Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) [IMDB]
Directed by James Gunn
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Kurt Russell
The team of misfits that form a comic tangent to the Marvel Cinematic Universe get a second run-out in James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. While the CGI action is more numbing than exciting, this spacefaring sequel has charm and wit to spare.
By 2014, the MCU was well-established and lucrative but in danger of becoming stale. Guardians of the Galaxy felt fresh, deftly introducing a new team of eccentric heroes without the years of buildup the Avengers had required. Better yet, Starlord and his crew were shown to exist in relative isolation from the rest of Marvel's universe, offering a degree of freedom from the straitjacket of continuity.
It's no surprise that Vol. 2 can't quite repeat the same trick, not only because the characters are now familiar but also because Doctor Strange added extra oddness to the larger part of the MCU in 2016. It's still a pleasure to return to the Guardians' peculiar view of things, in which Earth is a distant world but fantastical aliens and their planets are just a star-jump away. Gunn's script overflows with good jokes and genuinely tender moments, and they're made real by the fine performances of the main cast. By separating the Guardians for a sizeable portion of the story, Vol. 2 explores different combinations of characters - new and old - and mostly delivers on their comic and dramatic potential.
Michael Rooker's work as Yondu is surprisingly and pleasingly central to these relationships. His role was quite modest in the first film, but here he is linked to almost all of the various factions in the story. Rooker has been consigned to some poor films in the past, but he's well-used here - particularly when Yondu is paired with gun-toting trash-panda Rocket during an escape from a Ravager spacecraft. Family is a central theme of the film, and Yondu is crucial in that respect, also - unfortunately his relationship with Starlord misfires slightly, simply because the characters are seldom on screen together.
Alas, the excellent dialogue and characters are undermined to an extent by familiar Marvel failings. The plot of Vol. 2 is a little too convoluted and leans heavily on an extremely predictable twist. There is also the lack of a strong villain with a comprehensible scheme, an issue which has afflicted almost every MCU film, particularly Doctor Strange. Fans who have overlooked these issues numerous times before will be able to do so again, but Marvel still need to encourage their writers to craft enemies who anything like as engaging as their heroes. As we've seen time and again, a great actor alone does not a great villain make.
When it comes to noisy CGI spectacle, Vol. 2 is full of it. The outlandish settings of these films obviously demand a heavy reliance on visual effects, but as accomplished as they are their unreality and complexity can become exhausting. The climax of the first Guardians film had a numbing effect once space battles began and very little that was real appeared on screen - Vol. 2 leans further in this direction. Those who like a sense of threat in their action sequences will long for a re-watch of the more grounded approach of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. One odd aspect of the action in Vol. 2 is that Drax the Destroyer is barely involved in combat - despite being the big bruiser of the crew, he's largely relegated to comic duties this time around.
As it grows increasingly reliant on numbing CGI action, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 sometimes struggles to maintain interest. These characters and their world are as engaging as ever, though, and James Gunn is a fine custodian for them, both in his capacity as a writer and as a director. Vol. 2 may be light on real excitement, but there's enough humour, visual panache and heartfelt drama to go around.