Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the first Marvel Studios movie to make me cry, and while – yes – a lot of that is thanks to Cat Stevens’ Father and Son, a song which listening to from my mom’s cassette copy of The Very Best of Cat Stevens is one of my earliest childhood memories, (fun personal fact: Wild World is the first song I ever sang in public); that the movie was able to use the song as effectively as it does is testament to how director James Gunn is able to bring a pathos to his rag-tag group of heroes, including the raccoon and the tree.
Vol. 2 is probably the most character driven Marvel movie to date, with the traditional Marvel plot structure only managing to worm its way in during transition between the second and third acts because heroes need villains, I guess; but until that point, everything that happens in Vol. 2 happens as a result of one of the Guardians’ actions that begins their own personal dramatic arc.
The story begins when, after being hired by a race of golden haughties called the Sovereign to protect their space batteries from a giant space monster, Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) decides to steal the batteries for fun and profit, causing the Sovereign to send their fleet after them. The Guardians escape the Sovereign fleet with some help from Ego (Kurt Russell) – the human avatar of a moon-sized god – who claims to be Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) long lost father. Their fleet destroyed, the Sovereign then decide to hire the Ravagers, led by Quill’s adopted alien father Yondu (Michael Rooker) to bring them in.
But this plot takes a far back seat to each of the Guardians’ own character arcs, the most primary of which regards who Peter will consider family. While fellow Guardian Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is skeptical of Ego’s appearance from nowhere, Peter is excited to meet the more-than-man claiming to be his father, and embrace his cosmic inheritance as one of the race of god-like Celestials, risking his connection to his two adoptive families: the Guardians, and the Ravagers. Meanwhile, Yondu’s soft-spot for his adopted son aggravates a rift between him and the other Ravagers when he refuses to claim their bounty; and the reunion between Peter and Yondu on Ego‘s Planet gets into the weeds of which of these alien men can truly lay claim to being Peter’s father.
Michael Rooker is gives the movie it’s stand-out performance, giving Yondu a depth of character and emotion that one could never have guessed from his role in the first movie, while never betraying the character’s established buffoonery. Comparing him to Russell’s casually cool but deadbeat Ego; Rooker’s Yondu tried and repeatedly failed to be a father, but at least was there.
Meanwhile, Gamora is reunited with her sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), and the two reconcile their hate towards one another with their abusive upbringing, finally coming to terms with the circumstances of their sisterhood. Rocket, having intentionally caused this mess, has his own journey where he tries to figure out why he pushes away anyone who attempts to get close to him. And lastly, the emotionally limited Drax (Dave Bautista), learns to open up upon meeting Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an alien empath who serves as Ego’s maid. Really, the only character who doesn’t get an arc is Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), who is emotionally, physically, and mentally, still a toddler.
Woven through these character arcs are scenes and exchanges full of humor and incredibly realized space opera action, capped off Gunn’s playlist of 70’s and 80’s needle-drops. Following the first Guardians and Doctor Strange, Marvel Studios continues its full bodied embrace of silver age comic aesthetics results in one of their most gorgeous films to date. I really don’t think I’ll ever tire of seeing Jack Kirby’s cosmic aesthetic realized in 3D motion, and am so happy that they seem to be continuing the trend in Thor: Ragnarock. It also helps that Gunn knows how to direct all the action to prevent the movie from becoming a blur of rainbow vomit – something he demonstrates with aplomb during the movie’s first action sequence, where Baby Groot dances in the foreground through a battle with a giant space slug to ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky while the other Guardians are flung to and fro in the background.
Gunn, who also wrote the screenplay, also knows how and when to deflate emotional tension with a joke. Vol 2. can and does go from a major emotional climax right into a David Hasselhoff cameo without skipping a beat; and one of the movie’s best exchanges comes from Groot complaining to Rocket about hats as he repeatedly fails to break them out of a brig. Of course, the humor also elevates the action beats, with this sequel’s version of the first movie’s prison-break sequence featuring slaughtering of a ridiculous amount of Ravagers, by Yondu’s magic-arrow, dozens of which fall in slow-motion from rafters, set to Jay and the Americans. Gunn also gets a lot of mileage from a couple call-backs to 80’s video games and arcades.
As you might have gathered from this review, Vol. 2 is overstuffed, failing to really give everything the space it deserves even with an over two hour runtime; but everything busting through the seams of this movie is worth seeing. Gunn’s dedication to giving each of the Guardians a deep and fleshed out inner life is admirable, even if attempting to balance the arcs of some half-a-dozen characters does mean the final result feels unfocused and tonally restless at times.