As the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to expand, each new franchise and sub-franchise must add more characters so as to provide new faces for the merchandise, and each fresh sequel risks becoming increasingly unwieldy and unmanageable. While Captain America: Civil War managed to thread that needle nicely, the tyranny of “more” still threatens to hobble each new franchise installment before it’s even left the spaceport.
To that end, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a follow-up to the surprise 2014 hit, does feel overstuffed in places. It introduces two new major characters, flips a pair of baddies to the side of good guys, and still needs to service the five original Guardians of the Galaxy amid a host of new locales and novel threats. But for a franchise whose first entry brought several Star Wars comparisons, writer/director James Gunn succeeds in his follow up by employing the Empire Strikes Back method.
It’s not simply that Guardians 2 reveals the identity of Star-Lord’s father or spends time in caverns that turn out to be living organisms. It’s that Gunn splits his heroes up for most of the film, only to bring them back at the end for the raging climax. That tack helps balance the many needs of a film like Guardians 2 with several overlapping storylines, all of which center on the theme of discovering who your family truly is.
The film achieves this by essentially dividing its cast up into pairs, with each duo anchoring a particular slice of the larger adventure and building their individuals arcs ahead of the inevitable end-of-film reunion and fireworks. Star-Lord encounters his probable father, Ego, a newcomer to the franchise who takes advantage of Kurt Russell’s appropriately scruffy charms. Gamora goes ten rounds with Nebula, her frenemy sister from the prior film who begins to see reasons to side with the good guys. Rocket Raccoon spends much of the movie playing off of Yondu, with the prickly pair confiding (loudly) in one another about their insecurities and propensity to push others away. And in the slightest but most endearing story, Drax is partnered up with Mantis, an empath and similarly socially stunted newbie, with the pair bonding over their shared literalism and obliviousness. A pint-sized Groot, of course, floats through all of this, there to bring a steady dose of comic relief and the cuteness that launched a thousand ships’ worth of baby tree merchandise.
With all of that going on, Guardians 2 can certainly feel like too much at times. Balancing those four major pairings, while also paying off a series of less-developed arcs involving other major characters having enmity, romance, or paternal affection for Star-Lord, means there’s some issues with pacing in a film that clocks in at more than two hours. But Guardians 2 is never dull, using its multitude of plots to its advantage by jumping from one to another whenever an individual storyline starts to sag or deflate the tension of the film.
It also delivers more of what the fans were clamoring for. As sequels are wont to do, it doubles down on the elements of the first film that audiences found so delightful. The classic tunes are back in full force, with the likes of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” kicking things off in another sequence that blends comic sci-fi action with seventies-fueled cheer (and a side of adorable boogieing to boot). The old school references are deployed regularly and with relish, with everything from Pac-Man to Knight Rider to Mary Poppins getting a shoutout.
And Guardians is still a franchise committed to humor, with scores of funny asides and bits of physical comedy, though these occasionally feel shoehorned-in or overlong. A late quest for scotch tape in the midst of the usual universe-threatening tumult plays nicely in the prosaic spaces between action set pieces and feels truest to the series’s wry spirit. It shows that Gunn and company haven’t lost their comic touch.
The inventive design elements that made the first extended look at the wider Marvel cosmic realm so engrossing return as well. There’s The Sovereign, a race of easily offended awards statuettes come to life, there to impress in all their gold-sheened glory. There’s the living planet itself, an alien paradise just unreal enough to be unnerving. And there’s the superlative “700 jumps” sequence that races through various amusing corners of the Marvel universe with Looney Tunes-esque abandon. For all the complaints about the alleged sameyness in the look of the different MCU films, Guardians is one place where the uber-franchise does not skimp on visual panache.
Despite all those returning elements and the various, intertwining plots of the film, Gunn does a nice job of creating arcs and meaningful roles for nearly every character in Guardians 2 (save for Baby Groot, who is, for the most part, a baldly manipulative yet effective little mascot). Ego reveals the nature of his mission and presents Star-Lord with some harsh truths, leading to an unexpected but heartening epiphany. Gamora and Nebula find common ground even when they’re at each other’s throats. Rocket and Yondu have a “not so different” moment that turns encouraging for the “don’t call me that” raccoon. And even Drax and Mantis, the pair most at a disadvantage in terms of sentiment and understanding, have an affecting moment of shared feeling.
Much of this is very loud and obvious. Make no mistake, no audience members will walk out of this film wondering what the theme or message of any given subplot was. And in contrast to the prior film, Guardians 2 is slightly less apt to undercut its own lack of subtlety in these bits of drama or pathos with a quick gag to take the edge off. Still, it’s all functional at worst, with enough charged moments, good character work, and quality acting to prove uniformly solid.
In the final tally, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an improvement on its already fun and charming predecessor. The sequel is more ambitious, succumbing to some of the usual demand to go bigger and grander, but finds ways to balance that potential storytelling girth with exciting visuals, unexpected twists, and a thematic undercurrent of characters appreciating the family they already have, tempered by the family they’ve already lost.
It is, undoubtedly, a big film, flush with characters and storylines and new faces and places, but by dividing and conquering, it’s also a movie that takes the time to make sure each smaller portion is a meaningful part of the greater whole, and not just a stepping stone to saving the universe yet again. That tack, the film’s humor, and its familial themes, make Guardians 2 another stellar MCU outing, that stands with the best the Marvel movies have to offer.