To allay any fears about Marvel going to the proverbial well one too many times I’ll address the question on the minds of everyone who hasn’t seen it yet straight away by answering emphatically that yes, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is very good. With Marvel’s many triumphs now coalescing into a whiz bang blur of spinning star spangled shields and mystical hammers hurled across nearly 20 interconnected films at this point, it’s definitely becoming harder to pick a favorite after each release. Guardians of the Galaxy’s pitch perfect blend of retro futuristic action and heartwarming comedy made it an easy standout for most people though, and while Vol. 2 falls just a hair short of the first film’s nearly flawless alchemy, it definitely isn’t for a lack of inventiveness or a preponderance towards playing it safe.
First of all, for those who saw Kurt Russell’s “Ego” and thought the filmmakers were copping out on one of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s most batshit insane creations, fear not. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that GotG2 mines ol’ Stan at his most esoteric even more so than last year’s similarly mind boggling Doctor Strange. GotG2 is light on plot, mostly centering on a protection job the gang takes on for Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) and her gold skinned race of Sovereigns gone wrong due to the sticky fingers of a certain “trash panda”, but the great character work that blossoms from this one unfortunate interaction powers the film into even more endearing and resonant emotional territory than the first.
Family really is the main theme here, and how makeshift ones bonded by experience and friendship can sometimes be more vital than those connected by blood. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora and Karen Gillian’s Nebula’s cruel tutelage under that sadistic thumb of galactic despot Thanos (out of sight here but very much looming large over the proceedings) gets a lot more attention here than in Vol 1, and the actresses are more than up to the task of making their alien blood feud relatable on a human level.
Dave Bautista’s Drax and newcomer Mantis (Pom Klementieff) awkwardly bond in some of the film’s most hilarious scenes. Even little Baby Groot, who would just be a soulless excuse to sell toys under a less deft hand than that of returning director James Gunn, steals every scene he’s in without being cloying or annoying, but it Rocket (still voiced by a nigh unrecognizable Bradley Cooper) whose plight tugs at the heartstrings hardest, the genetically altered “not raccoon” still struggling to find his place in this universe, using anger and sarcasm to hide his pain, finding an unlikely kindred spirit in Michael Rooker’s similarly gruff and misunderstood Yondu (whose character arc is equally well plotted and masterfully acted) and orchestrating two of the film’s most crowd pleasing action scenes while he’s at it.
What’s a shame then, is that the story at the center of the film falls kind of flat. Chris Pratt as Star Lord brings his A game as always here but Kurt Russell as his long lost father Ego kind of phones it in, which is a letdown because the crux of what little plot the film has hinders on whether or not Pratt will choose to side with his real family or his adopted one, but Russell’s sleepy performance and hazily delivered monologues and motivation makes it hard to believe there’d be much of a choice at all. I’m not saying he’s bad or anything, I mean, it’s cool that he’s here, and it’s not like we need Kurt Russell to be anything more that Kurt Russell at this point, but if there’s a weak link in “the chain“, it’s definitely him. Harrison Ford has been similarly just picking up checks for decades but you could tell in Episode 7 that there was an extra glint in his eye, a spark of enthusiasm that elevated his performance and the entire cast with it. It’s a shame that Russell couldn’t have mustered up something comparable.
And his mediocrity only sticks out because everything else is so, so good. The action, the comedy, the effects, the easter eggs for Marvel diehards (Stan Lee’s cameo is his best ever), it all just clicks to make Guardians Vol. 2 a highly enjoyable overall experience that just barely misses the first film’s absolute masterpiece status. Lightning doesn’t quite strike twice in this case, but you’ll be having so much fun it won’t matter.