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.