Maturity and baggage comes with 'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2', as they must

Maturity and baggage comes with ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’, as they must

'Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol.2' is out now

Image: Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

WATCH OUT FOR MINOR SPOILERS, TRUE BELIEVERS

By Jarrod Jones. Sequels, particularly superhero sequels, often find themselves lurking in the darker corners of a franchise’s id. That’s partially what makes the sequel a more engaging film in the blockbuster landscape, at least superficially: the first film sets up the pins, the sequel arrives to knock them all to hell. That’s the idea, anyway.

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is in many ways a superior return to form for director James Gunn. Thanks to the surprising runaway success of the first film he has larger access to the Marvel Studios toy box, though as a consequence he seems to have matured enough to know when to set the indulgences aside. (Mr. Gunn takes sole writing credit this time around.) There are still plenty of tantalizing Easter Eggs and showstopping set pieces — there’s an especially awesome one set to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” — but for the most part Guardians Vol. 2 is more of a character study, one that takes quite a bit of time to explore the effects of, and I am not making this up, child abuse and neglect.

Yes, there are sequences in this romp that go darker than what you’d normally expect, especially from a movie that blasts the contents of a classic rock jukebox in your face for almost its entire duration. But don’t go thinking that Marvel’s gone kitchen-sink on us — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a worthy follow-up to Vol. 1 (I guess we’re calling it that now, since Vol. 3 has the greenlight), and in a way, it’s far more thoughtful than most of these films turn out to be. That’s not for nothing.

The story follows Vol. 1 with a natural propulsion. Here, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) hustle their way into royally honking off a gilded race of über-menschen called the Sovereign (ruled with striking pomposity by Elizabeth Debicki). After handing over their captive Nebula (Karen Gillen) to the Guardians for a job well done, the Sovereign hire the Ravagers (led by Yondu, played magnificently by Michael Rooker) to hunt them down after Rocket makes off with few of their precious baubles. The Ravagers make good on their bounty, until interior strife causes the the cast to get separated during a perilous chase which ends with Peter running into Ego, the Living Planet (Kurt Russell), who turns out to be Peter’s biological father.

'Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol.2' is out now

Image: Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

This is where the story’s themes begin to take root. Yondu’s complicated relationship with Peter is examined further, thankfully (considering that Peter grew up as a Ravager hostage, and was treated accordingly). Nebula and Gamora work out their animosities against each other in the looming shadow of their murderously abusive father, Thanos (the Mad Titan does not make an appearance here, though his presence is felt for the duration). What gives this film heft are sequences where Peter copes with finally meeting his absentee dad, though consequently it saps a lot of energy from the typically ebullient Pratt.

It should be said that Gunn knows how to take the piss like few others, and when this Lisa Frank phantasmagoria begins to veer its gaze towards its navel, Gunn’s script tosses a nuclear bon mot into the mouths of its returning stars. One example of this tonal ping-pong is Drax’s amusingly mean-spirited friendship with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a subordinate of Ego’s who turns out to be the key to unlocking the movie’s mysteries. It’s playful enough until it begins to feel, well, just shitty.

That’s another thing about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: it’s far more caustic than its predecessor. It’s darker, sure, but it’s more bloodthirsty than one would probably expect from a Marvel movie. (An inevitable side-effect of Gunn’s Troma background, probably.) Set to the series’ trademark — and likely expensive — Top 40 soundtrack (which is more omnipresent and on-the-nose than ever), legions of adversaries are wounded, mutilated, or straight-up murdered by these otherwise marketable characters. These moments are played for comedic effect, though the results are more troubling than anything else.

So it seems the veneer of Guardians of the Galaxy has lessened only in tone. What’s refreshing about Vol. 2 is that its scope is more focused than most Marvel trifles (it’s more emotionally resonant than, say, Thor: The Dark World). It has to connect the requisite dots towards the Guardians’ next appearance in Avengers: Infinity War, though that rarely feels like an obligation. Which is funny: outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 could stand alone as a fairly raucous and stimulating sci-fi wonder. In context to Marvel’s wider plan, however, it sticks out like a severed toe.

Directed by James Gunn

Produced by Kevin Feige

Written by James Gunn

Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, and Kurt Russell.

Rated PG-13 for — holy bananas, so many people die in this thing.

7 out of 10

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