Space-faring rogue Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) and his rag-tag crew of miscreants and mercenaries have been doing alright off the back of saving the whole ball of wax in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Still, life for an intergalactic team of superheroes is never easy, and when we catch up with them this time around they’re dealing with a dual threat. On the one hand, they’ve managed to tick off an empire of genetically-engineered superbeings who respond to the slightest perceived insult with deadly, overwhelming force. On the other, mutiny among the space pirates known as the Ravagers sees Quill’s mentor/nemesis, Yondu (Michael Rooker) ousted from command, and his former comrades tasked with tracking down and capturing the Guardians. Things get even more complicated when a third faction intervenes: a cosmically powerful alien interloper called Ego (Kurt Russell), who claims to be Quill’s long-lost alien dad. While Peter processes three decades worth of daddy issues (and comes to terms with his own potentially world-shaking power) the fate of the universe hangs in the balance. Again.
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? A trick is never as impressive the second time around, even when that trick is saving the whole of creation. When the first Guardians of the Galaxy hit it was a breath of fresh air, coming on the heels of the Marvel Studios A-list films and putting a plucky pack of C-listers front and centre. Co-writer and director James Gunn, a Troma veteran, had never helmed a big studio pic before, Christ Pratt had never headlined one, and as the memes noted, Bradley Cooper was playing a talking raccoon and Vin Diesel was a tree! It was a wonderfully weird take on the SF blockbuster, deftly balancing humour, pathos and action – this was a film that opened with a cancer death, closed with the unleashing of cosmic power, and filled the time in between with some wonderfully off-colour jokes, an eclectic ’70-focused soundtrack, some brilliant set-pieces and album-cover-worthy production design.
Vol. 2 does all that again, but it often feels like its hitting predetermined mark rather than charting its own anarchic path. Which is not to say you’re going to have bad time watching it – this flick is so palpably keen to entertain it all but tap dances – but there are expectations to be met now, and what was once fresh is now rote. The needle drops seem forced at times, the jokes too intrusive. The balance is out, with the comedy often overwhelming the other factors in play and threatening to break suspension of disbelief (still an important factor, even in a film as outlandish as this). There are two gags – one involving tape, another involving Baby Groot being sent to fetch something – that pretty much need to be excised entirely; they just break even the remotest sense of plausibility, and that doesn’t help matters when the film is trying to deal with some emotionally resonant stuff.
Where the film excels is in handling the themes of family and fatherhood, doubling down effectively on the “family of choice” motif found in the first film. Obviously Star-Lord is a focal point here, what with his absentee father turning out to be a laid-back, all powerful Kurt Russell (and really, if you’re an orphan dreaming of an idealised father figure, how could it not look like Kurt Russell?), and the raised profile of Rooker’s Yondu in the publicity material is not simply because he looks cool with a mohawk – there’s plenty being said about good fathers and bad, about responsibility, and about generational expectations.
Refreshingly, its not all about Star-Lord (let’s face it, 90% of pop culture is about guys trying to grapple with weak or absent fathers on some level), with the film taking the time to examine the relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) adopted daughters of the tyrant, Thanos, each dealing with the trauma of their brutal upbringing in quite different ways. The narrative actually fleshes out Nebula a lot; a fairly one-note villain in the first film, she becomes a three-dimensional character this time out.
Indeed, a lot of the fun here comes from seeing different characters paired up with each other. Yondu and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) get to realise that, for a blue-skinned space pirate and a cybernetically enhanced rodent, they actually have a lot in common (and they get the film’s standout action sequence almost all to themselves). Meanwhile, the hyper-literal Drax (Dave Bautista) gets some hang time with newcomer Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an alien empath whose unworldly innocence pairs well with Drax’s bluntness.
And despite its shortcomings, which are more about tone control than anything else, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a huge amount of fun. Everything you expect to find is here – epic space battles, witty one-liners, a high ideal or two, stunning alien vistas (although nothing to rival the Bowie-backed reveal of Nowhere in the first film), and a big, sentimental beating heart at the centre of it all. It’s a really good time.