dir. James Gunn

review by Dakota Drobnicki

Released against a blockbuster landscape dominated by the Avengers, the first Guardians of the Galaxy was a surprise hit that Hollywood needed. It opened the door for mainstream comic book films to take more risks and drift from the grittier, more realistic aesthetics set by the Dark Knight trilogy and earlier installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Without the faith Marvel Studios and James Gunn had in an obscure property like Guardians, Deadpool might’ve stayed just a stray demo reel, but now it too is on track to reinvent the genre. Three years later, and the Guardians are now kicking off the summer season with what might stay as one of the summer’s best.

While escaping from the forces of the gold-skinned Sovereign after Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) stole batteries from them, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) finally meets his father, Ego, the Living Planet (Kurt Russell), whom his late mother was only able to tell him “came from the stars” as a kid. While Star-Lord, Drax (Dave Bautista) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) stick around on Ego’s planet, so Star-Lord can catch up with him, Rocket, baby Groot (Vin Diesel, once again paid millions to repeat three words) and Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) are taken away by Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his band of Ravagers, who betrays retrieval orders from the Sovereign to help them out. When it turns out that Ego’s intentions for his son are not so innocent, the team must unite once again and ultimately save the universe.

With its returning crop of characters, Gunn naturally retains their likability while still finding great ways to amp them up for a second round; Drax is even funnier and more lovable this time as well as adding in a fresh, new comic-counterpart in Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Even though the movie is mostly an amped up version of the first one, Gunn mines enough emotional maturity out of the characters’ continued development that it feels more like a natural extension of the first film than a recycle of it. It’s actually Yondu who gets the most satisfying and dynamic character arc, which is effortlessly supported by Michael Rooker’s flawless acting chops.

James Gunn is famously an alumni of Troma Entertainment, the company behind B-movie classics like The Toxic Avenger and Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, so he’s no stranger to bizarre cinematic excess. With full creative control over the first film (he directed and wrote both films himself), he was able to give it a hyper-colorful visual aesthetic that felt like a breath of fresh air in comic book movies. This time, it’s pushed to new zany, cartoonish heights that will satisfy anyone who loved the style of the first one. One scene that sticks out to me as a highlight of visual insanity involves bodily reactions to an excessive amount of hyperspace jumps, where Rocket and Yondu’s faces stretch hard enough to resemble deranged 90s cartoons.

By comfortably breaking in a maturing emotional core for its characters and wearing Gunn’s enthusiasm loudly and proudly on its sleeve, Vol. 2 solidifies the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise as an underdog that charmed the world over, and leaves a healthy foundation for the series’ future with its five post-credits stingers. (Yeah, seriously, don’t leave the theater early this time.) While I ultimately preferred the first movie, it’s only by a razor-thin margin.

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