The Marvel movies are an unstoppable juggernaut at this point, a monster express train generating billions annually. As an added bonus, they’re mostly damn good movies despite some early hiccups in the process. The stepchild of this universe has always been James Gunn’s deliriously goofy, yet brilliantly assembled Guardians of the Galaxy, a wacky, exciting and endearing adventure tale revolving around a collection of alien misfits (plus one human) who come together to save the universe. It’s a radical departure from the machinations and occasional grimness of the earthbound Marvel tales, and that departure is a welcome one.
That tone continues in the sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. With Gunn once again tasked with writing and directing, Vol. 2 delves deeper into the mysterious origins of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), as well as deepening the relationships of his delightful collection of lunatics, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (fantastically voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Groot, now in baby form after his sacrifice in the first film (with a baby version of his voice again performed by Vin Diesel). This time, while on the run from a collective of gold-skinned aliens that they’ve had the misfortune to double-cross, they encounter a Peter’s father, played with a brilliant sort of laid-back intensity by the always-welcome Kurt Russell (an actor who is somehow both ubiquitous as well as underappreciated). This results in the exploration of a strange new world, and a new, unexpected danger that threatens both the Guardians as well as the rest of the galaxy.
And goddamn, it is fucking fun. Vol. 2 brings the whole damn band back together — Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his Ravagers, and Gamora’s psychotic sister Nebula (Karen Gillian). There’s a host of other recognizable faces, some of them surprises, some not, but all of them contributing in some fashion to making another hilarious, fantastical, breathless adventure tale of intergalactic derring-do. Gunn is in prime form, easily guiding the audience through a story that’s equal parts action and comedy, and both parts are absolutely sublime. Baby Groot will be the highlight of the comedic aspect, with a couple of scenes literally making me laugh until I was having trouble breathing. Vol. 2 is funny as hell, playing off the idea of a group of madcap renegades perfectly. If the Fast and Furious franchise has you at times rolling your eyes at their slavering devotion to the concept of family, Guardians of the Galaxy is the salve for your cynical soul. It’s an homage to familial love, but it does so with all of the bitterness and bickering and rowdy, unruly weirdness that comes with a real family. The Guardians are relentless in their ability to make one another uncomfortable or angry, and it ties itself together flawlessly with those relationships. These people love each other, even if they don’t always like each other, and they will literally travel to the end of the universe to help one another… but don’t think they won’t give each other shit for it.
The special effects have been ratcheted way up in this entry, to the point where the films chaotic climax is perhaps a little bit too much. It becomes a typical visual effects orgy, replete with unrecognizable shapes smashing into one another, and it loses itself in its own need for bigger and brighter. It saves itself through those characters, though, keeping the dialogue and the character development zipping along through it all. It leaves no character behind, too — a miracle, really in these days of ensemble hero films. Each one of them has their turn to live and learn, to shine and become better and to develop as we progress. As a result, there is just enough of a dramatic element to make you care deeply about the characters, and its emotional beats feel genuine and resonate heavily with the audience. That’s Gunn’s greatest gift to this franchise — he’s made a wild, nutty collection of weird heroes who go on space adventures, yet he also hits that sweet spot where it’s more than that, where you care about them and are affected by their highs and lows appropriately. The drama doesn’t feel manufactured, it feels real — like a real family that can’t quite connect with each other, can’t quite convey their affection, so they demonstrate it through actions and through sarcasm.
All of that said, Guardians also feels very familiar to its predecessor. The characters each have their arcs, but their overall circumstances don’t change much over the course of the film. This isn’t a world-shaker like Civil War, but that’s OK — there’s something to be said for a film that tells its own story, and isn’t so determined to be tied into the larger cinematic universe. One of Marvel’s biggest stumbles is its refusal to let its films stand on their own, and instead clumsily shoehorning their stories into the larger landscape and the long-term story arcs. Guardians, other than the occasional reference to Thanos, is largely free from that and gets to be its own, organic, individual story. Couple that with Gunn’s terrific script and characterizations, and you’ve got the ideal scenario, one where action, comedy, drama, and technical wizardry blend seamlessly together to make one of the most satisfying and enjoyable movies of the year so far.