A dependable sequel to 2014's smash hits most of the right notes, but plenty of wrong ones
The first thing every review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 will tell you is how much of a surprise hit the first film was, what with its US$774m haul at the global box office banked by a bunch of characters nobody had ever heard of before.
That’s a half-truth, at best. Undeniably unfamiliar by name and canon, the characters in James Gunn’s fun franchise launcher were cut from the same cloth as any other big-budget tent pole. Chris Pratt may have charmed his way from sitcom supporting act to A-list star, but there’s more than a liberal dose of Han Solo in his Star Lord.
Certainly, a movie about a wise-cracking racoon and a triosyllabic tree seemed like a risk for Disney and Marvel, but calculated to the point of calibrated. Coming off the back nine other Marvel Cinematic Universe properties, two of which had grossed more than $1bn around the world, the Marvel brand was already so well established that the original Guardians was never going to fail.
Perhaps the real surprise of Vol 1 was not how popular it turned out to be, rather just how much fun it was. Witty, perfectly cast, with a lightness of touch that disarmed most of the many Marvel critics. Scored with a selection of 70s and 80s hits, the chemistry of the performers nimbly made the most of the punchy script, with the film’s biggest weakness (its largely forgettable villain) ultimately undercut by a final battle so outlandishly silly that Guardians of the Galaxy firmly established itself as the Marvel franchise to beat.
Familiarity comes nowhere close to breading contempt in its sequel, but shot-for-shot, there’s no denying you’re getting less (wham) bang (shang-a-lang) for your buck. The film opens on Earth in the early 1980s, with Kurt Russell – having supped from the digital fountain of youth far more successfully than December’s Rogue One – speeding along in a muscle car with the Meredith ‘mistress of mixtape’ Quill. A large baby bump tells us two things: Vol 2 is going to explore problems paternal in Peter’s lineage, and that the Star Lord’s love of kitschy rock’n’roll developed in utero.
The musical cues continue, with Mr Blue Sky introducing the film’s opening action scene, albeit turned on its head and played very much for toe-tapping laughs. The Guardians of the Galaxy are now mercenaries for hire, their easy chemistry of caustic burns from the first film still evident this time around. Charged with defending some MacGuffin for a genetically modified race known as The Sovereign – with Elizabeth Debicki offering a master class in master race hauteur by way of Shirley Eaton – some light-fingered larceny by Rocket Racoon finds the Guardians on the run for their lives.
Help comes in the form of Kurt Russell’s Ego, a mobile emissary of a living planet, who convinces half the team to return to... the rest of him, promising of filling Peter in on his unusual heritage when they get there.
If Vol 1 was about bringing a reluctant team together, it follows that the sequel should separate the squabbling members. As Peter traces his family tree, Gamora confronts her own in the modified shape of Nebula (Karen Gillen), the adopted sister raised to be her training toy on the field of battle. Meanwhile Rocket and the kawaii-ed bonsai baby Groot get sidetracked by the Sovereign’s henchmen, leading to the film’s funniest sequence as plant sprite’s wide-eyed innocence leads to the most frustrating escape attempt ever committed to celluloid.
Not everything works, though; an extended joke about the an antagonist’s name set to stun misses its target, and the inevitable showdown that all comic book film’s must work towards feels heavy-footed and less dangerous than it should, and were it not for a perfect cameo would be almost entirely forgettable. For a franchise that’s supposed to be all about subverting the audience’s expectations, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 feels safe and solid, a respectable follow-up that tries to work harder than the original, but only manages about three-quarters of the fun.
Thank heavens then for Dave Bautista’s delightfully dour Drax, the calls-it-like-he-literally-sees-it truth bomber. Delivering the film’s funniest lines and helping to establish new character Mantis (Pom Klementieff) as just the right kind of ridiculous this franchise needs, the former wrestler lands every joke he gets and helps keep the hit ratio going.
Verdict: Simply not as fun as the first one, Vol 2 has enough charm to satisfy fans of the franchise, while doing the heavy lifting for the inevitable Vol 3.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (12A/135mins) is released nationwide on April 28th.