Guardians of the Galaxy was one of the biggest hits of the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far, and when you’re among the best of the world’s most successful mega-franchise, there isn’t a whole lot of incentive to mess with the formula going forward. Writer-director James Gunn‘s return to give us Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 feels very much like it isn’t skipping a beat, offering more of what we liked about the characters and setting of the original while also expanding the universe and retaining its self-aware winking humor. This, alas, offers a paradox by which the film simultaneously feels like the logical progression for the series to take, but also serves as perhaps a step too far, though I couldn’t really tell you where the cuts would need to be made.
In the immediate aftermath of the events of the first movie, the Guardians are acting as bounty hunters on behalf of the Sovereign, a gold-skinned species who promise payment in the form of Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) captured sister Nebula (Karen Gillen). However, when Rocket (Bradley Cooper) steals some precious batteries on their way out, the Sovereign turns on the Guardians and attempts to kill them in an epic space chase. Just as they are about to be overwhelmed, they are saved by Ego (Kurt Russell), a Celestial being who claims to be Star-Lord’s (Chris Pratt) father.
What’s particularly astounding about Vol. 2 is that it juggles the character arcs of about nine main characters, effectively expanding the roster of the Guardians’ team while giving each of them agency and drive. Star-Lord spends time with Ego to develop his own Celestial powers and claim his birthright, internally coping with the reality that he’s finally met his estranged father. Gamora and Nebula fight out their sisterly rivalry while bonding over their mutual hatred of the adoptive father, which thankfully gives Gillen more to do than scowl her way through the movie. Drax (Dave Bautista) makes a new friend in the enigmatic Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Ego’s right-hand woman whose ability to empathize with other beings betrays a secret of her own. The real treat, though, is the pairing of Rocket and Yondu (Michael Rooker), who discover a shared internal pain and work it out through one of the coolest action scenes you’re likely to see this year. …Oh, and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) is hanging around, being the cute, dumb little comic relief.
The unfortunate issue of having so many characters with such fleshed out individual narratives is that the central narrative suffers a lack of urgency. Though each character is suffering their own personal conflicts, a unifying threat doesn’t really emerge until the start of the third act, which makes for a very effective reveal but doesn’t lend itself to well-structured build-up in the interim. For the first ninety minutes, we’re watching characters act out their arcs without any sense that they have any unifying objective, which I suppose plays into the space opera tone this series has adopted, but it lacks the sense of tension and anticipation present in the first film’s tighter plotting.
Still, if what you’re looking to get is more Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is only slightly inferior to its predecessor. The jokes are just as irreverent as ever, and placing the character dynamics ahead of the narrative is still the key to making the adolescent joy of this all star cast work so well. The third act is everything one could ask for in a Guardians climax, and it deals with much stronger and potent themes than the first film, even if it takes a while to get there. Hell, James Gunn aficionados who reveled in the first movie’s Slither cameo are going to find a lot to love here, almost to the point where it’s astounding that Disney and Marvel let Gunn get away with pushing the limits of taste so far. If you want more Guardians of the Galaxy, this movie is sure not to disappoint, even if it deigns to fly a little too high on its own excess.