If it’s Marvel, that means it’s time for summer blockbuster extravaganza movie-going season again! And what more appropriate way to kick off than a sequel. Thankfully Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is not one of those Marvel sequels that makes fans regret their obsession with seeing every Marvel movie ever. Better still, the series proves there’s no such thing as a useless character. If an angry space raccoon, an Ent with no vocabulary, and three remnants from Marvel’s 1970s sci-fi era can strike a chord in today’s world, any character can if a talented filmmaker is allowed to try hard enough.
Short version for the unfamiliar: All of Our Heroes are back! Chris Pratt IS Star-Lord, the feisty orphan armed with a gun, a jetpack, and all the tunes his late mom left him. Dave Bautista IS Drax, the simpleminded strongman whose conversational tone is permanently stuck on “literally” mode. Bradley Cooper IS the voice of Rocket Raccoon, the second-cutest and the least honorable among our thieves. Vin Diesel IS the voice of Baby Groot, who is Groot and also is Groot. Zoe Saldana IS Gamora, the female. Together they’re still traipsing around the universe, taking odd jobs for money and goods, sometimes indulging in petty side thefts when no one’s watching Rocket closely enough.
Their new life together sees interruptions from two directions. On one side, their old foes Yondu and Nebula (Michael Rooker and Karen Gillan) are back and in their faces. Yondu needs their help escaping a mutiny by his own soldiers; as a sort of reward later, he opens up about his seemingly abusive foster-parenting relationship with Star-Lord and reveals there was more than meets the eye. Meanwhile, Nebula just wants to punch her sister Gamora to death for the part she played in their nightmarish upbringing. While they all sort out their feels, Star-Lord runs into a shocking surprise: his father’s alive and very much wants to reconnect. Kurt Russell is his deadbeat dad Ego, a living planet who occasionally takes on a seemingly super-cool humanoid form and, well, when a planet and a woman love each other very much, sometimes the result is Chris Pratt.
So now it’s time for a father/son reunion, and Dad wants his son to inherit the family business, and all the super-powers it entails. One little problem: as we learned from roughly three hundred episodes of Star Trek, whenever an immensely powerful alien wants to be extra nice to you, there’s nearly always a terrible reason why.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Gilmore Girls‘ Sean Gunn returns from the first movie as Yondu’s sidekick Kraglin, who gets a lot more to do this time. Laura Craddock (Da Vinci’s Demons) reprises Star-Lord’s mom for some new flashbacks.
Pom Klementieff (from Spike Lee’s Oldboy remake) joins the cast as Mantis, a super-empath who doesn’t do much except act as Ego’s sleep therapist and as a spoiler of everyone’s secret crushes. Elizabeth Debicki (Hugh Laurie’s moll from The Night Manager) is the leader of a gold-skinned alien race with a justifiable grudge against Our Heroes. Numerous aliens attack throughout the film in various settings, including but not limited to Tommy Flanagan from Sons of Anarchy.
Aging comic book fans who remember the original Guardians of the Galaxy — which counted among its members none of the film’s main characters — may be wowed by their brief appearances here as a team of older, more experienced brigands renamed the Ravagers. Their screen time is minimal, but their old-school hero names are bestowed upon the likes of Ving Rhames, Michelle Yeoh, Smallville‘s Michael Rosenbaum buried under several layers of CG, and the Sylvester Stallone.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Family ties are the key theme — not only discovering them, but making the crucial decisions as to whether to strengthen or sever them. The Guardians basically became a family of sorts by the end of the first film…but are your best friends and coworkers more important than blood relations?
For Star-Lord, he’s overwhelmed by getting the chance to play catch with the dad he never knew. But when he peeks behind the curtain and sees how his dad really is, he’s faced with a dilemma: keep accepting Dad unconditionally just because they’re related, or do the right thing?
Gamora’s childhood was far more dysfunctional. She and her sister Nebula had to grow up living with the sinister conqueror Thanos, who one day will presumably demonstrate to moviegoers that he is indeed a super-villain who can do something besides lurk in dark corners. “Abusive” doesn’t begin to describe the horrors perpetrated in a household overseen by a wannabe intergalactic dictator. Nebula blames Gamora for much of the agonies she’s suffered, and now she’s out for revenge. Gamora naturally has to defend herself, but can she reconcile what she did in her youth out of self-preservation in any way that Nebula can understand? Is it remotely possible for them to forgive? Should sisterhood still mean anything to them?
Their odder teammates are no help. Drax finds new friendship in Mantis, largely because both have a habit of saying what they feel, even when it’s other people’s feelings they’re feeling. Rocket devotes so much head space to thievery and profit that he doesn’t dwell on his own existence as a lab creation without parents, but he can’t deny that his teammates are the closest thing he’s ever had to a real family, though it would be great if he’d stop sabotaging things for them. Groot is, as you’d expect, Groot.
Beyond the contemplation of family and their roles in the universe, otherwise GotG Vol. 2 is s once again Firefly on a much grander budget and with far louder explosions, plus monsters.
Nitpicking? The junior-high crassness of the first half-hour’s team repartee pretty much seals the deal on their PG-13 rating, just in case murdering alien bad guys wasn’t enough. If you were thinking about introducing your kindly grandparents to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this isn’t the place to start.
The older I get, the less I’m enamored of the all-CG super-duels, in which everything from the backgrounds to all the characters are head-to-toe 3-D animation without an ounce of practical flesh or substance to them. Regardless of whether or not the rendering is painstakingly realistic, even if it’s really pretty and shiny, the very knowledge that we’ve shifted from live-action to pure animation is as jarring as the cartoon flight scenes in the old Kirk Alyn Superman shorts.
So what’s to like? If you liked the first Guardians, you’ll love the second. All the recurring players do what they did before, but times five. Chris Pratt is more comfortable in heroic mode, still quipping on occasion but stopping on a dime when it’s obviously time for justice. Saldana and Gillan make the most of a rare film opportunity for sisters to work through childhood rage — sometimes during the boldest, loudest sequences; sometimes just by talking it out. The highlights of their emotional arcs tie everything together tightly when the final act comes around and it’s time for big bad summer blockbuster explosions.
Writer/director James Gunn keeps the plotting streamlined and the subplots minimal yet integral, leaving no time for filler and apparently, thankfully not under orders to cram in eighty-seven extra comics characters that the marketing department can turn into new toys. Seeing Guardians Vol. 1 first is strongly recommended, but otherwise you won’t need stacks of index cards to track any villain’s ludicrous convolutions. It’s space opera at its most straightforward and its most heartfelt and its funniest (discounting the lines that made me cringe).
I continue looking forward to Marvel’s future endeavors, with the Guardians as well as with the rest of Marvel’s vast IP catalog. Knowing that any four-color character can be made to work on the big screen, even a sixth-string loser like Taserface, I expect — nay, insist — that Marvel find directors and writers who can shepherd A-plus performances from bottom-of-the-pile personalities like Spider-Ham, the Fabulous Frog-Man, Stilt-Man, Irving Forbush, Street Poet Ray, and Mr. Fantastic.
How about those end credits? First, bonus points to Gunn & Co. for kicking off the end credits with Cheap Trick’s “Surrender”, my favorite of all the film’s oldies. It’s extremely rare for a soundtrack to include songs I genuinely like, so I’m bowled over whenever I happen to catch one.
But to answer the question we live to hear asked here on MCC: yes, the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 end credits nearly contain more scenes than names. Depending on how you define “credits”, those scenes are, prefaced with a courtesy spoiler alert, interspersed throughout the credits in between inserts of dancing and goofing around by assorted characters, some of whom aren’t even in the film. Those five actual scenes, then:
* Yondu’s sidekick Kraglin practices with the magic arrow he’s inherited, but so far doing clumsily.
* Stallone honors his old pal Yondu one last time in the company of the other Ravagers. Hopefully they’ll return?
* Elizabeth Debicki’s alien queen announces her next big plan: the creation of a new lifeform named Adam. This would almost certainly be Adam Warlock, yet another refugee hero from Marvel’s old sci-fi section.
* Enough time passes after the film’s events that Baby Groot is now Teen Groot, misbehaving and annoyed with the uncool adults.
* Several of the Watchers, an ancient race whose job is to record the goings-on of all lifeforms throughout the universe, gather to hear tales told by their most non-conforming member: Stan Lee in his mandatory cameo, revealing that his appearances in all those other Marvel films were, in fact, him doing his job as a Watcher. Mind = blown.