Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 Review

(3.5 STARS)

Ever since Iron Man’s post-credits stinger, each entry in Marvel’s stable of films has sought to build upon the last in an effort to drum up excitement for what’s next. It’s my least favorite thing about modern big-budget moviemaking as it renders just about everything else happening on screen pointless. If you, the filmmakers, aren’t concerned about what’s happening now, why should I be?

Even the first Guardians of the Galaxy — for many, Marvel’s crown jewel or, I guess, best infinity stone — was plagued by a need to connect Star-Lord, Gamora, and Drax to Thanos Whatsit and Collector Q. Public. It was a film with great moments and delightful characters, but all I could remember about it was Howard the Duck.

Color me surprised, then, that its sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, is a gem of mostly self-contained space opera silliness — a film so satisfying that I almost fell out of my seat.

Vol. 2 opens with our heroes — Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Rocket Raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) — on a planet called The Sovereign, trying to fight off a giant octopus-like monster while Baby Groot (voice of Vin Diesel) danced to fun 80s music. (Yeah, Guardians is still doing that stuff.)

It settles down after the team leaves The Sovereign with Rocket having ripped off their very proud high priestess (Elizabeth Debicki). They’re saved by a mysterious man named Ego (Kurt Russell), who asks Quill to accompany him back to his home planet. (Gamora and Drax join them.) Rocket and Groot, meanwhile, are left to look after the group’s prisoner — Gamora’s sister and former Thanos loyalist Nebula (Karen Gillan) — when Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his band of Ravagers come looking to make a quick score themselves.

The film dives right into answering questions about Quill’s father, and while I kept waiting around for it to shift back to stone gathering, etc., it never happens. Guardians 2 tells a complete story — an emotional one that begins, ends, and is about something.

That alone makes it a rarity among the Marvel canon, but it’s the characters and their delightful interactions that catapult it above other above-average Marvel entries (Captain America: Winter Soldier, Ant-Man) into “genuinely great film” territory.

Drax is, for my money, the standout, and Bautista once again proves he’s up to the task of following Dwayne Johnson’s footsteps. His relationship to the “hideously ugly” Mantis (Pom Klementieff) is nothing short of delightful. Rocket becomes more rounded and complex in ways Marvel hasn’t ever really tried before. Baby Groot is a joy, and even more minor characters like Yondu get explored by director James Gunn and his crew. It’s more character development — and mostly good character development at that — than every other film in this series combined.

In terms of action, you sort of know what you’re getting, but the major set pieces are at least more comprehensible than they were in the first Guardians. I’m not sure Marvel will ever figure this piece out, especially when it comes to its space-based properties, but I didn’t hate Guardians 2’s climactic action sequence the way I thought I would based on past experiences.

The film is still a little full of itself, but with first impressions made and character introductions disposed of, Guardians 2 doesn’t feel as forced as its predecessor. I hope this is a template that other Marvel filmmakers will use going forward because their success is clearly something other franchises and studios are looking to capture themselves. This is the way to do it: focus on character, tell a self-contained story, and leave everyone smiling.

Even 24 hours later, I still am.

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