It’s awfully hard to capture lightning in a bottle twice.
Writer/director James Gunn’s first outing in the world of Marvel Studios, 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, was the first true breath of fresh air in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, which was by no means stale, but had by then settled into a relatively safe-feeling pattern of reliably entertaining, state-of-the art action movies which appealed to both general audiences and the hardcore comics aficionado. With Gunn’s Guardians came both the surprise and delight at the new, focusing on obscure characters that even Marvel fans generally weren’t all that invested in, and a blast of color, comedy and heart that surpassed even the Marvel films that had come before.
In a word, it was fun.
But how do you recreate that experience?
In short, you can’t. And Gunn shouldn’t be expected to. You can never recapture that feeling of discovery in meeting these characters, experiencing this universe, for the first time. And I wouldn’t want to. That’s not what I came to see. I wanted to return to that world I loved so much the first time. I want to see the characters again and get to know them better. And thankfully, that’s exactly what I got in Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2.
Many comparisons are being made between Volume 2 and The Empire Strikes Back, and not without merit, as Gunn himself has said that he followed Empire’s basic structure in coming up with the story: split your heroes in half to allow you to better focus on them individually, then bring them together again at the end. Here, we have the Guardians on the run from the Ravagers and new baddies the Sovereign, while Peter “Star-Lord” Quill is finally reunited with the alien father he never knew, Ego, in the form of the always likeable Kurt Russell.
One of the most impressive aspects of the movie is the way Gunn manages to service such an enormous ensemble cast, with the five Guardians, Michael Rooker’s Yondu, Karen Gillan’s Nebula, plus newcomers Ego and Pom Klementieff’s Mantis all receiving meaty character arcs in which we get to know them better and watch as they get to know themselves a little better, too. In a movie full of great performances, Rooker as Yondu stands out in a most unexpected manner; in a lot of ways, the film is more about Yondu than anyone else, as his mistakes and redemption echo through the characterizations of everyone else as well. (Special mention as well to Dave Bautista’s Drax, who provides the most reliably big laughs throughout the film, and yet with a single moment’s interaction with the empathic Mantis can still remind us how he may be the most tortured Guardian of all.)
This film delivers everything you want from a Guardians movie: big laughs, great action, and of course, Gunn’s trademark set pieces accompanied by some of the most catchy music you forgot you liked (Yondu and Rocket’s brutalizing of the Ravagers to the tune of “Come a Little Bit Closer” may be my new favorite). But it also provides the other, often overlooked element from the first: a sincere emotionality about it. This is a film that’s not afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve. In its exploration of fathers and their children, Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 reinforces that family, real family, is ultimately a choice, not just a matter of blood.