Back in 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy was an unexpected hit. Not one of Marvel’s more popular properties at the time, it nonetheless captured the hearts of audiences everywhere with its lovable gang of misfits. The film took off in such a way that the only words uttered by a walking tree have become part of the cultural lexicon. Three years later we get the neon infused sequel, and while the characters are still a blast, does the story do them enough justice?
Guardians vol. 2 feels like walking into an 80’s Saturday morning cartoon. All of the elements are there, the bright colors, big action scenes, crazy locales, and quipping characters. There was clearly a certain feel that they were going for in vol. 2 and they nailed it. The guardians themselves are as enjoyable to watch as ever, with my personal favorite Drax continuing his streak of hilarious straightforwardness. Newcomer Mantis is an “emopath,” a being that can sense and slightly alter the emotions of others. Turns out therapists were superheroes all along, who knew? She is the aide to Starlord’s father, Ego, whose name is one of the most eyerollingly obvious foreshadowings in recent memory (in a moment of self awareness, Rocket calls out the stupidity of it). Ego rescues the team after Rocket needlessly pisses off some people he shouldn’t have (the intelligently designed, gold skinned Sovereigns) and Starlord is finally reunited with his space daddy. He, Gamora, and Drax go off with him to his home world, as the Sovereigns enlist the help of Yondu and the Ravagers to capture the guardians and bring them to justice.
One thing that really stood out was that despite the number of characters, they all had meaningful arcs or things to do, and not much felt forced. The stories of Gamora and Nebula’s reuniting and Yondu’s turn into a more prominent character were particularly satisfying. It reminded me of the better entries in the Star Wars universe, where a lot of the cast are of actual storytelling importance, it’s not just hero X saves the world with the help of a few throwaway sidekicks. Writer/director James Gunn clearly loves these characters and deserves a lot of credit for this.
The film is steeped in 80’s pop culture, from the soundtrack to a lot of the references that Starlord lets fly. A lot of the times it works, but I did get the feeling that more than one scene was extended or written solely because they wanted to use a certain song. They even make fun of this in the opening scene were Rocket wants to rig up some tunes for their impending fight with a space monster. Consider that first scene a warning, as the pop music is way more prevalent here than it was in the first film. Instead of the soundtrack to Starlord’s past, it’s now the soundtrack to basically everything. While not inherently a bad thing, it does lose some of it’s emotional significance.
My biggest gripe about vol. 2 is the antagonist, a complaint I had about the first film as well. While vol. 1 could get away with a bland villian, as he was just an excuse to get the band together, the sequel is afforded no such luxury. James Gunn knew this, and to his credit, the antagonist is much better the second time around. Vol. 2 gives a much more interesting villain, one who I felt was wasted by having a very murky raison d’être. The great evil motivation basically boiled down to “I must expand my power and do this terrible thing to the galaxy because reasons.” And while it did lead to the ending conflict playing more into the theme of the story, it would have worked much better if they stuck to the personal tone of the film instead of making it some grandiose act of far-reaching evil.
As for the rest of the story, I’m torn. While I’m glad it was a more personal journey and didn’t force itself into the rest of the MCU, it also fell into the “well I guess we’re saving the universe again” trope. Which the characters again acknowledge, but just because you’re self aware, that doesn’t make it any better. Add that to the whole journey being kicked off by Rocket stealing some batteries just to be an ass, and I can’t help but think there wasn’t a better way to get things going here. Yea, they are dysfunctional antiheroes, but some moments felt out of character, even for them.
The guardians had to rely on their wit and personalities to overcome a forgettable villain in the first film, and an average plot in the second. While I like their interplay, I hope that the next installment gives them a story that matches their cleverness. As it is, Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is a perfect example of an average story being lifted up by great characters. I laughed, I want to see them again, but I just wish they had a bit more to work with.