Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Dir.: James Gunn
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe nears almost a decade of pumping out quality superhero films, moviegoers have come to slowly grasp an undeniable reality: the cinematic market is grossly over-saturated with superhero narratives. Be they origin stories, grittier adaptations, or team-ups the likes that tickle the collective fancies of audiences worldwide, one can only watch the same genre film remade with new characters for so long. Audience fatigue such as this shows why it’s such a blessing that filmmakers such as James Gunn exist. Not only did Gunn imbue the Marvel Cinematic Universe with some much-needed humor, lighthearted fun, and colorful sci-fi world-building with Guardians of the Galaxy; he also made a film that stands on its own and refuses to feel episodic despite being crammed in the middle of so many more Marvel films that have taken the episodic format to the core of their shared, inter-textual narratives. I was admittedly a little bit worried with this sequel, as I felt that since it was confirmed that the Guardians would be in the next Avengers films, this film would feel much more obligatorily MCU-laden and bound to restrictions of narrative placed on the films surrounding it. Thankfully, James Gunn shows no heed to the MCU films of the future, as he rightly focuses on providing character development, laughs, fun and heart to the Guardians team once again. I’m happy to say that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 delivers another fresh superhero entry to the MCU, with no marathoning required to enjoy it!
Whereas the first Guardians told an origin story of the members of the team with fun ‘80s songs and goofy action to boot, Vol. 2 tells the story of main protagonist Peter Quill’s heritage, with his father Ego, played by Kurt Russell, serving as the new person of interest for the group…with more fun ‘80s songs and more goofy action to boot. While the beginning of the film takes its time to set up the central narrative core, introducing Ego gradually to the Guardians rather than shoving the audience full hog into his world and his motivations, it does pick up towards the end of the second act. The set pieces in Vol. 2 remain as zany, well shot, and hilarious this time around, but the narrative context makes the film feel a tad bit slower going than the first film. This is not to say the film feels like as much of a slog as, say, Avengers: Age of Ultron did, but those looking for the exact same fast-paced nature of the narrative in the first film may feel a bit underwhelmed. Luckily, the third act kicks into gear quite suddenly, going from 0 to 100 in the span of a one minute scene. Honestly, the transition between the second and third act feels a little too sudden, and the developments that occur before the final battle feel a little bit unearned, but luckily, the cast and the direction sell the delivery of these events. The story provides a tonal turn that the film manages to pull off by the skin of its teeth, thanks to the continued commitment of Gunn and co. harbor for these characters. Even when the story gets its most dark and dismal, the film never sacrifices its integrity for a sense of false grit. Without spoiling anything, the character developments that occur show equal care for each Guardian, and the film really does feel like an extension of Gunn’s screenplay of the first film. Whereas Joss Whedon seemed to falter and nearly crumble under studio interference between his two Avengers films, Gunn shows no real signs of diminishing directorial quality in his sequel.
The acting is never the central reason why most moviegoers view the films of the MCU, but there have been some unforgivably bad performances that have dragged certain films in the canon down, such as Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash in Iron Man 2 and pretty much the entire supporting cast of Thor: The Dark World. Luckily for us, Gunn’s phenomenally on-point casting of the first Guardians film shows longevity, as the actors perform their roles just as sincerely in the sequel. The addition of Kurt Russell and a surprising new actor whom I won’t spoil feel welcome in the universe Gunn and Marvel have crafted, and even some of the minor supporting characters from the first film return and are given greater stakes in this new story. Groot has transitioned from towering and adorable to tiny and adorable, Rocket Raccoon still spews mean-spirited but hilarious insults, and Drax still finds Star Lord to be lacking in masculinity. In short, if you grew attached to the characters in the first film, you’ll like what you see here. Chris Pratt stretches his range a tad further in the final thirty minutes, but he still succumbs to more of the pretty-boy-of-Hollywood syndrome than the experienced performer. Zoe Saldana pulls off a profoundly moving familial arc for Gamora as well, and even if it does not take center stage like Star Lord's arc, it does feel necessary to the focus on the theme of family central towards the Guardians' shared character development. The actors accomplish their jobs of conveying the character’s emotional reactions to the events onscreen, and for genre sequel films such as this, it’s all we as an audience can really ask for.
Awesome Mix Vol. 2 as a soundtrack furthers the legacy of ‘80s sonic glory within the context of the series, and there are even a couple of shout outs to key tracks within the film from the characters. While I felt like there weren’t insanely memorable sequences for its tracks in the vein of “Hooked on a Feeling,” the songs presented feel like a worthwhile addition to Star Lord’s musical taste, and therefore, to the film’s aesthetic. The visual effects on screen have improved, as Rocket Raccoon and Groot both feel far more expressive, with Bradley Cooper’s voice acting stepped up to accommodate Rocket’s surprisingly emotional range. The fight scenes are yet again filled with colorful brilliance, and key scenes involving Ego’s planet feel almost like paintings. While the cinematography showcased does not transcend to auteur levels of brilliance, James Gunn’s visual direction never ceases to compliment the upbeat, confident tone of the film, even when the situations become more dire and grim later. The remaining score sans ‘80s soundtrack adds emotion to the scenes in appropriate fashion, while never feeling overbearing or cliched. Simply put, the visuals and soundtrack provide more of the same from the first film, but in the best possible ways.
In a time where watching the newest superhero films can feel overtly obligatory rather than fun avenues of escapism, it’s refreshing to see a sequel that does exactly what a sequel should: add on to the world built by its predecessor. It does not one-up its previous film in sheer spectacle ala John Wick: Chapter 2, as Guardians Vol. 2 is a much slower, character-focused built-up narrative, but it contributes to character evolution in a sincere fashion, which is an accomplishment that many Marvel sequels nowadays have honestly failed to do. The Guardians films continue to walk the fine line between honest-to-god invigorating filmmaking and ‘80s music video power fantasy, and the cinematic landscape is far better for it. Despite some pacing issues with the narrative and a lack of more memorable scenes, Vol. 2 provides a welcome relief for moviegoers who are tired of keeping up with Marvel canon and previous events in the MCU films to enjoy the next entry. It’s a logical cinematic extension to its previous entry, and it’s a worthy superhero film despite its release in an oversaturated market. With a ton of options for superhero films available to the public, the Guardians films continue to feel unique, stylish, and necessary to the canon, Marvel or otherwise.