Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
2017. Directed by James Gunn.
Guardians of the Galaxy is often described as one of the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As a result, expectations for James Gunn’s follow up, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 were incredibly high and the final result, while not perfect, is one of the best made superhero films thus far. Featuring a scene stealing performance from Michael Rooker, uncharacteristically beautiful visuals, and an unexpectedly mature story, this is a film that showcases the limitless potential of superhero films as allegories to the struggles of reality as well as reveals the innate ability of comic book films to mirror the depth and artistic breath of their source material.
Peter “Starlord” Quill is found by his wayward father, Ego after a disastrous job that leaves the Guardians fractured and pursued by a ruthless alien civilization. As Peter explores his relationship with father, terrible truths are revealed that test the bonds of friendship and family as each Guardian confronts the horrors of the past for hope at a better future. Gunn’s script stumbles to achieve the same level of humor of the first film while presenting an action film almost devoid of action that almost entirely mimics The Empire Strikes Back. However, as the story begins to unfold, dark sequences of mass executions, torture, and murderous narcissism are interwoven with one of the most sophisticated stories to be featured in a Marvel film. Building on the first movie’s core of broken outsiders forming a ragtag tribe among the stars, Gunn’s second effort expands on the theme of family by examining fraternal conflicts and surrogate fathers. While the heart wrenching conclusion is telegraphed from one of the first frames, the emotional payoff works due to the chemistry of the cast.
Michael Rooker’s performance as Yondu is a tarnished, broken, and perfect super nova. His vulnerable delivery of dialogue combines with moments of genuine menace and paternal empathy to form the foundation around which everything else orbits. This is a story about love and its consequences distilled through a cosmic interpretation of Cat’s in the Cradle and none of it works without Rooker’s panache. Dave Bautista continues to impress, despite the clunky script, and his scenes with newcomer Pom Klementieff are comically awkward in one instant and then tear inducing in the next. Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan continue to have weaker arcs, but this is more from the material than their performances. Bradley Cooper’s Rocket continues to impress, with Cooper’s verbal torment unexpectedly overcoming continually stale jokes about his origins. Kurt Russell is the perfect choice for his role, but to expound would spoil the pure joy of his introduction. The Baby Groot-centric credits are outstanding, focusing on the childlike wonder of the character while ignoring a repetitive action scene that suggests a heightened awareness of the formulaic constraints of its colleagues. Unfortunately, there are continuous efforts to double down on the character’s cute factor that are underwhelming.
Henry Braham’s ambitious cinematography is the savior. There’s a remarkable shot of Yondu looking out onto a shantytown while red and green neon lights reflect against a dingy window that underscore the character’s inner turmoil and immediately sets the tone. Another jaw dropping composition features Gamora sitting on an alien planet’s surface, surrounded by a psychedelic miasma of colors while the film’s centerpiece involves a beautifully shot sequence of musical mayhem aboard a pirate ship. The poetic finale is a color infused sequence of reverence that is both a sublime capstone on a transitional story and a sensational homage to the era in which Guardians is forever submerged. The soundtrack diverts from the first film’s grab bag of chart toppers to feature intimate songs whose symbolism (while blatant) mixes perfectly with the serious tonal shifts and will have even non-believers humming for days after.
Ramsey Avery’s art direction is yet another unexpected surprise. The Sovereign are an alien race that are introduced during the first act and with just a handful of precious scenes, the sheer scope of their home world is communicated through dazzling Art Deco throne rooms and Black Mirror-esque combat stations. The planet on which the bulk of the story transpires is a LSD soaked sanctuary, mirroring the arrival of a child’s errant father who brings wondrous new toys as compensation for unreliability. Dreams, impressions, and preconceptions are all at play both in the physical environments on display and the heady metaphysical conflicts within the characters’ hearts.
In theaters now, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is not perfect, but it excels in areas that other Marvel films have just begun to explore. Michael Rooker’s outstanding supporting performance anchors a film that could have easily gotten carried away into a vortex of CGI and Vol. 2 almost does. It is brought back from the brink of forgettable action sequels by breathtaking visuals and adult oriented themes that combine to create the perfect remedy for the spandex fatigue that has gripped the box office. If you enjoyed the first film, there is plenty here that will work, albeit with some rough patches of dialogue and crude humor, but underneath the expected mediocrity lies a passionate story about the definitions of family, traumatic abuse and its consequences, and most surprisingly a well-defined villain with a purpose, something that has been severely lacking in the bulk of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Candy cane aesthetics and pure heart are what elevates James Gunn’s second pop-pulp space opera to front of Marvel’s cinematic stable.