After just under a decade of consistently producing some of the best blockbuster entertainment each year, you can be pretty sure that you’re in for a good time if you go to see a movie with the Marvel Studios title card in front of it, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – the fifteenth(!) film in the ever expanding franchise experiment that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe – offers no exception to that. Fans of the first film are going to find a lot to enjoy here, and while this review may come across as very critical at times, it’s important to take that alongside the knowledge that despite being noticeably more flawed than its predecessor, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is still an entertaining, engaging film in its own right, and one that I personally enjoyed very much.
The comparisons that you might have seen made between Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back are apt, and not just thanks to this films status as a space opera sequel. It too makes the decision to split up its core characters for much of the film’s running time, allowing it to tackle its two main threads at once – one following Peter Quill and some of the Guardians as they meet Peter’s biological father for the first time, and the other following Yondu Udonta and the rest of the Guardians as he re-examines his life (and his relationship with Peter) following a chance encounter with an old ally.
That decision to split the characters up means that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is tasked with juggling two mostly unrelated stories for much of its running time, and it’s here that the film suffers at least somewhat thanks to the absence of an overarching plot. There are times when Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 feels almost directionless, lacking any sense of urgency or real purpose beyond an exploration of its characters, and that puts it in stark contrast with its tightly plotted predecessor in a way that isn’t all that complementary.
In fact, there are a lot of comparisons that can be made between Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 that don’t do the latter any favours. I can understand why director James Gunn attempted to hem so close to the style and tone of the first film given the impact it had on pop culture at large, but ultimately Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is at its weakest when it’s trying to live up to the expectations set by its predecessor, whether that be in its soundtrack (here infinitely less memorable than that of the first film) or in its attempts to recreate the sense of energy and originality that made Guardians of the Galaxy stand out as much as it did. Take Gunn’s predilection for deliberately undermining big moments, for example – while often funny, it also definitely take the wind out of a number of scenes that almost certainly would have been better if allowed to play out in earnest. A sense of “been there, done that” was inevitable thanks to the simple fact that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a sequel to a very original film, but Gunn doesn’t do himself any favours by attempting to replicate much of what made the first film such a breath of fresh air three years ago.
That being said, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2‘s significantly more personal story and its willingness to really explore these characters and their relationships with one another is truly brilliant. Far more than any real “plot”, the recurring motif of family and parenthood is the driving force behind Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, providing a thematic link between the main story of Peter’s two fathers and the film’s many side-stories, such as the continued sibling rivalry between Gamora and Nebula, the existential unhappiness that Rocket and Ego share about being the only one of their kind, and the Guardians’ attempt to give Groot the safe and healthy upbringing that they all lacked. Some of these points might not be as well-dramatised as others, but they all add up to help drive home the fact that the Guardians are less a team and more a family, and it is here that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 finds its most emotionally effective moments. The film’s final scene can only be described as genuinely touching, easily ranking as one of the most emotional and perfectly judged moments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date, and it only works because of how well Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 develops its characters over its runtime.
At least part of the reason for why that can happen is that James Gunn seems have have been given a level of creative freedom here that the Marvel Cinematic Universe rarely sees. It’s a James Gunn film through and through, and not just thanks to its unique sense of humour or its willingness to get really weird – nothing about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 feels like it came from studio notes, and it’s notable how little work it does towards setting up future movies. In that sense, despite lacking a real plot until the third act begins, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 may be the most tightly focused film we’ve seen as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Iron Man, concerned only with telling the stories that it wants to tell – and in truth, as much as I love the focus on continuity and interconnectivity that the MCU has given us so far, that’s just a little refreshing.
And of course, it should go without saying that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is colourful and vibrant and imaginative and funny in all the ways that you might have expected. Even ignoring the aforementioned brilliance of the film’s character work, it’s great to have an excuse to spend more time with these characters thanks to Gunn’s superb writing, and the new additions of Mantis (a socially-stunted alien empath who steals a lot of the scenes she’s in) and Baby Groot (used here with a surprising amount of restraint) alongside the way the dynamic between these characters has changed in-between films means that we’re never just retreading old ground, character-wise. I’d be lying if I said that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 had a hit-to-miss ratio of jokes as impressive as Guardians of the Galaxy, but that doesn’t make the jokes that do land any less funny.
Whether or not the trade off between plot and character ends up being worth it is really going to be dependent on you, but as far as I’m concerned it was a sacrifice worth making for the highs that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 contains. On the whole it’s undeniably a more uneven, less refined movie than its predecessor, but those flaws are ultimately a small price to pay for the personal and significantly more emotionally engaging story that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is telling. No, it probably won’t be as widely loved as the first film was – but that doesn’t mean that it has nothing to offer, and I’m sure that fans of the first film will still find a lot to love in a sequel that while imperfect, could never be accused of playing it safe.
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