Movie Review: ‘GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2’ is a mixtape of strong ideas

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 Courtney Howard // Film Critic

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, 2h 17min, PG-13
Directed by: James Gunn
Starring: Chris PrattZoe SaldanaDave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Kurt Russell, Elizabeth Debicki, Sylvester Stallone

The first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY was a humongous breath of fresh air for Marvel. Not only did it change the future landscape for the brand, it was unlike anything we’d ever seen or experienced before in terms of comic book-derived, blockbusting studio tentpoles. The way filmmaker James Gunn exacted his stunning vision with his use of kitschy Seventies music, beautiful color, genuinely hilarious wit and astounding storytelling magic was wildly different than any other MCU filmmaker up to that point. Although it was viewed with a hefty dose of skepticism (that even yours truly suffered from) prior to release, ultimately we all walked away feeling like we’d seen the second coming of whatever Christ is in the comic book world. But it’s that kind of conviction that’s a little to blame for the undoing of Gunn’s sequel, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, as it just doesn’t have the same cinematic jolt as the first. Though it doesn’t come tumbling off the too-high pedestal it built, it does noticeably lose its balance.

Those beloved a-holes are back and better than ever… sorta. They’re still a highly functioning team of intergalactic heroes, putting the “fun” in dysfunctional by saving the galaxy while also throwing it into peril with their comedic, selfish shenanigans. It’s barely a month after the first film’s events and Star-Lord/ Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is struggling to maintain order in his new-ish family unit when his estranged father Ego (Kurt Russell) comes back into his life. Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) are both still suffering from sisterly strife. Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is unwittingly forced into finding a softer side of jerkdom whilst taking on a fatherly role with baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). Drax (Dave Bautista) is continuing to mourn the loss of his wife and child, while remaining as droll and literal as ever. A deflated, existential angst-riddled Yondu (Michael Rooker), henchman Kraglin (Sean Gunn) and the rest of the Ravagers are harboring a grudge towards the Guardians because of the events of the first film – only now they’ve gotta get in line behind the Guardians’ other disgruntled former employers, the Sovereign, led by haughty hottie Princess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki).

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2..L to R: Yondu (Michael Rooker), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Voiced by Vin Diesel).©Marvel Studios 2017

Much like with any sequel, the stakes are higher and, to a certain extent, VOL 2 delivers on the promise to keep the proceedings as interestingly avant-garde as the first. Relationships – romantic, platonic and familial – deepen in the necessary ways. There’s a touch more of an emotional-drive to this, what with everyone’s “daddy issues” being the narrative gasoline (which is handled far better than ANT-MAN’s “daddy issues”). What’s most impressive is that Gunn’s wicked sense of humor is infused into every corner of the frame. He’s never afraid to interrupt a heavy emotional moment with a gag. After all, it’s his bold, ballsy choices that raised the MCU bar. Whether it’s the unabashed bonkers Tex Avery style effects on the jump-gate sequence, or the absurdist spin on a father-son game of catch (here with a light ball of harnessed energy), Gunn’s utilization of humor is unparalleled. Rooker’s adept skills are utilized perfectly, wowing us, tossing out an adlib about another Disney property, or rooting us to his character’s quest to reconnect with his estranged pal Stakar (Sylvester Stallone).

Not only does the soundtrack pulse with a lively energy (with songs ranging from ELO’s terminally upbeat “Mr. Blue Sky,” to Sam Cooke’s sexy classic, “Bring It On Home To Me,” to Yusuf/ Cat Steven’s “Father And Son”), the visuals tied to the songs’ feelings are equally vibrant and electric. Plus, it’s admirable the way Gunn hits Marvel’s prerequisite story beats while weaving them into his own brand. He and his special effects team have crafted another action-packed, explosive, eye-popping, gorgeous space opera.

That said, it does suffer from more than its fair share of oversharing – in both the run time and on a narrative level. The middle portion is Apatow-ian in its “twenty minutes too long” feeling. Here, the “riffing” includes Groot on a treasure hunt on the Elector, a running gag about a character’s name, and Rocket’s ambush set to Glen Campbell’s “Summer Nights.” Each bit goes on for a long time when the film could benefit from a snappier pace.

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2..L to R: Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) ©Marvel Studios 2017

Gunn’s ability to tie everyone’s personal quests into one overarching one hits a few wrong chords. It can get bogged down trying to balance all the story threads. Without giving anything away (and more on this in a future post), a few of the ideas are antithetical to its ideology – specifically in terms of the ingenious villain and their portrayal of feminism. Nebula, Gamora, and empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff) all get the short end of the stick while being touted as “strong female characters.” Inherently, they still are badass, but the story tangibly lacks moments where they smack down any patriarchal baloney.

Nevertheless, the stuff that works best winds up outweighing the stuff that doesn’t. It’s more about managing unreasonable expectations. I mean, is it really such a bad thing to be trapped in the fantastical confines of Gunn’s mind for twenty extra minutes, viewing the epic artistry of people at the top of their games? Not really. It provides a necessary, explosive escape route from real-world problems.

Grade: B-

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 opens on May 5.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.