REVIEW: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’, another cosmic gem in an often gloomy film universe

 Pom Klementieff, Dave Bautista, Chris Pratt, Kurt Russell and Zoe Saldana in  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 , directed by James Gunn.

Pom Klementieff, Dave Bautista, Chris Pratt, Kurt Russell and Zoe Saldana in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, directed by James Gunn.

There’s something to be said for a movie that wears its heart (or its themes) on its sleeve. It may not be subtle, or even very original, but if a film has a confident sense of self, watching it can be just as engrossing as a hard-hitting awards contender.

Not a lot of movies have this kind of swagger. Audiences are sometimes assumed to be passive enough to distract with empty CGI, awkward exposition or monologuing villains. Thankfully, this isn’t true of the Guardians of the Galaxy films, which operate under the infectious belief that they’re pretty hot stuff, even without the bells and whistles. They welcome you into a corner (or corners) of the universe where there’s danger and opportunity in equal measure, and people don’t feel the need to hide who they are. They’re just as colourful and expressive as they want to be, and unsurprisingly, it’s one of the nicest places in the Marvel universe to visit.

With Vol. 2 starting its theatrical run, Guardians becomes one of the few Marvel sequel efforts to deliver an end-to-end satisfying experience, with the exception of maybe the Captain America films. Like its predecessor, Vol. 2 is rough around the edges in spots, but I still personally prefer it to almost anything else in the Marvel canon. The self-aware humour, surreal landscapes and excellent music picks all return, while writer-director James Gunn continues to develop the bonkers assembly of characters he introduced us to in 2014. I’ve grown to like these characters so much, I’m worried they’ll get short shrift when they join the giant-size roster in next year’s Avengers film.

 Rocket and Groot (voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel).

Rocket and Groot (voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel).

We catch up with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Groot (Vin Diesel) as they mop up a pesky interdimensional monster who’s been gobbling some valuable technology. The Guardians, however, manage to offend their new clients, led by a haughty gilded being named Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki). This sets off a chain of events that leads to Peter running into an entity claiming to be his father (Kurt Russell), an encounter that has implications not just for his surrogate family the Guardians, but for the whole universe. All those trillions of other life forms must really enjoy having their existence tied to one family’s issues, right?

Having worked pretty hard to show us why a squabbling gang of misfits would stick together in the first movie, Gunn now zeroes in on his characters, pairing them off and letting their internal hang-ups fuel some strong character moments. Peter and his dad Ego naturally go through a familiar absentee-dad arc, albeit with some interstellar flourishes: playing catch with a ball of pure energy, or Ego persuading Peter to join the family business of devouring planets. Meanwhile, Gamora tries to heal a brutal rivalry with her cybernetic sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), Rocket and Yondu (Michael Rooker) hash out some abandonment traumas, and Drax and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) trade notes on how to interpret feelings.

 Yondu (Michael Rooker) gets an expanded role in the sequel.

Yondu (Michael Rooker) gets an expanded role in the sequel.

The decision to let the hearts of the characters drive much of the action feels perfectly in tune with the rest of the Guardians world. This is, after all, a place where vicious space pirates decide not to kill baby Groot because he’s too adorable. Everything in the film, from the flames of starship engines to a brothel staffed with androids, oozes with saturated rainbow hues. The Guardians films, along with Ant-Man, Doctor Strange and the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok, seem to be embracing a vivid, acid-trip colour palette and are all the better for it. For too long, superhero movies swayed toward gritty, stark (ahem) production design, apparently in an effort to legitimize their comic book origins, when maybe a splash of psychedelia is the more honest approach.

Yet for all the fun we have hanging with the Guardians in their kaleidoscopic playground, a balanced plot has been harder to find in these films. The first time around, there were too many factions, weird names and other ephemera to keep track of. This time, the movie gets so caught up with its characters - jumping between the smaller dramas between the different groups - that it forgets to truly build to a climax, until it sort of launches into one all of a sudden. Ego’s objective feels as nebulous as the slimy waves of blue goo he unleashes on the worlds he’s trying to conquer, and the heroes’ solution is just as nondescript.

Overall, these are minor problems, and Russell’s Ego is easily more charismatic and memorable than many Marvel villains to date. If there’s one thing Gunn’s films emphasize (or even state explicitly), it’s that the heart matters more than the head in the long run, and that’s an admirable trait in a film that belongs to such an overwhelming corporate enterprise. As far as the Guardians are concerned, life in space doesn’t have to be as cold or lonely as it’s so often depicted on screen. People can find a home here, an idea that makes the battles of the Avengers look sort of petty by comparison.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 gets three stars out of four.

 
 

What did you think of the latest Guardians adventure? Did it live up to its predecessor, or are these characters all out of surprises? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!