More than a few fanboy eyebrows were raised when the ascendant Marvel Studios announced they were turning something of a second tier comic book property, Guardians of the Galaxy, into a major motion picture with a summer release and attendant lofty expectations. Stranger still, they chose the auteur behind Humanzee and PG Porn (Google it), the rebellious and decidedly underground James Gunn. This filmmaker was coming off a no budget postmodern R rated take on caped crusaders, and probably wouldn’t have gotten a sniff of this assignment were it not for the influence of MCU Phase 2 associate mastermind Joss Whedon, a friend of Gunn’s who saw a devilishly perfect fit with the misfit supersquad that featured such diverse heroes as a talking raccoon and a friendly, vocab-challenged tree. Fast forward past the first film’s incredible box office performance and top tier consideration in the Marvel canon, and one can barely imagine Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot being handled by anyone else. Gunn’s sympathy for cheeky misfits and deep connection to the source material were evident the first time around, but does he have what it takes to continue the story and improve on the original with an inevitable Volume 2?
No spoilers: Absolutely. This is a quintessential sequel; it keeps and improves upon everything fans of the original liked, expanding on themes, scenes and character arcs that crafted a surprise hit the first time around. The comedy may be more plentiful too, with Drax continuing his evolution as a connoisseur of laughs, Baby Groot predictably adorable, Rocket holding the universe at bay with constant one liners and Star Lord’s semi-false bravado. Gamora has plenty of moments too, most of which involve corralling her stable of unruly boys and getting them to focus on the task at hand—said tasks usually involve huge dollops of intergalactic mayhem, of course. An early job for hire goes south in any number of ways, and things get even more complicated when Star Lord’s father, having discovered his son’s whereabouts thanks to the explosive events of the first film, arrives and takes a few Guardians back to his impressively crafted planet. In typical dramatic fashion, things aren’t quite what they seem and we’re propelled into a raucous third act that has all the action and heart you’d expect from the franchise.
Gunn successfully mines the complicated concepts around family that he used to bring the team together in the first place as Star Lord sorts out his parentage and the other Guardians solidify their bonds; turns out the family you choose may have more to do with your success in life than the one you’re born to. His love for the entire ensemble shines through with strong character work for some secondary players as well. One mild but notable step backwards might be found in the soundtrack department; Tyler Bates’ score only stands out when he’s revisiting the strong themes of the original installment, and the much anticipated Awesome Mix Volume 2 plays more like a sunny but indistinct melodic wash instead of the punchy, unpredictable collection of hooks in Volume 1. That said, the film delivers in all other departments, not the least of which is the glorious visuals, for the most part improving on the first. This is the rare film I’d recommend seeing in 3D, as almost every digitally rendered frame takes full advantage of the technology as few other blockbusters do. The entire cast appears to be having a grand time, including newcomers like Kurt Russell as the aptly titled Ego and Pom Klementieff as the empath Mantis. No surprise here, Marvel has crafted another charming, exciting winner.