By Jim Sabataso
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s the guiding principle of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” the sequel to Marvel’s 2014 surprise hit space opera/action-comedy about an unlikely team of heroes who keep the universe safe from cosmic-level threats. Director James Gunn returns for this new chapter, and ups the stakes while hewing to the original film’s winning formula.
Where the first film was something of a gamble for Marvel — back then, the Guardians were a somewhat obscure Marvel Comics property — there is no doubt the second will be one of the highest-grossing films of the summer blockbuster season.
Chris Pratt is back in the cockpit as Peter Quill, aka, Star-Lord, leader of the Guardians. Pratt once again brings his roguish, goofball charm to the role. Peter is a wise-cracking, unserious slacker who nonetheless delivers when the chips are down — essentially a more competent, less schlubby iteration of his Andy Dwyer character from “Parks and Recreation.”
Pratt is also tasked with much of the film’s emotional heavy lifting as he finally meets his father, Ego. In typical Marvel fashion, Papa Star-Lord is kind of a big deal. He’s a celestial being and literal planet, who manifests as a human that looks a lot like Kurt Russell. Russell is a nice bit of casting. His swagger, and charm are a fitting complement to Pratt’s.
But all is not what it seems, and it’s up to the other Guardians to get to the bottom of it with the help of Mantis, the lone inhabitant of Ego’s world. Comic book fans will likely be excited to see another classic Marvel cosmic character in the mix. Pom Klementieff plays Mantis, an empath who can control people’s emotions, with the childlike innocence and naïveté of someone who was raised in isolation. At times, however, that characterization made her seem uncomfortably simpleminded.
The rest of the Guardians, meanwhile, get a bit more to do. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora settles some family business with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), one of the big bad from the first film. A captive of the Guardians at the start of the film, Nebula’s hatred for Gamora is finally explored in a way that brings both to a new understanding of each other.
Yondo, an unofficial Guardian and antagonist from the first film, is back with a bigger role and an arc that works to redeem his character in a genuinely moving way. While I’ll never understand how a space alien can have a southern drawl, Michael Rooker is great as he follows a similar arc as his “The Walking Dead” character, who also was a bad guy who does the right thing when it counts.
Rocket Raccoon (voice by Bradley Cooper) continues to be the team’s resident smartass. A scene in which he and Peter bicker during a space battle is a great example of the film’s ability to balance big action and comedy, something it does well throughout.
Dave Bautista continues to deadpan it as Drax, the warrior without a filter. This time around, the film really digs into Drax’s inability to read social cues — almost to a fault. It’s still mostly funny, but by the third act, the joke begins to wear thin. That said, he does get a couple solid emotional beats that help deepen his character.
Another tired spot is Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), the sentient tree who sacrificed himself at the end of the first film. He’s since re-sprouted as a mischievous baby Groot, who tags along with the team, occasionally being useful but mostly causing trouble. Visually, he’s flipping adorable, but while most of his hijinks are fun, a little goes a long way.
As I said, the first “Guardians” movie found a winning formula, so it’s unsurprising Marvel would want to replicate it. However, at times it all feels a bit gratuitous. Drax’s poor social skills, Groot’s preciousness, the cheeseball 1970s soundtrack — it’s all dialed up to 11. However, as obvious as all this is, it’s all nitpicking because it totally works. Drax is funny. Groot is cute. The soundtrack is really good.
One spot where the “more and bigger” strategy pays off is in the film’s epic space battles. Gunn creates visually effective scenes that are innovative, kinetic and gorgeous. With the addition of good music and entertaining banter, they never drag or feel self-indulgent.
While I have my quibbles, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” accomplishes what it sets out to do. It’s a fun, funny, clever and occasionally sentimental popcorn movie that absolutely delivers. It also is self-contained, with scant acknowledgment of the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is good news for fans who are exhausted by the MCU’s jigsaw-puzzle continuity. (Even the closing credits scenes — of which there are several, so stick around to the very end — are only focused on setting up the next “Guardians” film.) As we enter the summer blockbuster maelstrom, “Guardians” is a strong opening salvo from Marvel that will be hard to beat.
CHECK IT OUT
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (PG-13) is in theaters now.