James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” opens with a franchise-defining credit sequence. As an incredibly expensive CGI battle unfolds in the background, the camera stays on an adorable Baby Groot, dancing to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” This is a series more about whimsy, excitement and family than it is “things that go boom,” and that’s what really separates in the Marvel Cinematic Universe right now. And the clever opening credits, in which the other characters have the nerve to interrupt Baby Groot’s dance number as they fight for their lives, sets the tone perfectly for what’s to come: a thoroughly enjoyable summer blockbuster. This is the rare Hollywood CGI orgy that doesn’t take itself deadly seriously—like the current plague of superhero movies—and wants to be as purely entertaining as possible. To that end, a wave of heartfelt speeches and apocalyptic sequences hinder the final act and hold the film back from pure greatness, but you’ll have had enough fun by then that you won’t really care. To be blunt, “Vol. 2” avoids many of the flaws of the first movie, and does several things notably better. It’s fun, clever and a great kick-off to the summer movie season.
In keeping with the simplicity of its title, “Vol. 2” picks up relatively shortly after the end of the first film. Groot is still a baby, and the other four members of the Guardians are on a job for the Sovereign race, led by a golden woman named Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki). Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot have to defend a valuable group of batteries from a monster called the Abilisk. They do so in exchange for a prisoner being held by the Sovereigns, Gamora’s evil sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). The mission goes off without a hitch, but Rocket steals the batteries on the way out, leading a whole race of people to come after the Guardians.
To seek vengeance, Ayesha ends up hiring someone who knows the Guardians well, Yondu (Michael Rooker), the blue-skinned Ravager who raised Peter, but there’s dissent among the Ravagers. For reasons that will become clear later, Yondu has essentially been exiled from his own people and his crew are starting to consider mutiny, especially when he’s reluctant to track Quill. At the same time, Quill finally meets his father, a Celestial named Ego, played with smooth style by Kurt Russell. In ways I won’t spoil, Star-Lord is eventually torn between his biological family and his makeshift one with the Guardians.
Of course, like Dom Toretto on a confessional bender, family comes up over and over again in “Vol. 2.” It’s most prominent in the arc between Star-Lord and Ego, but the competitive sibling dynamic between Gamora and Nebula is explored in this volume, and the adoptive father relationship between Yondu and Peter plays a major role as well. And, of course, as with so many superhero group films, it’s the Guardians themselves who are the ultimate “family.” As a writer, Gunn beats this drum a few too many times, but he mostly handles the issue of family being more than pure biology in a way that provides these films with an emotional spine other superhero flicks lack.
It helps greatly that the “family” is given nearly equal development and screen time in this adventure. It would have been easy to push Pratt to the front of the stage and rest the action of the film squarely on his shoulders, but every member of the Guardians feels more fully developed this time than in the first film, which was weighed down by origin/introduction arcs. The underrated Saldana turns Gamora into the most practical member of the group; Bautista gets as many big laughs as any MCU character playing the big guy with no social filter; Cooper does great voice work as he finds how Rocket disguises insecurity with self-sabotage; even Gillan and Rooker take characters who could have felt merely supporting and give them surprising depth. This is arguably the best MCU ensemble.
What’s perhaps most surprisingly enjoyable about “Vol. 2” is that Gunn doesn’t rest on his success at all in terms of production. This franchise is too big to fail on so many levels, and so it could have easily been phoned in. And yet Gunn and his team craft some of the most striking visuals of the entire MCU. There are fantastic bits of production design sprinkled throughout the film, from the Sovereigns’ “battle room” to the entirety of Ego’s planet to the grungy functionality of the Ravagers’ ship. Gunn and cinematographer Henry Braham don’t take the visuals of their billion-dollar sequel for granted, finding beauty in shots that many other filmmakers would toss away. “Vol. 2” looks surprisingly great.
That attention to detail extends to both the minor beats and the major action sequences, which also feel more accomplished here than in the first film. There’s an incredible break-out scene, a few nifty space battles, and while the finale is undeniably crowded, Gunn does a great job of keeping us attuned to where everyone is in the fight and what they’re doing. Most notably, the final battle takes full advantage of everyone, the action playing on character development that came before. There are elements of the final scenes (which I don't want to spoil) that feel like they fall into the trap in which every superhero movie has to climax with the apocalypse but the individual actions within those greater moments resonate more than most films of this type.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” uses music in much the same way as the first film, often in-scene as a product of Star-Lord’s mix tapes. And so it’s tempting to compare this movie to the second album from an artist after a beloved breakthrough debut. Sure, the songs are familiar. You’ve heard the basic beats before. But this is no sophomore slump. It’s a film that doesn’t just repeat itself or rest on its leading man. Most of all, it’s no mere bridge to the next adventure, even if it does set up a third volume in exciting ways. Like most movie critics, I suffer a bit from superhero exhaustion. It’s unavoidable at this point in the pop culture spectrum. No one’s more surprised than I am how much “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” woke me up.