Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the type of movie where almost every character gets at least one moment where they scream or laugh whilst brandishing a gargantuan weapon and running towards a large threatening force.
It’s also the type of movie where almost each character gets a revelatory and sometimes too-long scene explaining their emotional backstory and role in the overall group dynamic. Also also, it’s the type of movie where Kurt Russell performs a Shatner-esque spoken word rendition of Looking Glass’ Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl) and eviscerates it into the the most tortured metaphor possible. (In a franchise featuring a character whose whole “thing” is not getting metaphors.) So all this is to say that I don’t actually know what type of movie GOTG2 is, but it’s the type I like.
Literally dancing around the “second movie always goes darker” rule, GOTG2 finds our heroes at odds with one another as well as the rest of the entire universe. After defending an alien power source then immediately stealing it, the Guardians are fractured. With his pal Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) in the extremely-marketable baby form of regrowth, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is bickering with the arrogant Peter Quill/Starlord (Chris Pratt) over leadership roles. Meanwhile, the deadly sibling rivalry between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) comes to a head as the Guardians attempt to collect Nebula’s bounty. Hired to hunt the crew down, Yondu (Michael Rooker) faces a mutiny of his own, and the whole situation comes to a head when Peter’s father Ego (Kurt Russell), a celestial small-g god with undefined limitless power, shows up to capitalize on Quill’s daddy issues and remake the entire universe in his own image.
While the “A”-plot of the movie revolves around a pretty standard “join me and together we’ll rule the galaxy” trope, the more interesting “B”-plot, full of shifting alliances, deals between factions, and character bonding moments galore, is the real meat of the film. Delving right into feelings and emotions territory, the film goes out of its way to give expository scenes to previously unexplored characters like Yondu and Nebula, as well as newcomers like empathic alien Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Some of these scenes work better and less awkwardly than others, and it does sideline Drax (Dave Bautista), whose motivations were pretty well mined in the first film. But it’s refreshing, in a genre marked by cynicism and moodiness, to see a film so unafraid to let emotional connections be the forefront.
That said, a quick note on Mantis: Her handling is the movie’s big misstep, where the film’s sardonic sense of humor turns to mean-spirited. She mainly exists to be demeaned and infantilized by the rest of the cast. The fact that she reads heavily as an old-school subservient “Asian” girl stereotype doesn’t help matters much. It’s worth noting that this movie loves to give every character moments to talk out their feelings – except Mantis, whose whole power set is “feels things.”
There are two secrets to GOTG2’s success: The first is an unrelenting love for its characters. (Except Mantis.) It doesn’t matter that both Guardians movies equate to saving the universe through friendship, the film endears us to these characters by making them outcasts among outcasts, and not letting any one member overshadow the rest of the ensemble. Second is director James Gunn’s ability for crafting one clever sequence after another. The film’s opening number is a cartoonish short film in itself, focusing on the adorable and oblivious Baby Groot while the other Guardians receive a beating in the background. From there, the film delivers one creative action piece after another, playing to each character’s strengths and personality. Another nice touch is how much the visual aesthetic borrows from 1980’s arcades without being obnoxious about it, including multiple visual references to ASTEROIDS, one of which comes in a literal asteroid field.
That’s the thing with this movie: Like Drax, it doesn’t really get metaphors. And that’s okay.
It doesn’t need to, it’s too earnest to. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 does exactly what I wish more comic book universe movies would do, and that’s be perfectly content to exist on its own, playing with its own characters in its own gradually-expanding sandbox. Without concern for the burden of franchise connectivity, GOTG builds on itself first which keeps the movie nice and tight. Even though technically the entirety of existence is at stake, the climax still feels like a series of intimate family disputes. (In this regard, the GOTG movies are already “Fast and Furious in Space.”) Because of this, there’s a wonderful sincerity, almost sentimentality, to these movies which elevates them beyond their cool explosions. But don’t worry, the explosions are still really cool.