REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Marvel’s intergalactic gang is back together, but was it worth the comeback? Oscar finds out. 

Disclosure time: I don’t think Guardians of the Galaxy is all that great. Is it a bad film? No, but for all the intense hype and fan fervour around it, I was led to believe it would be something incredible. And to me, it just wasn’t. So when it came to my expectations for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I just thought it would be more of the same. But it turns out I was wrong – in an excellent way!

Peter “Starlord” Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) are renowned as the Guardians of the Galaxy. Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), leader of the golden Sovereign race, has the Guardians protect valuable batteries from an interdimensional monster in exchange for Gamora’s estranged sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). After Rocket steals some for himself, the Sovereign drone fleets attack and badly damage the Guardians’ ship, forcing them to crash-land on a nearby planet with the help of a mysterious space-craft. The figure reveals himself as his father, Ego (Kurt Russell), along with his empath assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff). He invites Quill, Gamora and Drax to his planet, while Rocket and Groot remain behind to repair the ship and guard Nebula. Meanwhile, Ayesha hires an exiled Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) and his crew to recapture the Guardians. They capture Rocket, but when Yondu shows reluctance to turn over Quill, his lieutenant Taserface (Chris Sullivan) leads a mutiny with help from Nebula.

The acting is a major step up from the first film. Pratt gets to really act his balls off in this film, taking the character of Quill to greater emotional depths beyond the charming rogue persona. Saldana has more to work with, nailing the role of the straight character to the more eccentric Guardians, and her tense scenes with Gamora. Still, I don’t really feel that much romantic chemistry between her and Pratt, but their relationship is at least more believable. Cooper is more or less the same aggravating Racoon as before, up until his scenes with Rooker and then he really starts to nail Rocket’s hidden depths. Diesel does well enough as the more childlike iteration of Groot, serving his purpose as the cute comic relief. Bautista owns the comedy, and through a killer combination of great script and directing, his performance is a lot more well-rounded. Klementieff was amazingly well-cast as Mantis, bringing a lot of innocent awkwardness and sweetness to the part and going through a spectrum of emotions. Gillan is sometimes a bit over-the-top in her viciousness as Nebula, but she is able to deliver an overall more interesting performance. Rooker is excellent here, too, adding further layers to his tough-guy boss personality and managing to own many complex emotional scenes. Russell lends his naturally-rugged and easy-going charm to the role of Starlord’s father, and for much of the film, he strikes a fascinating and multi-layered relationship with Pratt. Sullivan and Sean Gunn are enjoyable as opposing Ravager pirates, and Sylvester Stallone as (the unnamed) Stakar Ogord and mentor of Yondu just seemed like a version of himself.

The visuals are a major step up from the first film. While a lot of the CGI ranges from serviceable to engaging, some of it is actually a noticeable step down to more cartoonish degrees for the sake of comedy. Rocket and Groot look just as good as in the previous movie and do appear like they are actually there for the most part. There is an insane level of detail, which is meticulously-crafted and spaced out so that it isn’t visual overload. Even when the climax goes into semi-inevitable VFX overkill, it never loses its verisimilitude. We even get to see young Kurt Russell early on in the film and it’s astonishing how convincing he looked, just like he stepped out of the 1980s! Even in 3D, the effects had a respectable solidity to them.

Being the first in the Marvel series shot in digital and finished in 4K, this gives the movie a much sharper and more natural look to it, reminiscent of film. This lent itself to some very well-realised new planets and worlds. The vibrant and eye-pleasing afterglow gives Ego’s planet an alluring appeal. Gunn and his cinematographer Henry Braham relish the long, sweeping shots of the various planets, spaceships and other cosmic entities that allow you to be fully absorbed into the world.

The main score by Tyler Bates is a lot more rounded and competent, with strong brass accompaniments and more orchestral variety. The musical choices aren’t as strong or as memorable as the first film. It is ironic that Bates’ score is improved here but the classic 80s soundtrack isn’t as iconic. The 80s hits help serve the story and character arcs at the right junctions, and is integral to the a number of key dramatic scenes, but the memorable punch of “Hooked on a Feeling” is admittedly missing.

Overall, this is a better-directed film than its predecessor, but the first act was astonishingly bogged down in James Gunn-isms, trying too hard to be funny. It wasn’t until the second act kicks in that the film starts to carve out its own identity. Gunn walks a fine line between balance to the formula and bringing in stronger storytelling elements that ultimately outweigh any flaws in the film. The pace is a tad choppy, since we spend a lot of time with one group of characters at any one time, and it does lull somewhat in the middle. Said downtime is used to show the characters’ engaging interactions, so it doesn’t harm the movie too much. While it had a better structure than the first film, there wasn’t as much of a narrative momentum.

To be completely honest, the film wasn’t winning me over until that second act. At first, the film felt like it was going to be the merely jokey, action-heavy and frankly tension-free formula of the first, but the more it went on and the more the Guardians’ individual pasts and relationships were explored, the more real and emotionally investing it felt. While this movie is more focused on Starlord, his lineage and this relationship with his birth father, we do get satisfying characterisation throughout. A lot of their character traits and quirks that seemed meaningless in the first film not only make more sense but feed naturally into the story. We learn a bit about each and every one of the Guardians, making them more fleshed out and giving them more weight and presence. Even Nebula is given strong and tragic reasons for why she is the way she is. Yondu gets a lot of development and plenty of good drama to deal with, forming a surprisingly likable relationship with Rocket. It’s not just about making a bigger and more gratuitous movie.

The first film is largely a ragtag bunch of misfits accepting who they are as individuals and as a group. Having established that, the team are pitted against different groups of foes that really test them. With the Sovereigns, their visual perfection stands in sharp contrast to the Guardians themselves and serve as a nice visual link to Quill’s lineage. It felt far more of a character-driven journey.

While Drax and Groot get the least amount of characterisation, that is ultimately set in stone as far as their characters go, and it’s their relationships with the more active Guardians that allows them to shine. Sadly, because of his lack of agency and infancy, Baby Groot doesn’t have as much character to work with as his first appearance. While the Sovereigns are pretty uninteresting as secondary antagonists, the main big bad is one hell of an insidious bastard.

The theme of family is naturally built and translated on-screen pretty well. Certainly far better than shoving the word “family” in our faces every five minutes like the Fast & Furious movies. Each of the Guardians have a longing for a lost family. Aside from the relationship between Starlord’s biological father and his proverbial “adopted dad”, we have Rocket basically playing the role of a cantankerous dad to Baby Groot and it pays off. Drax recalls his lost wife and daughter and starts seeing them in Mantis. The dysfunctional Gamora and Nebula sister relationship, as well as the one with their father, Thanos, show a decidedly darker familial angle but also connects to the overarching theme.

I know humour is subjective, but a lot of the jokes worked for me this time. I even got a kick out of the “Taserface” joke, giving it a satisfying and amusing payoff with the Sovereign High Priestess. The use of the arcade sound effects, and even the way the Sovereign “pilots” crowd around their mates, had me going. Certain jokes fall short, but the ones that were advertised the most are still hilarious in the film proper. Despite some creative visual gags in the climax, it is admittedly a tad excessive in its action and visuals; a lot of it has been seen in other climaxes in a bunch of other movies But it is forgivable because of the intense character beats. And best of all, the finale and resolution is NOT a cop-out!

Despite my frequent digs towards it, I can understand why the first film is more liked because it was seen as such an unexpected surprise and made great use of its cast, humour and soundtrack. While Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does adhere to the basic genre premise of a Marvel Studios movie, it also provides a unique and interesting spin. It’s certainly a more experimental and risk-taking film compared to other MCU ventures, but it doesn’t lose that unique identity stamped on its predecessor. It’s mpre self-contained, focused and doesn’t compromise its story for the sake of entertainment. And it achieved the unexpected: it made me actually like the previous film.

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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