director James Gunn back on board, I was fairly confident the sequel wouldn’t disappoint. And it doesn’t; it remains funny, charming, visually exciting and above all else, enjoyable. Gunn basically does more of what works in the first film- perhaps overdoing some things (Drax one liners for example)- but more or less succeeding in giving the audience what we want.
Chris Pratt, as space pirate cum leader of the Guardians Peter “Star Lord” Quill, probably the single biggest reason for the success of the first film, is every bit as good here. Even minus the substantial paunch, he is the likable every-man that people can get behind; full of flaws but more or less a decent person. He is again the main focus in Vol. 2, but perhaps get less of the great lines. Pratt is a natural with comedy, but with more drama to do here he is perhaps slightly underutilized. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora and the Bradley Cooper voiced Rocket Raccoon both fare much the same as the first. As is one of the charms of the films, both are also deeply flawed. But they are also highly capable, and both again get moments to show why they are valuable members of the team.
Dave Bautista’s Drax is the one who most benefits from the success of the first film. Bautista nailed Drax’s completely literal personality and provided the film with a lot of its biggest laughs, making it inevitable a sequel would feature him more. It does, and mostly works well, Drax again drawing a lot of the bigger laughs. But there is perhaps a little too much which only saturates his impact. On the flip side, the first film’s real breakout star was Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). A humanoid tree (or something), who is only capable of saying “I am Groot”, he gave his life in order to save the team at the end of the film. Inevitably, he is back in Vol. 2 and Baby Groot. This time, he remains a very cool character but has the added appeal of being adorable. He is given roughly the same amount of screen time and as a result, is just as effective as he was in Vol. 1.
The plot is solid yet unspectacular. Quill’s long lost father, Ego, finds him and wants to be part of his life. A walking, talking planet, Ego is typically well cast and played by Kurt Russell. Many smaller plot threads of varying effectiveness abound, but the best one features another returning cast member. Michael Rooker’s Yondu, leader of the Ravangers, is part of a mutiny and comes to the realization that he really cares for Peter and needs to save him. Rooker is very good in a quite difficult role, giving depth to a character who on the surface seems to just be a nasty bad guy. But with the connecting of these two plot threads, it becomes quite clear that fatherhood and identity are the major issues at play here.
As successful as this rehashing is, it’s hard to deny the film is held back by its inability to further the internal and external story-line. The character development in the first film left little to do here, and even saving the universe again doesn’t push the Guardians nor the Marvel Universe any further forward. As part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there is actually very little point to Vol. 2. Even Thanos, so often mentioned in previous Marvel films, is only mentioned as a very personal matter for Gamora and her sister Nebula. There are a few little easter eggs, such as an appearance from the Watchers, but I struggle to see anything from this film having any meaningful impact on what’s to come for The Avengers and co.
Not every Marvel film has to develop the Universe though, and as a stand-alone film I can’t really criticize Vol. 2 too much. It’s great fun and like the first film I expect it to have great replay value.