OnScreen Review: 'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2'

Ken Jones

  • Chief OnScreen Film Critic

2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a breakout hit.  It was Marvel’s first attempt at bringing a lesser-known property to mainstream audiences and expectations were slightly muted compared to some of their other titles in the immediate wake of the massive success of The Avengers.  But Guardians blew up, soaring to $330 million at the box office thanks to its self-aware humor, solid story, and likeable cast.  Coupled with Jurassic World a year later, it also helped make Chris Pratt a massive star.  Three years later, everyone is back for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a film that is a little bigger and a little more bloated, but does little to deviate from the formula that made the first one so successful.

One of the hanging threads from the first film was the identity of Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) father, known only as a “star man” as relayed to him by his dying mom as a kid.  Rather than string this story out, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 dives right in to showing in the opening moments of the film just who Peter’s father (Kurt Russell) is through a flashback to him on Earth with Peter’s mom 34 years ago.  In the present day, the Guardians are doing freelance work throughout the galaxy, defending a people known as the Sovereign from a giant monster in exchange for Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), who had attempted to steal high energy batteries from the Sovereign.  They soon find themselves on the run from the Sovereign and their leader Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) when Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) also steals said batteries from them.  Barely escaping the hotly pursuing Sovereign, they are saved by a mysterious figure, but crash land on a planet in process.  That mysterious figure turns out to be Peter’s father, Ego, who has a companion with him named Mantis (Pom Klementieff).  While Rocket, Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and prisoner Nebula stay with the ship while Rocket repairs it, Peter, Gamora, and Drax (Dave Bautista) travel with Ego to his planet, while still being pursued by the Sovereign, who have hired Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his crew of Ravagers to find the Guardians.  While on Ego’s planet, Peter learns the truth of his parentage, which takes an unexpected and potentially dark turn.

So much of what worked in the first film is ported over into this sequel.  Basically, people who enjoyed the first film are going to enjoy most of this one as well.  The action moves at a great clip.  The comedy is still there in spades.  The special effects are amazing, especially the de-aging work done to create a young Kurt Russell in the opening.  It’s a vibrant film, with colors popping off the screen. 

The Guardians feel like a cohesive group that sort of parallels the cohesion of the Avengers at the beginning of Age of Ultron.  This story builds on the relationships and dynamics within the group.  There is some tension between Peter and Rocket over the purpose of the group, with Rocket having a self-destructive streak in him that puts the group in danger.  Peter and Gamora have a Sam-and-Diane-from-Cheers type of subplot.  Gamora and Nebula are still at each other’s necks.  Drax, the most physically imposing figure of the bunch, is still some of the best comic relief in the group.  Baby Groot is also a source of goofy comedy, as he is like a little kid version of the Groot from the first film.  It’s a cool and unique choice to have Groot’s “age” essentially be tied to his growth process, which was restarted at the end of the previous film. 

It’s a big cast, but thankfully none of the characters feel underserved in the amount of screen time and character service they are given by the script.  It can be difficult with such a big cast to find that balance, but the way that writer-director James Gunn structures the story is to pair off most of the characters into their own little subplots for most of the film until they all come together for the end: Peter and Ego, Gamora and Nebula, Drax and Mantis, and finally Rocket with Yondu and Groot.  These character pairings have some shared similarities in some cases and in other cases accentuate their unique characteristics.  Mantis, being an empath and paired up with a few scenes with the very literal Drax, makes for a nice addition to the cast. 

Like most people, I am unfamiliar with the comic book history of the Guardians of the Galaxy.  I remember reading that they were planning to involve a character named Ego, who is a living planet.  Russell portrays the physical embodiment or vessel of this planet.  Taking some liberties with the comic continuity and making Ego be Peter’s father is a good narrative move.  It makes the main story of the film a personal story to the central characters while also allowing some of the most important action of the film to be big in size and scope.  There always seems to be a pull to make a sequel bigger and better than the preceding film, and bigger does not always equal better, especially if it is unnecessary.  Nearly everything in the execution of Ego as a character and Ego as a planet works well. 

There are a few things, though, that hinder the film slightly.  There is a lot of humor, but it leans a bit too heavily on Drax laughing in an over the top manner at something funny or embarrassing.  After about the fifth or sixth time it starts to wear thin.  Something that the first film did a good job of was finding the right level of violence in its action, especially for a PG-13 film.  Two instances, both involving Yondu’s Ravagers, felt like the film was reveling in death in a way that never came across in the first film.  There is a short scene of someone being shot out into space to freeze and die, and as he floats away we see several others who have met the same fate.  Later on, there is a prolonged sequence with Yondu and his whistling arrow where he essentially slaughters mutineers in slow motion as he takes back his ship.  He kills people in the first film too, but the way they execute it this time around is a bit more ill-fitting in the grand scheme of the film.

While some of these drawbacks can be explained away as bloat from an increased budget or maybe the director being less restrained by the studio in the wake of a massive hit the last time around, there was one aspect of the film that did temper my overall enjoyment just a bit, though it may not be a problem for most people.  Simply put, I have City Destruction Fatigue.  The disaster movie motif that has long existed and has only gotten bigger and more obscene in Hollywood with CGI has easily expanded and found a willing home in the superhero films that populate the movie theaters so regularly.  The most egregious example of it was Man of Steel, which essentially reduced the center of Metropolis to a nuclear crater.  But Marvel is just as guilty of this as anyone, which was why Captain America: Civil War, a film that grappled with the fallout of the destruction left in the wake of all this superhero-ing,  felt like a necessary pivot from the leveling of cities and toward personal stakes mattering more. 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 seems to have one foot in each camp, having personal investment in the story of Peter and his father be central to the story and the action, but it also engages in threatening the destruction of the entire galaxy in the third act when the master plan is put into motion, and we see glimpses on several planets of people running for cover as a destructive blob expands and consumes anything in its way.  I realize that this makes the Guardians of the Galaxy literally guardians of the galaxy in the moment, but it also feels like a regression to a tired theme that has appeared in superhero movies more than enough times already.  They’re also not essential visuals, so it’s not a serious misstep or in any way a fatal flaw, it’s just a generic plot device in a franchise that felt fresh and inventive and bold compared to others like it.  CGI makes practically everything possible in films now.  As a result, trying to make CGI destruction on screen bigger than what audiences saw the last time just doesn’t have the same affect it once had.

Despite my misgivings about the galactic scale of city destruction employed in the third act, it did not derail my ultimate experience with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.  It’s still a lot of fun, still visually vibrant (especially the Sovereign), and a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.  The joy of the cast and crew involved in the making of this film comes through in the final product.  I’m very much looking forward to how they are working into the upcoming Avengers: Infinity Wars and welcome a Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.  They’re still a loveable, motley bunch of a-holes.  We are still Groot.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars