Film Review: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’

Marvel's Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.
Courtesy of Marvel Studios

What do you do for an encore to the best comic-book movie in years? James Gunn's sequel is a witty and extravagant followup, but it works harder for less fun.

The word “Marvel,” as in comic books or movie studios, has become a foundational term of our culture. Yet you could sit through almost every one of today’s comic-book movies and not find a whole lot to marvel at. That’s where “Guardians of the Galaxy” came in. In an era of overstuffed, taped-together blockbusters, it was supremely funny, exciting, and well-made — a rock ‘n’ roll space opera, spectacular yet lithe, without a stray shot or sequence out of place, and with a wildly caustic yet devotional interplay among its motley crew of renegades that recalled the original 1977 “Star Wars” (obviously its chief influence). The film wielded the machinery of big-budget franchise filmmaking and trumped it at the same time. So the question of what “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” can do for an encore isn’t really, “Can it top the first film?” It’s more like, “Can it be as good?”

Shot for shot, line for line, it’s an extravagant and witty follow-up, made with the same friendly virtuosic dazzle. Yet this time you can sense just how hard the series’ wizard of a director, James Gunn (now taking off from a script he wrote solo), is working to entertain you. Maybe a little too hard. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is an adventure worth taking, and the number of moviegoers around the planet who will want to take it should prove awe-inspiring. But it doesn’t so much deepen the first “Guardians” as offer a more strenuous dose of fun to achieve a lesser high.

The film opens with the unintentionally disquieting image of Kurt Russell, digitally enhanced to resemble his much younger self, wooing the Missouri lass who will be Peter Quill’s mother to the 1972 strains of “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” Instantly, this cues us to two things: Peter’s memento cassette tape entitled Awesome Mix Vol. 2, at least compared to Vol. 1, is going to be more kitschy than tasty; and the movie is going to be all about his daddy issues. The exhilarating credits sequence then shows us the Guardians in action: They’re out to slaughter an oversize tentacled monster that has four sets of angler-fish jaws, but the battle gets shoved into the background — in the foreground is the giant walking tree Groot, now Baby Groot (about a foot tall, still growing back from a lone twig), as he bops and dances to the sublime pop camp of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” letting us know that this is a movie with its background/foreground priorities in the right place.

The first film was all about how the Guardians met and teamed up, and part of the beauty of it was that you could feel just how much Chris Pratt’s trouble-shooting, ’70s-dancing thief Peter, Zoe Saldana’s green-faced alien princess Gamora, Dave Bautista’s splendidly dour tell-it-like-it-is tattoo-carved muscleman Drax, and Bradley Cooper’s Brooklynese raccoon scavenger Rocket really disliked each other. The quips and the acid retorts were the opposite of forced; they were part of the enthrallment of seeing this team come together out of brutal (and plausible) necessity. All of which made “Guardians” feel like something more than an origin story. “Vol. 2,” on the other hand, is an origin story. The Guardians are now a seasoned team, but the movie is all about how Peter got to be who he is.

Early on, there’s a stand-off between the Guardians and Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the Golden High Priestess of the genetically perfect people of the Sovereign (who have yet to discover sex). The Guardians enrage her by stealing a handful of precious batteries, and she comes after them with an army of remote-controlled golden attack pods. Yet she figures into the film only peripherally — it’s all just a setup for the next sequel. Ditto for Sylvester Stallone, altering his look and acting style not one slurry iota, as Stakar, a Ravager leader who turned against Michael Rooker’s blue-skinned bandit Yondu when he learned that Yondu was selling child slaves on the black market.

Yondu’s got problems of his own — his men, who think he’s gone soft, launch a mutiny — but the film really gets underway when Russell lands in his ’60s Pan Am flying saucer to inform Peter that he’s his dad. (No, that’s not a spoiler; it’s the basic premise of the movie.) Peter was always a bit like Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in one body, and “Guardians Vol. 2” would like to stand in relation to the first “Guardians” as “The Empire Strikes Back” was to “Star Wars.” It’s yet another tale of an overgrown space kid finding his father, and his legacy.

Peter takes his comrades over to his dad’s planet, and once they arrive, there is much back-slapping Kurt Russell bonhomie, but there are also cues that something isn’t right. The name of Russell’s character is Ego. His planet, which he literally created, looks like a series of medieval French landscapes posing as Led Zeppelin album covers. He acts out his past to Peter with mannequins made of porcelain. Did I mention that he’s a self-proclaimed god who wants Peter to step up and rule the universe with him? You do the math.

Pratt, through it all, keeps his badass-lite swagger irreverent and commanding. In the right role (like this one), he knows how to express disdain and exuberance in equal measure — in other words, how to play an a—hole you can’t help but like. Yet it’s easy to feel that the conflicts in “Vol. 2” are a bit rote, whether it’s Peter upping the ante on his feisty flirtation with Gamora (he explains that their unspoken bond makes them just like Sam and Diane on “Cheers”) or Gamora duking it out with her seething bionic adoptive sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). It’s all impeccably staged, yet stuff happens because the movie needs stuff to keep happening. One is grateful for the comic relief, especially from Bautista, who makes Drax so literal-minded — and so up front about his imperious male gaze — that his every judgmental utterance feels spontaneous. As for Rocket, Cooper burrows ever more hilariously into his babbly hostility (“Hope daddy isn’t as big a dick as you, orphan boy!”) and the ratty self-hatred beneath it.

The gods of sci-fi spectacle must, of course, be served, and the climax of “Vol. 2” is exorbitant, rousing, touching, and just obligatory enough to be too much of a good thing. (That isn’t even counting the half-dozen post-credit teaser scenes, which make the film feel like…TV.) Baby Groot, as cuddly as Poppin’ Fresh, gets to scurry and plant a time bomb, Gamora gets to wield a machine gun the size of a refrigerator, and Yondu gets to do ever more dizzying flights of damage with his loop-the-loop arrow of death. The person who turns out to be the film’s lord of darkness morphs into all sorts of liquid digital forms, and there’s an in-the-middle-of-space farewell between Peter and someone close to him that’s beautiful and moving. If only the film could have left it at that! The fallen character winds up being given a light-show funeral worthy of a Communist head of state. The difference between the first “Guardians” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is that the new movie is flush with what a big deal it is. Ironically, that makes it a smaller deal.

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

Reviewed at AMC Empire, New York, April 17, 2017. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 135 MIN.

Production

A Walt Disney Studios release of a Marvel Studios production. Producer: Kevin Feige. Executive producers: Victoria Alonso, Louis D’Esposito, Nikolas Korda, Stan Lee.

Crew

Director, writer: James Gunn. Camera (color, widescreen): Henry Braham. Editors: Fred Raskin, Craig Wood.

With

Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Glenn Close, Karen Gillan, Sylvester Stallone, Pom Klementieff, Kurt Russell, Elizabeth Debicki, Nathan Fillion, Tommy Flanagan.

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  1. David says:

    Just saw it. The soundtrack didn’t resonate with me as much as Vol 1. Or maybe it was that the song and scene didn’t play off each other the same incongruity as the first movie (ex: Hooked on a Feeling while Quill gets beaten down in prison). The opening scene had it right, but some of the others felt forced (ex: Brandy). I also felt that some of the jokes were just gags that didn’t fit the flow of the movie (ex: Sovereign’s carpet getting stuck).

  2. David says:

    I agree. The first half of the movie seemed to lack some x-factor which the first movie had. The rest, with the exception of the ending funeral scene, was just as good or better than the original. Good movie, spot on review, but I reckon I think slightly of it than you.

  3. sunny_anish says:

    I loved guardian of galaxy , I have watched it many times and I was waiting for the vol 2 but it’s not like the first part its not interesting as the first part in hope that it’s coming part are more and more interesting cause I am huge fan of this movie and their characters… sad that youdu died ..

  4. I love the movie it’s a epic science-fiction war masterpiece is there more.

  5. drush76 says:

    I liked the movie. The characterizations were great and brought out the best in the cast. But the narrative was rather weak. I feel that the movie needed Nicole Perlman. I also suspect that the MCU has been slowly becoming a ghost of its former self since 2015. Perhaps “Spider-Man” and “Thor 3” will restore the glory.

  6. Len Dudley says:

    I just saw it and it was fantastic buddy.

  7. Wrong and right review.
    GOTGV2 hits a ton of “right notes.” Did the reviewer see it with an audience?
    (Guessing “no” here.)
    LOL funny, spectacular set-pieces, and a genuine sense of humor and family on display in Director James Gunn’s sequel.
    Fantastic special effects, too.
    Where was this team when Grand Moff Tarkin and Leia Organa were CGI’d for Rogue One? Russell looks amazing as his old 80’s self!
    Great in-jokes, nods and winks for film & TV fans ALIKE!
    Fun flick! 3.8/4 stars!
    “Crabby puppy?” Awesome!

    • Peter says:

      I saw it with an audience. Friday morning, 10:30am, first showing. 20-30 people there out of 100. There was a small group of fanboys that laughed as loud as they could at every. single. line. It was annoying. A guy in front of me fell asleep. Myself and others were yawning. It dragged on and on and on… I consider it Marvel’s first flop.

      • Barry the Baptist says:

        Dr. Strange? Iron Man 3? “Ant-Man?
        What are “movies high on style but low on substance,” Alex? Also in that vein is the crowning achievement, Civil War.

        I liked Guardians 2, but it seems to be going in that same direction as every other Marvel movie, where characters and their personalities are spontaneously modified from their previous movies in service to either cynical marketing and sales (*cough* Baby Groot *cough*) or a story which could be interesting but never goes far enough.

        This also seems to be another of Marvel’s case studies in “make people laugh and they will overlook a lot of your other not-so-attractive qualities.”

  8. I went and saw it last night. All I can say is that it’s as good as the first. The only problem I had (TBH) was the fighting scenes at the end. In my opinion, they crammed too much too fast. Another thing is that with the 3D effect, the scenes they were showing inside the ships looking out of the glass made everything outside the ship hard to see or fuzzy. The 3D was great but those kind of hurt the effect a little.

    Overall, definitely a very entertaining movie just like the first one and I recommend you go see it in True 3D at the theater. It’s the price that’s getting out of hand ($17.95 per ticket jeez).

  9. NOT FALLING FOR IT says:

    ANOTHER PROOF THAT DISNEY IS PAYING OFF CRITICS. SHOW US YOUR TAX RETURNS!

  10. thefilm.blog says:

    Lots of fun to be had with characters who feel investable and good to be around. It’s got a weaker plot but stronger laughs

  11. Hobbsterr says:

    Having seen the film in Ireland while here, I feel I am far better at giving a review than Owen Gleiberman, but since most will not have seen it, I will not comment on specifics. First I preface this by saying go in with NO expectations good or bad, do not take Owen’s, other reviewers or even my opinion to heart when going to see it. Having said that, as much as I absolutely loved the first one, this sequel is so far above, so much better than the original, words fail me. From start to finish I was wrapped up in the movie, so much so when it was ending I couldn’t believe it was already over. Again, if you have yet to see it, who cares what I or anyone else thinks, clear your mind of expectations and just enjoy it.

  12. jason ross says:

    Not reading this as Variety has recently turned into spoiler central. I’ll read AFTER seeing it. Mebbe.

  13. As a member of the general public, the one’s who vote with their cash, I will wait to see for myself as generally I do not listen to critics who have never acted before, written a screenplay that was accepted and filmed or done anything worthy with their lives other than find different ways to be pompous a-holes.

    • Douglas Deru says:

      So, you get your movie recommendations from actors, screenwriters and . . “worthy” humans, I guess? Pompous a-holes, indeed. Look, bub, a professional review is just information, to do with at you see fit. Don’t trust “the critics” (as if they’re part of some hive mind)? Fine; swell . . but you don’t make your viewing choices in a vacuum. No-one does. Unless you see every movie released, you are influenced by some type of external input. Maybe the disconnect is the purpose of professional reviews . . to give the critic’s assessment of the experience a movie provided from someone who’s seen a ton of movies of all types, presumably has a passion for the medium, and can write. Their purpose is not to tell you what to think, which is usually the position of the anti-critic mob.

    • john says:

      Obviously you didn’t like the review. Some people do not like hearing things they don’t agree with. 20 years of only listening to what you want to hear will most definitely turn you into one of those pompous a-holes you talk about.

  14. Juke Early says:

    Critics gotta necessarily criticize. Good to know Eliot Lurie’s BRANDY is still getting him a royalty check.

  15. Jacques Strappe says:

    cha-ching for Marvel/Disney…again, the guardians of the box office.

  16. harry georgatos says:

    Vol 2 is just as good as Vol 1. Sarcastic humour delivered at rapid speed with eye-catching cartoon space visuals enhanced by brilliant 3D. Rocket is the highlight of the film as the ensemble interact with comic precision. There’s a more emotional punch to the characters and Kurt Russell plays a father ant-God character. Fast paced non-stop cocktail of a pop visual and surreal universe leading into AVENGERS INFINITY WAR PART 1. Anyone who takes something likes this seriously is missing the point.

  17. Paully says:

    Day 1 in IMAX for me..

  18. Steve says:

    You sure like spoilers Owen! Good that you got to see the movie first!

  19. JGNY says:

    Maybe its me…I did not care for the first flick. It was a Jumble of nonsense with poor SE. The story was weak and the acting (Whatever), was poor. Sorry to you lovers….It remained me of a poor Star Trek Flick (5). Not in story but in quality.

    • Rex says:

      Ohmygawd! You’re RIGHT, JGNY. How could all of us who enjoyed the first film and helped to make it a gargantuan success not have seen how foolish we were?!? My goodness, those “poor” special effects, yup, just like something a kid could do in Microsoft paint!! All of those skilled technicians and designers just FOOLING us like that — hh, the humanity!! Where WERE you back then, JGNY, to post contrarian comments under all the positive reviews in order to help us see the light and prevent that horrible, horrible movie from ever becoming such a massive, overwhelming success. Sigh. Well, at least you’re on the job this time around, so the world shall soon realize the import of your critical faculties, and the makers of Guardians 2 shall pay dearly!!!

      Or, maybe you’re just a standard-issue troll who can’t resist thinking his contrarianism makes him superior.

      Lemme think about that for a bit . . .

      • J says:

        Go home, Rex, you’re drunk,

      • Drejhead says:

        He said “maybe it’s me” went on to state his opinion, with his personal issues with it, and ended with “sorry to you lovers” followed by another personal comment on how he felt about the movie. And you rant like a maniac for twice as long as if there was some personal attack, for whatever reason assuming his personal opinion was somehow questioning the very sanity of anyone who liked it, picking apart the slightest criticisms he had about the movie, with sarcastic and not exactly clever insults being thrown around, and end it yourself by again assuming there was some feeling of superiority when the very words stated were “maybe it’s just me, and sorry to you lovers”

        So in other words, you’re kind of a troll yourself Rex. A very defensive troll.

        And by the way, I love the movie.

    • Since you’re wrong about everything you say about the first one and this reviewer points out how special it was and then gives the new one a mainly positive review especially in regards to the acting, your comment seems to be inspired by a review that doesn’t substantiate it.

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