Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, is essentially the same film as its predecessor, only more so. The title sequence, in which baby Groot dances to ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky while a massive battle with a tentacled CGI monstrosity rages in the margins of the background, functions as an apt metaphor for the film’s approach to its storytelling and character development — narrative cohesion has taken a back seat to the gimmicks found to work the first time around. So you have another throwback soundtrack composed of ’70s pop hits, another snarky script filled with quippy banter, and reiterated themes of adoptive familial ties that are bluntly stated with impressive frequency, if not commensurate depth. It’s everything you loved about the first film turned up to 11, so your reception of this one will depend entirely on whether or not you did, in fact, love the first Guardians.
As a fan of the first film, I have to admit that I felt a little let down by the follow-up. Writer/director James Gunn prudently plays to his strong suits, but expanding his color palette to equal the psychedelic saturation of Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange and doubling down on the action sequences result in a film that feels less personal (and personable) than the last installment. Even the music cues seem less inspired, with early 70’s one-hit-wonder Looking Glass’ Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)being erroneously referred to as the greatest song in the history of the Earth, an error in judgment for both the character that makes the statement and Gunn himself.
The character that makes that spurious claim is Ego the Living Planet (Kurt Russell), an immortal Celestial – or god with a small “g,” as he puts it — that also happens to be the estranged father of our protagonist Peter Quill, aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt). Russell is a fine addition to the returning cast, and his chemistry with Pratt feels natural and engaging. While the majority of the cast acquit themselves admirably, the script relegates Dave Bautista’s Drax to almost exclusively comic relief, underutilizes Karen Gillan’s Nebula, and spends way, way too much time and attention on Baby Groot. Sylvester Stallone pops up with a passable performance in a cameo that will likely prove important in later films (and David Hasselhoff shows up in a role that most decidedly will not), the real standout turn comes from Michael Rooker, who’s been given a room here to build a much fuller character than the one-note role he was handed the first time around.
Part of what was so effective about the first Guardians movie was that it was so thoroughly unexpected, a breath of fresh air in a stagnating genre. That, however, was in 2014, and the cinematic superhero landscape has changed drastically in the intervening years. After Logan raised the bar for what comic book adaptations can accomplish from a dramatic standpoint, the extent to which Guardians 2 rehashes what was novel about its antecedent feels like a major step backward. The five (!) post- and inter-credit sequences seem hastily amended to tie this film to the continuity mechanics of the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which gives the impression of a slapdash effort that’s uncharacteristic of the typically polished Marvel movies. Still, the movie is a hell of a lot of fun when taken on its own terms, and for the casual viewer, that will most likely suffice.