When we got a chance to see the latest installment in director James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy series last week, we had too many spoilery thoughts to share with you before the movie came out. There’s so much fun stuff to pore over, and now that the movie’s out and you’ve had a chance to see it (or get spoiled in your preferred way), we’ve got a lengthy review for your pleasure. Here’s our spoiler-filled review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, blissfully free of objectivity and the first person plural after this paragraph. If you haven’t seen the movie, please turn back now and watch the new trailer for IT or something instead. We’ll give you the length of this wonderful picture of Dave Bautista in high school to back out.
So, it’s super good, though a bit shaggy in the second half in a weird and inert way that nearly wrecks the pacing.
As always, the core cast is fantastic, and though Chris Pratt — not Chris Pine — isn’t given much to do this time around aside from react to many of the performers surrounding him (I’d behave in the same way if I were starring a movie where I were Kurt Fuckin’ Russell’s kid), the center holds much in the same way it did last time around. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is given much more agency this time around, and she even gets several fun action sequences, most of which figure around her strained relationship with sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), and their fighting gives a different (and less macho) take on family trauma.
Though they’re both buried under tons of makeup and other prosthetics, they still manage to find the real stuff at the core of their characters, and the embrace they share near the end of the film is unexpectedly moving for a set of characters that were just kind of discarded in the previous installment. Bautista easily walks away with the film’s MVP honors, though you might have been able to tell that considering he was the funniest part of the first movie, and he’s even better here. Seriously, the guy could read the phonebook and make it sound funny, and it’s so great to see a guy come into his own in this way. He’s able to play with the heavier aspects of his character, but he never manages to lose sight of who Drax is deep down inside.
Of course, Baby Groot justifies his position as the center of the movie’s marketing, and it’s a credit to Gunn and company that they manage to do something with him more than just have him be cute and precious. Hell, there’s even moments that seem to comment on Groot’s commercialization after the release of the last movie, when there weren’t enough toys on shelves for fans to run out and buy their own potted Vin Diesel, such as when the mutinous Ravagers decree that he’s too cute to kill, and try to use him as a mascot. The action sequence at the start of the film, in which Groot dances about as the Guardians try to take down a monster that barfs rainbows, is just lovely, and sets a bar so high that the rest of the movie kind of struggles to live up to (though the giant Pac-Man comes close). Diesel’s having a lot of fun, and I hope he just had to inhale a bunch of helium before each and every time he sat down in the booth to record instead of post-production magic being used to raise the octave of his voice.
Many of the new additions are great, too: Pom Klementieff is wonderful as the empath Mantis, who strikes up an unlikely but interesting friendship with Drax. She plays up her awkwardness and foreign-ness in a really endearing way, and is given big VFX eyes to announce to the audience her every emotion. She’s an interesting counterpart to the rest of the Guardians, in that she’s not a rock-em sock-em type, and she’s an interesting foil for Peter specifically, given how she’s adopted and treated by Ego. There’s so much about her that works — from her jokes and her genuine feeling for the other characters around her — that she should definitely make a return to U.S. screens in the future, even outside of this particular franchise. Elizabeth Debicki is slightly unrecognizable as Ayesha, the perfect leader of The Sovereign, and it’s always great to see self-proclaimed perfect people get their asses handed to them by a group of heroes as wackadoodle as the Guardians. Seriously though, she’s an excellent red herring bad guy, even though as soon as Michael Rooker’s return and Russell’s casting were announced, I had a weird feeling we were going to hear quite a bit about fathers and children.
But man, is Kurt Russell one hell of a villain. We’ve seen this side of him before in Tarantino’s Death Proof, but the slick and sleazy bastard behind the wheel in that film is replaced with one of the best metaphorical antagonists in modern history, and it even manages to justify calling a character “Ego” without feeling too on the nose. Let’s be frank — it’s almost a disservice to this movie to compare it to any comic-book relations; it could go without saying that the Ego currently hanging out in the Marvel Universe is visually alluded to in some of the planet-wide shots of the Ego in this film, but it manages to both complicate a kind of boring character (who’s DC counterpart, Mogo, at least gets to be a member of the Green Lantern corps) and provide Star-Lord with a significantly more interesting father than J’son (his actual name), the Spartax king, who sired him back in the day. Ego here is a Celestial (a kind of God in the MU, previously seen in the last Guardians movie terraforming a planet, and the disembodied head of one is the basis for space station Knowhere), which is a pretty dramatic upgrade from his station in the comics, and he’s here to leave his mark all over the place. Or rather, he’s here to become the whole damn place, by turning the Universe into himself. And he wants his son’s help to do so.
There’s a number of interesting places Gunn could have gone with this development — say, he could have resisted doing a “join me and together we could rule the Galaxy” deal — but instead he maneuvers Russell into some super fucking dark territory. In order to resist her womanly charms and to prevent her from keeping him on Earth, he gave Peter’s mother the brain tumor that would wind up killing her. That’s definitely a departure from the Starman vibes Gunn and company gave off in the last film, when they kept on referring to Peter’s dad as a “being made of light” and emphasized his heavenly attributes above all else, but it’s a more interesting way to go about things, and it sets up a pretty fun beat ‘em up that comprises the whole third act. Russell’s playing against type in the best of ways, and he’s having a shitload of fun — he’s using our knowledge of him as a figure from ’80s cinema, the same kind of wisecracking badass who is a natural predecessor for Pratt’s Star-Lord, against us — and uses his image as a way to comment on the legacy of the trickster action star. It’s old hat to be disappointed with your heroes and idols, it’s new to be able to fight back and save them from consuming all that you love in a masturbatory fervor.
Of course, this sets up a conflict between Peter, Ego, and Yondu, who, after saving the child’s life. acted as Peter’s adoptive father even though his toughness wouldn’t necessarily allow him to ever admit that he did so or that he cared about him at all. Guardians 2 is as much a love letter from Gunn to his best pal and long-time collaborator Michael Rooker as it is a Marvel movie, and thankfully Rooker’s got the chops to pull off what’s asked of him. He turns in a brilliantly complicated performance as the southern-fried space pirate, and his arc — going from emotionless tough guy to powerless prisoner to sacrificial hero — is one of the film’s best, and he’s even able to elevate Bradley Cooper’s work as Rocket Racoon simply by being around him. There’s never been a better argument for an actor to become a self-help guru than when Rooker castigates Cooper for his flaws and insecurities, for pushing away all of his friends so he won’t get hurt, and it’s the exact kind of moment that a movie like this truly needs, especially once it gets bogged down in melodramatic monologue territory midway through the second act. Yondu is also given one of the film’s best action sequences, in which he takes back his ship from the mutineers who massacred the crew loyal to him (and spare us the pearl-clutching from The Ringer and New York Times critics who savaged this sequence in pedantic ways- did they miss the context here?), and his whistling arrow is close to becoming one of the truly iconic science-fiction weapons. His death, as well, has a beautiful symmetry to it with Peter’s near-sacrifice to save Gamora in the previous film, and the knowledge of that only heightens the tragedy of it. Yondu goes out like the rest of his crew massacred in the earlier in the film: frozen in the depths of space, loyal to a fault.
There’s a lot to be said about the conflicts Guardians 2 has with the first film, especially with how both handle nostalgia (quite literally this movie starts with the handheld version of Mattel Football being used as a detector for an enemy threat). The first is a fun and somewhat sugar-coated take on the past as window-dressing, meant to spruce up a gritty and lived-in shithouse of an outer universe, and the second is how that past can distract us from the great people and things we have in front of us. The idealized fathers that we hold in our heads keep us from connecting with the utterly human and emotional people in front of us, and their legacies can be outright destructive and toxic. And for all the jokes about Footloose and Pac-Man, they’re an essential part of Pratt’s character- they’re all he has to hold on to from his home world, from the last time he had anything resembling an honest-to-god normal life, and when he takes the form of that giant yellow pellet-eater to fight a giant Kurt Russell, it’s a rejection of Ego’s lifestyle, and an embrace of what makes him himself: His past. And that past, with its struggle and camaraderie and honest-to-god love at its core, is what keeps him from accepting his father’s mantra of conquer and consume. That’s an interesting story justification for all of the ’80s style, and it’s great that Gunn made it work well.
Speaking of stuff that doesn’t always work, thankfully the film is mostly free of the MCU world-building that sank previous sequels like Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World, and nearly came close to capsizing the first Guardians movie (the Thanos segment in that film is an all-time low for the Marvel flicks), and the little tidbits that do help to establish other parts of the universe are welcome additions. There’s a fun cameo from Howard the Duck early on, and glimpses of other fun bits to come in other films later on (Kronans will be a fun addition to Thor: Ragnorak), but most of the expanded universe stuff is saved for the credits. It’s nice to see that Gunn and company are acknowledging the original Guardians of the Galaxy, with the Stallone-centric credits sequence hinting at more to come in the future, and the delightfully ’90s group of action stars (Ving Rhames! Michelle Yeoh!) he has surrounding Sly.
Hell, even the inevitable Adam Warlock tease isn’t so bad this time around, though I hope Marvel doesn’t force him into whatever plans they have for Infinity War when they’ve spent years building these characters and some gold dude’s going to come and hijack their big moment. That’d be kind of lame if it happened like that. But easily the best part of the Guardians’ MCU additions is that they put Stan Lee’s repeated cameo appearances in good context: He’s an informant for the Watchers, the giant baby-looking people who are tasked with observing events in the Marvel Universe and the multiverse.
I can guarantee you that every nerd worth their salt in my audience lost their shit when Uatu and company popped up on screen chatting with our boy Stan, and I can only imagine how surreal it must have been for Lee to be talking with a character so bizarre and esoteric that it was pretty much a given he’d never appear on screen. That’s the kind of sublime joy that Marvel can occasionally provide its fans, and given the intense joy that the Guardians movies have brought everybody else, it’s nice to be thrown a bone, too.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.