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Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is Marvel’s funniest film, and much braver than the original

The new sequel proves that Guardians of the Galaxy wasn’t a one-hit wonder.

Marvel

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is like listening to your favorite Fleetwood Mac song, while traversing a rainbow on a unicorn that fires glitter from its butt and laser beams from its eyeballs.

It’s an awful lot. At times it’s overwhelming. But it is, without a doubt, awesome.

On the surface, Guardians 2 might seem like any other film on Marvel’s assembly line: Heroes come together to defeat a villain who has the power to take over the universe. Director James Gunn understands this. And he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve to set Guardians 2 apart from the rest.

In this new installment of the fledgling Guardians franchise, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and his pals must deal with having both new responsibilities and a target on their backs after saving the galaxy in the first film. They’re hired by a golden-skinned woman named Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the leader of a race of beings known collectively as the Sovereign. Meanwhile, Star-Lord’s father Ego (Kurt Russell) shows up after trekking all over the galaxy to find his son, setting the Guardians on a crash course with Star-Lord’s origin story. And after a series of unfortunate and extraordinary events, the entire galaxy, including villains from the first film like Nebula (Karen Gillan) and the Ravagers, seems to be conspiring against them.

The movie has a beating heart, and an earnest will to explore what it means to be a family. Just like the first Guardians film, it’s really a family comedy disguised as a superhero flick. Both movies do more than any other Marvel film when it comes to examining how we treat the ones we love and feeling a deep desire to find your people, your tribe, your humanity, in such a lonesome universe.

But what really separates this space opera sequel from the rest of Marvel’s films is Gunn and his cast’s willingness to abandon the Marvel cinematic universe’s more polished and formulaic veneer and drill into the heart of what makes this movie and the Guardians franchise so impossibly irresistible: pure fun.

Guardians 2 crackles with so much wild humor and fizzy color that there’s no mistaking it for one of its grimmer superhero cousins, nor does it ever run the risk of being overshadowed by them. Not when its explosions glow like radioactive candy, or blubbery aliens burp up technicolor stardust, and Baby Groot’s anime-style eyes turn your heart to goop.

The film’s creative team clearly believes that a superhero movie’s top priority should be, above all else, to inspire indomitable joy. And Guardians 2 zips around the universe with so much exhilarating charm and megawatt dazzle — in addition to serving up a big helping of heart — that you’ll even forgive it for the few moments where it gets a bit too big and bites off more than it should.

The visuals in Guardians 2 are better and brighter than the ones in the first film

Marvel

A recent trend in superhero films is that they’re allergic to color. Marvel’s movie version of Scarlet Witch abandoned the comic book character’s bubblegum pinks and cherry reds for something more like dusty grapes. Captain America’s red, white, and blue uniform is grayer on film. And even Iron Man’s early lemon-yellow accents on the page were muted in his move to the big screen.

That’s not the case with Guardians 2, in which Gunn turns Marvel’s cosmic universe into a piñata, smashes it, and lets the stars spill out.

Every single scene pops, glistening with neon starlight or tangerine sun. Yondu’s (Michael Rooker) arrow leaves a strawberry daiquiri pink trail of death in its wake. Rocket’s (voiced by Bradley Cooper) space suits glow as if they were illuminated by blacklights.

Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) green skin is brighter than Drax’s (Dave Bautista) army green epidermis, and both characters are of a different shade than the verdant green in the film’s opening scenes in Missouri, or the emerald shades on Ego’s home planet, which is awash in a hue that would make Willy Wonka blush.

Speaking of Ego, Kurt Russell looks 30 years younger thanks to the magic of CGI and a shoulder-length, root beer-tinted Farrah Fawcett haircut. And the movie’s big fights are whirling, swirling pops of orange explosions, blue fire, and ruby lasers bouncing off each other like pinballs, throttling the action into high gear.

It is eyeball overload in the best way possible.

Guardians 2 is a movie that, at its core, wants to be about the joy of racing through the galaxy. It embraces the light and the bright, and is fully aware of the euphoria it can tap into by channeling the same bright, buoyant energy as the comic books it’s based on.

Guardians 2 is Marvel’s funniest movie by far— and Drax deserves a lot of the credit

Marvel

In Guardians 2, Gunn presents both viewers and his characters with a dare: Laugh at everything, even if the world is blowing up.

The movie’s opening scene is a perfect example. The Guardians must defend a set of interstellar batteries for the Sovereign, protecting them from a colossal alien that looks like a cross between a lamprey, an octopus, and sphincter. For no reason at all, Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) plugs in an amp and dances around to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” Gunn’s camera never leaves him, even though there’s a battle raging in the background. Gamora is firing off a gun (something she’s adept at, even though she prefers a sword, we’re told), Drax is stabbing, and Star-Lord and Rocket are pew-pewing away — but nothing matters more to Guardians 2 than Baby Groot’s dance routine.

This introductory sequence sets the tone for the whole movie, underscoring the fact that the only constant in the Guardians universe is humor. And as we’ll soon realize, in Guardians 2 specifically, much of that humor stems from Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer.

The first Guardians film established that Drax is an extremely literal being who doesn’t really understand metaphor or sarcasm. This installment sees him really lean into that character quirk, allowing Bautista to showcase his perfected comedic timing. In one expository scene about a certain character’s creation and worldview, for example, he asks an honest question about genitalia.

In another, he can’t help but show how intrigued he is by the idea of decapitation. And it all comes to a head later in the film, when Drax is introduced to Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Ego’s sheltered alien sidekick. Because Mantis is the one character in the Guardians universe who’s more earnest than Drax, their encounter lets Drax deploy all the sarcasm and jokes he’s “learned.”

Marvel

In general, Guardians 2 shows a better understanding of how to use Drax; now that we’re all familiar with his humor. Gunn is confident deploying the character in standalone situations, letting him carry the comedic scenes with his squareness. Bautista understands him better too, tapping into some brilliant lunkiness, and becoming one of Guardians 2’s comedic highlights.

Guardians 2 would be perfect if it weren’t for this one flaw

Marvel

The main plot of most Marvel movies is essentially the same — bad villain, giant threat, destruction of worlds — and the tricky part is making Marvel’s house style feel fresh, without getting bogged down in side storylines. This is root of Guardians 2’s biggest struggle: having one or two too many plots spinning their wheels at any given time.

Each character has development (a good thing), and the movie’s overall theme of family is reinforced. But seeing each subplot to its resolution slows down the overall pace and dulls Guardians 2’s jaunty thrill.

The emotional core of the film revolves around Star-Lord and his sense of purpose. Despite the royalty in his name and the movie’s designation that he’s more special than the rest of his team, Star-Lord is still not the leader of the Guardians, this family he’s created. Rocket questions his authority. Gamora is concerned by his selfishness. Drax just sees him as a pathetic dancing boy.

On top of that, Star-Lord is harboring serious daddy issues — the severity of which we didn’t know about until Ego, his long-lost father, arrives on the scene. It brings about a whole slew of questions about why Ego fell in love with Star-Lord’s mother, why he abandoned both of them, and why he never came back. Star-Lord has never fit in, not on Earth or in space, and Ego might be a key to helping him understand his own identity.

The problem is that Guardians 2 doesn’t know if it wants to be a team movie or a Star-Lord-and-friends special. We’re stuck with a little of both, with other characters getting emotional subplots but not exactly having the time or space to fully realize them.

Gamora’s bionic, adopted sister Nebula is still at large, and they have unresolved issues just like Star-Lord and Ego do — namely, they each want the other one dead. Rocket has begun pushing his teammates away, by acting selfishly and taking actions that have consequences, like provoking a star fleet intent on incinerating the Guardians. And in the background, the Youndu-led Ravagers and the Ayesha-led Sovereign are constantly looming, one warp jump away from blasting the Guardians to bits.

Gunn’s interstellar adventure doesn’t totally hold together under the stress off all these plots. Rocket’s eventual reconciliation with his team is a Ravager-riddled slog for both him and the audience. And Gamora and Nebula’s complicated relationship, despite Karen Gillan’s solid performance of the clinically cold assassin, is crammed into tiny, rushed slivers of screen time.

Star-Lord’s new relationship with his powerful father, and his old relationship with Yondu, are the only arcs that really exhibit a satisfying emotional roundness and payoff — complete, in the case of the former, with a cheesy “father and son playing catch because they never got to” scene.

This isn’t to say Rocket or Gamora’s plots are less-deserved, but rather that Star-Lord’s arc feels like the one that the movie decided to stick with.

When Guardians 2 is at its best, it questions, more than any other Marvel film, the importance of family and its connection to our humanity. Whether it’s focusing on cybernetic raccoons or alien assassins, destroyers or star lords — there’s an empirical yearning that exists in our souls to find our tribe. The first Guardians film showed us that family is never how you expect it to be, or how you expect it to look. Guardians 2 explores the superhuman lengths we’ll go to in the name of family — even if it means risking a galaxy in the process.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opens in theaters on May 5.

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