So far, Marvel Studios has had a bit of a sequel problem. Iron Man 2, 3 and Avengers: Age of Ultron delivered various levels of enjoyment while containing flaws which prevented them from fully hitting the heights of their initial installments. Thor: The Dark World was able to improve on the first Thor outing (an admittedly low bar to clear) and provide an entertaining experience. Still, it is unlikely to make many fans’ favorite lists. Only Captain America: Winter Soldier and Civil War have been able to avoid the sequel curse. Both films were able to deliver bigger thrills while also deepening the characters driving the narrative. The movies, particularly Civil War, drew on the advantages of having a shared universe without getting bogged down in the negative aspects as did Age of Ultron. This pattern is odd, given how successfully Marvel Studios has cultivated their cinematic universe; after all, in a sense, even new properties such as Ant-Man or Doctor Strange are simply further chapters in the unfolding Avengers saga. Fans know sooner or later that all of this is going to tie together. Watching the pieces fall into place can be exciting, but it can also be tiresome when mismanaged (again all that foreshadowing in Ultron). Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 pulls back from some the first film’s more overt seeding (sorry, no surprise Thanos cameo) in order to focus on the Guardians themselves. The result is an entertaining film which delightfully extends the zany vibe of the original.
This ambiance is established immediately in the film’s opening credits sequence. (Yep, part of the movie’s retro style includes an opening credits sequence). The Guardians have been hired by an alien race, the Sovereign, to protect some highly valuable batteries from a space monster. So Baby Groot cranks up the tunes, while the others go to work. Director James Gunn and cinematographer Henry Braham do an excellent job keeping the action clear, as the camera pans and swirls through all the frantic activity. They follow Groot as he dances through the chaos eventually completing a 360 degree tour around the platform on which the battle is occurring. In the background, Guardians flit about shooting lasers, bickering whilst dodging tentacles. One of the downsides of CGI is a tendency to blur in fast paced sequences, leaving the viewer with little sense of the action occurring on screen (another failing of Age of Ultron). Gunn and Braham avoid such problems, crafting an energetic opening which immediately sweeps the viewer into the story.
Throughout Vol 2, the filmmakers build on the visual style of the first movie, creating one of the most visually striking films Marvel Studios has produced. (Production design was headed by Scott Chambliss). From the sleek, detached gold tones of the Sovereign to the bright, flourishes of Ego, The Living Planet, this movie is a beauty to watch. The architecture of Ego’s world has a grandiose elegance, which mirrors his own inflated sense of importance. The landscape is lush, full of candy colors. Ego illustrates his life story with a series of dioramas which seamlessly mix old-school and cutting-edge technology. When the Guardians first drift across the planet’s surface, bubbles burst into fanciful colors while the soundtrack plays George Harrison. The Guardians disembark their ship and encounter a fountain with, in place of swirling water, fish levitating in the air while rotating in circles. Moments such as these give Doctor Strange a run for the money in the psychedelic imagery department. This tongue in cheek sensibility reoccurs throughout the film, as when the Sovereign’s fleet remote control station more resembles a video arcade than military staging operation.
(Incidentally, what George Harrison would have thought of “My Sweet Lord,” his devotional hymn to the Hindu god Krishna, being used in a sci-fi movie is anyone’s guess. Actually, considering his oddball sense of humor, he probably would have had a good laugh about it).
Striking visuals are great, yet, without a strong story, they are simply superficial window dressing. The good news is that James Gunn’s screenplay for Vol. 2 matches his visual imagination. The plot follows multiple strands involving the Sovereign seeking revenge for being slighted by Rocket Raccoon, Peter Quill being reunited with his father Ego and Yondu facing a mutiny from his crew of Ravagers. Oh, and Nebula’s bouncing around in the background seeking her own revenge on Gamora. On paper this might sound like a lot to juggle in one film; however, Gunn does a good job of balancing the threads. He makes a smart choice to split up the team for the middle section of the movie, so that different characters chase different subplots until they reunite for the finale. This allows Gunn to cut back and forth without worrying about needing to rush the whole group from one point to another.
It also facilitates character development. Gunn is smart in his pairings, putting together characters who complement each other. At one point, he makes this a little overly explicit in a conversation between Yondu and Rocket on how they share similar character traits. Gunn could have dialed it back a little in this scene, but still it is a nice character beat. Yondu is one of the characters given more breathing space in the sequel. In the first film, Michael Rooker’s performance was mostly a snarl and something vaguely resembling a Southern accent. In Vol. 2 he goes deeper into Yondu, revealing his vulnerability and warmth (a Mary Poppins gag is priceless). Similarly, Zoe Saldana seems a little more relaxed as Gamora this time round, which makes sense for her character. Her scenes with both Chris Pratt’s Peter and Karen Gillan’s Nebula have a naturalism about them which allow the emotions involved to evolve gradually. Gillan follows this lead, hinting that her character might be open to growth without overselling the idea. The development of her character, presumably towards her role in Avengers: Infinity War, is a good example of how Vol. 2 hints at the larger cinematic picture without getting bogged down by it.
All of the returning primary cast continue their strong work from the first installment. The highlight of new additions is Pom Klementieff as Mantis. Klementieff plays Mantis as a socially awkward recluse with little interpersonal skills. There is something charming, yet distancing about her speech; as if she were somehow trying to keep her empathetic abilities in check. Mantis has always been a bit of strange character, so this emphasis on her otherworldliness is quite fitting. In another of Gunn’s skilled matches, Klementieff plays off Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer particularly well. The literal mined Drax and the sheltered Mantis make an inspired pair. As Ego, Kurt Russell displays the roguish charm of a practiced seducer. He has a twinkle in his eye, a spring in his step, and that dangerous sense of surety that comes with the belief that he alone knows what is best for the universe. Elizabeth Debicki’s Ayesha head priestess of the Sovereign plays up the ridiculous aspects of her character while maintaining a straight face. Ayesha and the Sovereign makes convincing stand-ins for the Matriarch and her Universal Church of Truth, which probably for reasons of cultural sensitivity, never had a chance of being transferred directly to the big screen. Sylvester Stallone pops up playing one of the characters is was rumored to be playing. It is rather counter intuitive casting but perhaps it will work down the road. (Also, now taking odds on what Steve Gerber creation Gunn will drop into the midst of Vol. 3).
On a related note, yes, early reports were correct and the film has five mid/post-credits scenes. Most of them are brief gag orientated sketches, amusing if nothing hilarious. There is one that points ahead to further installments. It is not a surprising revelation, but for longtime cosmic fans it is still quite satisfying to finally have cinematic confirmation.
Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an entertaining romp. It successfully builds on what came before without suffocating under the glut of trying to be “bigger and better” than the first. Marvel Studios has a crowded slate this year (two more films plus however the Inhumans premiere is being categorized). For the moment, though, Guardians Vol. 2 launches that 2017 lineup with great success.