7/10 In August 2014, the first Guardians of the Galaxy burst into theaters as a wildly different offering from the MCU. From the formula that was finally beginning to grow stale — and kept right on doing so with its next offerings — came this vibrant, disco-Star Wars movie drenched in ’70s and ’80s nostalgia that swept movie goers and ticket tearers alike right off their feet. Its influence was felt almost immediately in the marketing campaigns for Suicide Squad and the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok.
In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, writer/director James Gunn brings us another radically different creation. Where the first was a gleeful romp across the stars, Vol. 2 is an introspective movie with surprisingly difficult themes about family and regret. It’s a much more subdued but no less ambitious movie.
Guns-for-hire Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and baby Groot (Vin Diesel) travel across the skies, selling their services as the renowned Guardians of the Galaxy. The group gets into a tight spot after a job, but is saved by Ego (Kurt Russell), one of the celestial beings that formed the Marvel universe — “A god with a lower-case ‘g,'” as he puts it — and Quill’s long-lost biological father. He takes Quill, along with Gamora and Drax, to his planet on the edge of the universe to discuss his seraphic heritage.
Where the first movie is in constant motion, either physically or emotionally, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is static. It takes place mostly on the surface of Ego as Quill wrestles with new knowledge about his origin, his relationship with his surrogate father Yondu Udanta (Michael Rooker) and the apparently unresolved trauma of having watched his mother die as a child. Similarly, Gamora and her sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), work through their fractious relationship. The personal drama is rooted in the guardians’ own uncertain group dynamic — Groot’s recent immaturity, romantic tension between Quill and Gamora and Rocket’s general hostility.
These conflicts aren’t set up as well as they need to be, and it becomes a weakness. Guardians of the Galaxy established the necessary plot points — that Quill doesn’t know who sired him, that Udanta raised him and that Gamora and Nebula never got along — but not that these were particular holes in any of the characters’ lives. Vol. 2 glosses over its own establishment phase, so by the time things get going, I don’t have any reason to care about Quill’s suddenly debilitating parental issues or about Udanta or Nebula at all, but the movie is entirely about them. Many scenes just go by too quickly, robbing emotional beats of their full effect.
Gunn has said in interviews that this franchise isn’t as connected to The Avengers as other movies and that what’s going on with Star-Lord and the gang is more important than how it connects to the larger MCU, and understanding that is the key to enjoying Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. With its new soundtrack, plenty of dancing baby Groot and some stunning visuals — Ego is an absolutely gorgeous planet — it will surely satisfy the vast majority of viewers just hoping to relive the magic of the first one, but this movie is not a light-hearted space adventure. It’s a relatively restrained family drama that compromises itself with flashy special effects and some emotional cop-outs, but with performances and parallels that mostly ring true enough to override any of the movie’s other issues.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has that distinctly pleasant aroma of a big-budget passion project, of a director taking an allowance only afforded major studio movies and making something personal. This movie may have its weak spots, but it’s exactly the kind of thing we need more of from Hollywood — and from Marvel in particular.
Leopold Knopp is a professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, syndicated columnist at the Lewisville Texan Journal and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.