When the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” was released in 2014, it felt like Marvel Studios had taken a risk and then captured lightning in a bottle. Audiences were going nuts for the film’s killer soundtrack, colorful characters and effortless humor. Above all things it was fun, a fresh escape from the increasingly formulaic and sometimes deadly serious releases of that era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Three years later, Marvel has tried to recreate the magic with “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” a sequel that is simultaneously superior and inferior to its predecessor.
Following the Guardians on new adventure in which they meet team leader Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt, “Jurassic World”) father Ego, a fantastic Kurt Russell (“The Thing”), the film is again a refreshing break from the structure seen in the majority of Marvel films. Standard practice sees the studio’s films following a set structure: set up an origin and/or conflict, complicate relationships in an attempt to encourage character development and then bring everyone back together for a dizzying final act where you can actually see the studio burning through money with your very eyes. “Vol. 2” is no stranger to this structure, but it injects it with both personal stakes and whimsy, a mixture that make the proceedings worthwhile.
Most of this is thanks to writer-director James Gunn (“Super”), who is finally allowed to tap into his primordial weirdness here. Apart from Joss Whedon’s (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) work on “The Avengers” films, no other MCU films feature a singular writer or director, which pushes them into pretty much becoming whatever the executives wish the films to become. After the success of the original “Guardians,” they give Gunn some room to breathe and the benefits are clear. The film is notably stranger than the first, with some very Gunn style moments of humor and action, which allows the film to stand on its own and still feel original despite some similar plot beats. It also allows for some solving of the MCU’s biggest problems, primarily its villain conundrum, where antagonists are reduced to barely memorable plot devices that do little outside of providing situations for the more interesting characters to solve. To explain this solution would be to spoil the plot, but it’s noteworthy enough to give Gunn props for listening to criticisms of the films. In moments, his style does get the better of him (the lean on musical cues, while still a neat gimmick, is not nearly as effective in this iteration), but Gunn nonetheless remains probably the finest artist in the MCU canon.
Despite all the stylistic flair, the main draw for this film is still its fantastic characters, which are mostly put to fine use once again. Dave Bautista (“Spectre”) absolutely steals the show as socially incompetent strongman Drax, providing the film’s best comic moments while also showing some growth as part of the team. Baby Groot (Vin Diesel, “Fast and the Furious”) is to die for, an irresistible little twig who has viewers begging for him to come back on screen. Perhaps most surprising is turns from Michael Rooker (“The Walking Dead”) and Karen Gillian (“Doctor Who”) as outlaw Yondu and murderous Nebula, with both taking the rugged humor of their characters and humanizing them in this film to an actually quite touching degree. The rest of the team, including Quill, Gamora (Zoe Saldana, “Star Trek”) and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper, “The Hangover”), can feel a bit forced at times, but their characterization is so charming that it’s easy to overlook.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” like its Marvel counterparts, is no masterpiece. It suffers from over-stuffing, a lack of focus and slightly reckless ambition. However, few blockbuster films crafted these days have the same heart, confidence and absurdity that makes the film shine. It’s a sequel that works because it capitalizes on everything that made the story of these wonderful weirdos so captivating in the first place, and that’s a victory any filmgoer can appreciate.