Year: 2017
Director(s): James Gunn
Writer(s): James Gunn
Region of Origin: US

Rating: PG-13
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Digital, Color, 136 mins

Synopsis: Set to the backdrop of Awesome Mixtape #2, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ continues the team’s adventures as they unravel the mystery of Peter Quill’s true parentage. (Source)

Like the eponymous mix tape that anchors it, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a dense, deeper affair, one that takes the seeds planted in its predecessor and takes things to the next level. It’s still eccentric, boisterous fun, but it takes a more measured approach on character, exploring its misfit family’s relationship to one another and who they are when left to their own devices. This is still a grand space opera with insane intergalactic battles and even more creatures, but we care because the stakes are infinitely personal – literally every character gets their moment, and each one has a singular arc. With such a heavy plot, it’s a surprise that director James Gunn still manages to include some of the Marvel Universe’s biggest action sequences, keeping the focus on intricate family dynamics. More episodic and contained than most Marvel films, Vol. 2 sticks up for its defacto family, going where we don’t expect and being better for it.

Things kick of with Guardians Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) as a superhero team for hire. Their latest job is for a genetically advanced race of beings called the Sovereign, and they’ve been tasked with protecting some batteries from an intergalactic beast. The Guardians prevail, and their reward is Gamora’s sister, the conniving Nebula (Karen Gillan), who they want to turn in for a bounty. Things go south when Rocket steals something from the condescending Sovereign out of spite, putting a price on their heads. After nearly losing everything in a giant battle, they’re mysteriously saved by an unknown force and crash land on a nearby planet. Once there, it’s revealed that their savior is none other than a being named Ego (Kurt Russell), a sentient planet taking human form who claims to be Peter’s father. Ego whisks half the team away, hoping to reconnect with this son, while the Sovereign tasks Yondu (Michael Rooker) with delivering the Guardians to them as retribution. With the team fractured, each member is forced to confront their inner demons and the idea of life away from their friends.

Whereas the original film was about orphaned outcasts finding common ground and creating a family, this latest chapter is about breaking up their dynamic and diving into why they need each other. An underlying theme becomes the families we’re born into, and the ones we make, with each character reeling from their personal losses. In essence, this story is about growth, with each character coming to terms with themselves, while also allowing their bonds to grow deeper in absence of each other. It’s a sweet sentiment, but one that yields ugly, dark implications about broken and lost people. Gunn doesn’t sugarcoat the heartbreak that these characters hide and what lead them to become some truly unsavory characters, but his empathy for them is the film’s biggest hook, allowing them redemption and some sobering transformations. All of this baggage naturally makes for a much different film than the original, something more ponderous and introspective even though it still delivers the requisite spectacle.

Speaking of spectacle, the film is flat-out gorgeous, a technicolor feast for the senses that isn’t afraid to get really weird or really big. Each shot truly feels like the most unhinged type of comic book spread, with Gunn taking the action even further away from standard superhero fare into something more cosmic and fantasy-esque. Ego’s planet is something straight out of a sci-fi book cover, and each locale is a synergy of decadent production design and alien flair. With this film, Gunn not only fleshes out his characters, but the Marvel Universe’s galactic outer rim, with a planet-hopping plot that feels truly immersive. While the action is more spaced out, Gunn is more confident with his sprawling space battles, building character nuance through them in satisfying ways. Each showdown also carries its own distinct voice and mounting sense of lunacy, and watching this film, you can’t help but realize how safe and timid the original is in comparison.

Since the film is a family affair for its characters, the cast gets to really shine, fleshing out their characters in ways that feel earned. Pratt’s Peter is still the driving force of it all, thanks to the plot’s narrative focal point, and he continues to shine with understated confidence while giving Quill a more vulnerable slant. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora has the most interesting subversion, in which we learn how horrible she was to sister Nebula and what strained their competitive relationship. Saldana’s makes Gamora stand out as the voice of reason, secretly trying to make penance for a dark past. Karen Gillan has a much meatier role as Nebula, revealing the character’s thirst for family while being raised by a ruthless tyrant. Gillan feels more comfortable in the role, and I’m excited to see where she goes. Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel are what they need to be, as Rocket and Groot respectively, lending their voices to characters who are more complex than their disarming, endearing outer appearances. As Ego’s empath, Pom Klementieff is a knock-out as Mantis, a lonely soul who makes a life-changing leap. Klementieff is a great addition, adding an innocence to the group’s rowdy bunch. As Ego, Kurt Russell enjoys a a role practically tailor made to his charm. There’s a tragedy to him that breaks through, and only Russell could make it this meaningful. If there’s a show stealer, however, its Michael Rooker’s Yondu, who probably has the heftiest role of the bunch. Without going into specifics, his lovable yet savage goon gives the film its emotion, with Rooker delivering a deep performance that hits hard.

When all is said and done, Gunn took a big risk on this one, sidestepping expectation and convention for a story that isn’t quite what we wanted, but the one that needed to be told. This film paints the Guardians as tragically imperfect, but weirdly beautiful because of their faults, and for a superhero film, its bold stuff. If there’s a minor fault, it’s that the film’s climactic showdown is a bit disjointed, separating the Guardians after a brief reunion and leaving too many of them with little to do. It’s a small fault that makes the film really good instead of blindingly great, but as is, Vol. 2 is still on a level on its own, blending charming characters with raw dysfunction and doubling down on its cosmic scope. The film also packs an emotional wallop, giving us one of Marvel’s best endings, one that sets the Guardians on a new, unpredictable path.