Guardians of the Galaxy was always the most overtly comedic franchise in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and Vol. 2 follows in those footsteps. Most films in the MCU employ humor, but none are governed by the success of references, call-backs, meta-humor, and jokes quite like Guardians. As a result, one’s appreciation for this sequel is going to be heavily dependent on whether or not these attempts at humor land. If you feel like some of the jokes are a little forced, are over-reliant on pop culture reference, or attempt to recreate similar gags from the original, then you’re going to find Vol. 2 a little derivative and strained. Otherwise, you’ll have a good time.
Almost everyone from the original is back, with the same relationship problems they had before. Starlord (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) are still will-they/won’t-they-ing their way through missions, Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper) is still the meanest and crudest of the group, Drax (Dave Bautista) still interprets everything on a literal level, and Groot is still Groot, though he is smaller and adorable. “Villains” like Nebula (Karen Gillian; Gamora’s blue sister) and Yondu (Michael Rooker; Starlord’s blue surrogate father) play some key parts, and eventually join the Guardians for the final bout.
The newer characters are . . . weird, but in a good kind of way. The major villains are the Sovereign, a race of gold people who genetically engineer themselves to perfection and are basically just pretentious assholes. So, when Rocket steals some of their expensive batteries, the slight enrages them enough to send their video-game-like drone ships after the Guardians. They’re saved by Ego (Kurt Russell), a celestial who invites Starlord, Gamora, and Drax to his home planet, a place where exposition is elevated to an art form.
In Vol. 2, there’s no need for origin stories for the returning characters, but there’s still a great deal of exposition in the film, but at least most of it attempts to be interesting or visual in some way. Still, it can take an awful long time to get the story going, slowing the pacing of the second act to an absolute standstill. Again, if the jokes land here, you’re willing to sit around and enjoy the banter and the mystery. If you don’t like Starlord making superficial Cheers references, you may find yourself annoyed.
Once the baddy “twist” is revealed, things pick up. It isn’t really a twist if you know much of anything about Ego, the living planet. Even if you don’t, there’s a ton of foreshadowing to suggest that Ego isn’t all that he seems, first from Mantis, and then from Ego himself. In the meantime, it actually feels like the Sovereigns are fine red herring bad guy. Plus, a lot of comedy is derived from their casual superiority complex and entertainment-based approach to warfare.
While Ego and his villainy usually works out, some specifics are a tad too unbelievable or convenient. The idea that Ego somehow believes that Peter will respond well to the death of his mother is laughable. Perhaps Ego simply doesn’t consider it to be a serious issue, since he assumed he could dominate Peter and use him “as a battery”. Still, he comes off as a little tone-deaf, though an overall good villain. Most of this is thanks to Kurt Russell’s solid performance, which feels big and bombastic and right at home in the Guardians world. As is tradition in the MCU, his scheme is a little generic, which was one of the biggest issues with the original.
The sense of humor in Vol. 2 is your standard James Gunn fare, which is certainly a good thing. Other than sometimes feeling a little forced in a going-back-to-the-well kind of way, most of the jokes hit. The worst attempts at humor aren’t even jokes, they’re pure pop culture reference, from the aforementioned Cheers thing to a Mary Poppins name-drop that brought out the cynic in me (because Disney owns Marvel Studios, and Disney has a new Mary Poppins movie coming out soon, so it can’t hurt them to raise awareness). All that being said, I liked the Zune joke a lot, and the soundtrack is pitch-perfect again.
The themes mostly feel like retreads too. The Guardians need to learn to band together, not as friends but as family. It’s basically the same as the first one, with a few extra players. In fact, the general theme of Vol. 2 isn’t really distinct from the original. People need to learn to work together, care for each other, and trust in their friends. Fortunately, the various family dynamics significantly advance the theme beyond the original. Peter learning more about his past brings up some interesting ideas about fatherhood and Gamora’s and Nebula’s relationship does the same for sisterhood. These are not “normal” relationships, and their peculiarities offer some interesting food-for-thought. In particular, Michael Rooker’s performance as Yonda is magnificent, and he probably steals the show more than anyone who isn’t a baby tree.
Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does more right than it does wrong. It is one of the only MCU films where it feels like there are actual stakes, though the characters still feel a little too invincible sometimes. But, it’s nothing compared to something like The Avengers or Civil War, where we know that nothing really bad is going to happen and combatants literally bounce off each other for two hours.
Obviously, we’re still watching a comic book movie about a living planet that grows into a Kurt Russell and has gold, green, blue, and red people to support the rest of its fluorescent palette. A munitions expert raccoon and a baby tree are best friends. A blue dude with a southern accent whistles an arrow around. Even so, you want a semblance of realism as the story plays out, especially in the stakes, and Guardians Vol. 2 has more than most of the comic book flicks.
Guardians of the Galaxy is the best MCU comedy (Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best drama). Vol. 2 is too similar to the original and to reliant on repetitious jokes and references to advance beyond it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a reasonable sequel. It doesn’t really take the Guardians in a new direction, it’s much more of a continuation of the hijinx, a true Vol. 2. For some, this will be annoying; for most, it will be a pleasant revisiting of the inhabitants of the Cosmic arena of MCU.