Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Review: Imperfect Yet Deeply Personal, Marvel Once Again Finds Success

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When the original Guardians of the Galaxy hit theaters, I was a bit taken aback by how warm its reception was. Here was a film with an essentially identical narrative arc to The Avengers that tried to boast a signature weirdness that didn’t quite land thanks to James Gunn’s clean and safe direction, which also may have been bestowed upon the director thanks to corporate weariness toward a lesser-known property. When trying to subvert tropes, it really just repackaged them with tension-cutting jokes. Let me go back a second, the original Guardians of the Galaxy is a good, sometimes even great entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But in a lot of circles, it’s considered the best of the bunch, which just never made sense to me. So we enter Vol. 2, a much messier film than its predecessor, but also a more complicated and emotional one. The things Gunn was trying to nail back in 2014, he nails in 2017 with a surprising sequel that does what it can to break the mold.

Vol. 2 reintegrates us with a joyful, tone-setting opening credits sequence with the Guardians taking on a vicious beast in the background of Baby Groot (Vin Diesel, a joke in and of itself) dancing around and chasing tiny animals. Hilarious and sweet, we’re suddenly back with the team of lovable misfits. But Rocket (Bradley Cooper) then steals some batteries from their clients, led by the gold-painted Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), leading her race to engage the Guardians in a space battle. They crash land after being mysteriously saved, only to encounter their savior moments later. His name is Ego (Kurt Russell, a warm and delightful surprise), and not only is he Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) father, he’s an intergalactic deity capable of creating anything his brain, which is literally a planet core, can muster. This is where the sequel gets to outdo the original’s weirdness.

Gunn oversees some truly stunning production design while he expands the world of the Guardians, and Marvel at large, with some delightfully bizarre new pockets of the galaxy. Yet the focus of Vol. 2 is still squarely set on character. With their various personality quirks and internal conflicts introduced in the original, the sequel gets to dive deeper into who the Guardians are and what drives them. Gamora (Zoe Saldana), in particular, is given far more to do and say than just be the stubborn serious one. The same goes for her sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan). Both become characters who should be essential to next summer’s Avengers: Infinity War, if those writers and Disney allow them to be, based on where Gunn has taken them here. It’s become the only foreseeable way for that film to be satisfying, a success of Gunn’s that Marvel unfortunately might not be anticipating in favor of sticking to their big guns (Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and the lot of them).

Quill, meanwhile, is a boy in search of a father, enamored with the possibility of the mysterious Ego and disappointed by the sometimes cruel raising habits of Yondu (Michael Rooker). His arc keeps the film’s heart firmly in place, while also giving the MCU the opportunity to break its streak of terrible villains with a truly complicated and well developed conflict brewing throughout the film.

Also new to the cast is Mantis (Pom Klementieff), the socially inept, bug-eyed assistant to Ego with the ability to feel and influence the emotions of those around her. The display of Mantis’ powers, while obvious, feels central to the film’s ideas and also displays Gunn’s greater confidence to delve into the weird this time around. It’s unconventionally direct emotional beats and developments like these that make Vol. 2 a better film than its predecessor, despite some of its narrative clunkiness.

But then, the more effectively human sequel manages to feel that way in thanks to its mistakes, which help it differ from the cookie-cutter corporate norm that Marvel films have started to become. The original felt like it was trying to subvert superhero tropes, but Vol. 2 actually succeeds in doing so with its hard focus on character and deeply personal conflict. Maybe that’s less subverting tropes than just being a genuinely good movie, but either way, the film’s successes are many. Narrative fine-tuning might have made it a truly great film, which it already borders on being, but what we’ve got here works in a way recent Marvel efforts have not. That’s something worth getting excited over. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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