SPECIAL GUEST REVIEWER: I am Groot.
Much like our guest reviewer, I was delighted with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. It balances action, humor, character dynamics and stunning effects both visual and practical with multiple plot strands and explorations of family, regret and reconciliation. It is all the more impressive considering what it has to live up to. Back in 2014, “Guardians of the Galaxy” looked to be Marvel’s first flop. Based on a comic book without the notoriety of The Incredible Hulk, Captain America or Iron Man, lacking major stars and consisting of a premise that seemed like a wacky “Star Wars” knock-off, such reservations were understandable. Delightfully, they turned out to be unfounded, as writer-director James Gunn’s first foray in the Marvel Cinematic Universe proved to be a furiously fun piece of space opera, which introduced a motley crew of eccentric characters who were enjoyable company and that we wanted to see more of.
Gunn’s follow-up to his $773 million success therefore arrives loaded with expectation, and cannot rely on the element of surprise that the first film had going for it. Therefore, Gunn ups the ante, with bigger and crazier action set pieces, more eclectic music choices, an increased number of fabulously over-dressed aliens, and more comedic — yet affectionate — bickering among the Guardians: Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt, “Passengers”), Gamora (Zoe Saldana, “Star Trek Beyond”), Drax (Dave Bautista, “Spectre”), Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper, “Burnt”), Groot (voice of Vin Diesel, “The Fate of the Furious”). The result is that best of sequels — giving us what the first film did, while also adding a bit more.
The title sequence sets the stage for what is to follow.
In a long take that would make Joss Whedon proud, the credits play out over two planes of action to the sound of Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” Your attention may be on the lively song, the dancing in the foreground, the combat in the background, or all three. The film therefore hits multiple points at once, working as comedy, action and a demonstration of great cinematic brio. Gunn maintains a high level of visual creativity throughout the film: The dazzling visual effects create such vibrant and immersive surroundings that space has rarely seemed so busy. Space ships of all shapes and sizes blast away from planets and through hyperspace gates (look out for a sustained joke involving these and the distortions they create), while the interiors of these ships as well as various planets offer rich, varied and sometimes mad alien environments.
Action set pieces also feature great creativity, ranging from space battles and crash-landings to martial art displays and super-powered smash-ups, as well as several displays of Rocket’s ingenuity and agility. The above-mentioned title sequence, for example, takes place on Sovereign, a planet of gold people led by High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”) who provides withering disdain for our heroes. Battles involving these people are played out with a nod to video game arcades, part of the film’s retrospective charm. Aside from the music, which includes “Fox on the Run” by Sweet, “Lake Shore Drive” by Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah and “Bring It on Home to Me” by Sam Cooke, the film references David Hasselhoff and Knight Rider, Pac-Man and even Mary Poppins (who is, let us not forget, cool).
Nods to popular culture such as these can be grating or forced, but not in this case, because they constitute Peter’s tenuous connection to his brief childhood on Earth in the 1980s. The film never forgets that Peter — however Star Lordy he may proclaim himself to be — is a lost boy who found home and family with the rest of the Guardians. For all the competition, arguments and threat of violence between them, there is great warmth and camaraderie among the central five. Peter’s innocence is nicely balanced with his pragmatic and forthright leadership, while Gamora’s cynicism only partially conceals her kindness and compassion. Rocket is similarly fierce yet loving, his scenes with Baby Groot both touching and beautifully strange, while Baby Groot himself is a character you may want to take home. Drax would wear everything on his sleeve if he wore sleeves, and his complete lack of guile, tactlessness and sometimes outright stupidity account for much of the film’s creative wit.
Beyond the Guardians themselves, other characters return from the first film including Captain Yondu of the Ravagers (Michael Rooker, “The Belko Experiment”) as well as Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan, “The Big Short”), both of whom add to the film’s conceit of strained family relationships. Significant new characters also contribute to this theme, most prominently Peter’s father Ego (Kurt Russell, “The Hateful Eight”), whose scenes with Peter expand the universe in more ways than one. Another new addition is Mantis (Pom Klementieff, “Ingrid Goes West”), whose empathic abilities are the source of both pathos and bathos. The first of these elements is present throughout the film, allowing for strong inter-relationship dramas and a surprisingly moving climax.
Equally, laughs abound all over the film, and this may be the strongest card in the impressive hand that is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I saw this film in a packed cinema with vivid digital projection and a VERY loud sound system. If there was anything louder than the chair-shaking soundtrack, it was the laughter in the auditorium. From the adorable antics of Baby Groot to Drax’s obliviousness over his social blunderings, Peter’s references to Earth culture that leave Gamora confused, Rocket’s scathing put-downs or the hilarious bumbling of the Ravagers — one particular highlight involves a character’s name — the laugh-o-meter is rarely still during the running time. Were it not for the humor, the characters and the references might well be annoying and unlikable, or the action sequences less imaginative. The climactic battle is at times reminiscent of the finale in “Man of Steel,” but rather than simply having two super beings smashing everything up like there’s no tomorrow, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 delivers such a clash with invention, imagination and, crucially, humor. Marvel may be laughing all the way to the bank, but the audience members are laughing all the way home after the credits have finished. And yes, it is worth staying until the end of the credits.