Although I probably hold it in higher regard than I did three years ago, Guardians of the Galaxy (Vol. 1, that is) was never quite as interesting as it claimed to be. “Beware the movie that’s Fun! with a capital F,” Stephanie Zacharek duly warned us, and while Guardians was quirky, rude and colourful, those things felt like pretenses for a story that was very much by the book. Chris Pratt did his best Han Solo impression but there was no sense of adventure, and Blue Swede and Bowie weren’t enough to redeem myriad clichés and a rotten core.
While not a hugely different film on the surface, this sequel improves in the areas that count. At its best, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 feels like a big-budget version of Firefly. While that’s high praise, there’s a genuine air of adventure throughout the film. The Guardians venture through a more fleshed-out universe than we’ve seen before, jumping between exotic planets, each with their own distinctively ’80s look. It’s free-flowing in a way that is brimming with possibility and world building that isn’t just franchise building goes a long way in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
After a cryptic flashback set on Earth, we are reintroduced to our heroes, who have been tasked with taking down an out-of-control alien by the Sovereign queen, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki). In a delightful credit sequence, Baby Groot (somehow still voiced by Vin Diesel) adorably dances to ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky” while the rest of the team deal with the octopus-like monster. But things take a turn with the Sovereigns after Rocket (Bradley Cooper) nicks some precious batteries, and the team find themselves on the run, where they encounter the mysterious Ego (Kurt Russell), as well as a group of spiteful Ravagers led by Yondu (the inimitable Michael Rooker).
Guardians Vol. 2 steers well clear of the regular band of Avengers. While there are a few nods to the all-important Infinity Stones, the plot is mostly tied to the inter-personal problems of the team. Where these big studio flicks tend towards teams of writers, returning writer/director James Gunn took this on solo and it shows. It’s a personal affair, less focus-grouped than its predecessor, making for more genuinely weird moments, like when Quill and Ego play slo-mo catch with a magical baseball. A big part of why this works is the absence of a big bad villain. I mean, there is a villain, but he doesn’t really encumber the story the way recent supervillains have.
Despite these stronger moments, it might still be expecting too much from Marvel for the finale not to dissipate into a mundane succession of explosions. It’s very much a ‘defeat bad guy, evade explosion left by bad guy’ final act that will be very familiar if you’ve played Ocarina of Time or if you’ve seen a superhero movie in the last 15 years. Gunn brings some colour to the familiar spectacle, but just because the explosions leave confetti debris it doesn’t make them any less dull. No doubt there have been worse endings in superhero films but none more wasteful – Guardians Vol. 2 spends a lot of time escaping the clichés of the first film, but these last 30 minutes feel like an unnecessary compromise.
Pratt’s Hollywood domination is starting to border on annoying, but Peter Quill feels like his bread and butter. He’s like a superhero version of Futurama’s Fry – holding onto tiny, outdated fragments of Earth as he recklessly ventures through the galaxy. Cooper’s Rocket is also very funny, as he was in the first, and it’s a welcome addition to have his vulgarity given some justification: he is but a lonely, misunderstood cyborg Racoon in an intolerant galaxy. Oh and Sylvester Stallone is also in this movie, albeit for reasons that are entirely unclear.
While the soundtrack is bursting with recognisable hits, the actual score is pretty dire. It’s almost assumed that Marvel scores will stink, but Guardians Vol. 2 highlights it by awkwardly alternating between ’70s pop and histrionic drone. An area where Gunn does break the mould is the visuals. It’s easily the best looking Marvel film since the first Iron Man. The colour grading is great, the outfits are zany, and though seemingly named by a 14-year-old, the newly-employed RED Weapon 6K camera is pretty darn impressive. The first Guardians was colourful yes, but it was also completely flat, nothing jumped off the screen – this is a stark improvement, a lot of which comes down to the really pronounced contrast between the darkness of space and the utter quirkiness of Gunn’s disco aesthetic.
Like its predecessor, Guardians Vol. 2 is a set piece film. It charges itself up for four or five comedic fight scenes that are by-and-large great. True to the Marvel Universe, the ending leaves a bad taste, but the rest of the film feels like genuine fun. Not the sort of ‘Fun!’ that studio heads are usually into, but the sort of fun you have seeing an army of gold-skinned people pilot spaceships from video game pods, backing each other on like it’s a game of space invader. For most of its running time Guardians Vol. 2 feels low stakes, but boy is that a welcome change.