REVIEW – ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’

In the world of cinema, the element of surprise is a double-edged sword. When a film comes out of nowhere to blow an audience and critics away, it’s pure magic. But it’s a lightning-in-a-bottle moment, seemingly impossible to re-create. Just ask Pirates of the Caribbean which has been desperately trying to find that magic again for three (soon to be four) bloated follow-ups.

Such is the predicament for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy; a film that broke the superhero mould with lashings of irreverent humour, razor-sharp wit and lovable new anti-heroes to the tune of $773M worldwide – the biggest debut for an original Marvel Cinematic Universe film so far. How do you follow up something like that? Should you even try?

That kind of dough at the box-office deems a follow-up attempt almost obligatory these days, and so we have the inevitable but necessary sequel. With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, writer/director James Gunn attempts to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle by upping the action, deepening the feels, increasing the humour, and going all out on the CGI budget. And he gets that magic back again…almost.

The sequel picks up not long after the events of the previous film, with our rag-tag bunch of a-holes now famous throughout the galaxy and up for hire to whomever may need their talents. In a dazzling opening sequence, all set to the refrains of ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky,” the Guardians do battle with a big, bad nasty alien, out to steal the property of the beautiful and arrogant Sovereigns (lead gloriously by Elizabeth Debicki as High Priestess Ayesha), while baby Groot (a vocally-altered Vin Diesel) literally grooves his way around the action. It’s the perfect refresher to everything you loved about the first chapter. It’s humourous, adorable, entertaining, action-packed, visually impressive, and features a toe-tapping tune. Welcome back.

Whilst receiving payment for their endeavours, in the form of the return of Nebula (Karen Gillan) to her sister Gamora (a sadly wasted Zoe Saldana), one of the Guardians sets off an unforeseen chain of events that leaves them stranded on a forest planet, Berhart, in the company of Ego (Kurt Russell) aka Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) long-lost father. Daddy’s back and he’s got some explaining to do, thus inviting Peter to join him on his planet, Ego, where answers await. Yes, he has his own planet. It makes sense eventually. Along for the journey are Gamora, Drax (Dave Bautista), and Ego’s mysterious helper Mantis (a captivating Pom Klementieff), leaving behind Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and baby Groot to fix the damaged ship and keep watch over Nebula.

It’s here where the sequel abruptly deviates from the first film by physically separating the Guardians and leading them on far-more individual storylines than one cohesive adventure. It’s a bold move by Gunn that may seem necessary, but ultimately leaves the audience craving for the disconnect to end and our heroes to reunite, which frankly takes far too long to occur.

Meanwhile, on Contraxia (a futuristic party planet which is just a fancy way of saying a space brothel), lovable bad guy Yondu (Michael Rooker, at his absolute best) and his Ravagers pals are hired by Ayesha to track down the Guardians and bring them to her to pay for their betrayal. But when Yondu decides against keeping his word to the High Priestess, a Ravager mutiny is on the cards, lead inadvertently by Kraglin (Sean Gunn) and new character Taserface (Chris Sullivan). Consequently, Yondu unexpectedly finds himself paired up with Rocket and Groot, in what makes for a surprisingly touching and wonderfully humourous new friendship.

That’s really all that can be said about the plot without heading into severe spoiler territory. What I can say is a twist in the tale presents itself in the form of an unexpected villain with a maniacal plan to rule the cosmos, obviously. Once again, the Guardians are left to save the day and avert the galaxy from complete and utter ruin.

Films featuring many characters with their own individual story arcs often fail under the weight of lightness, and such is the case here. Each branch of the plot and the subsequent characters featured are wonderful on their own, and could frankly make fantastic stand-alone pieces of cinema, but the screenplay and editing chops back and forth from each so often, nothing ever feels fully fleshed out. Each branch also appears to work around the central idea of bringing the Guardians back together which makes separating them in the first place seem entirely unnecessary.

That being said, there is gold to be found within those story arcs, especially those that delve deeper into characters we barely know. Yondu’s backstory is particularly compelling, especially his long history with Peter and the guilt he carries for his past indiscretions. And while the familial plot may focus on Peter and Ego, the truly fascinating domestic arc belongs to Nebula and her tempestuous relationship with her sister, Gamora. Easily dismissed as a jealous villain in the first film, Nebula is given a genuinely heartbreaking backstory to reveal the true origins of her hatred for Gamora, giving much greater depth to her character. Dare I say it, she may now be our favourite daughter of Thanos…

As is expected from anything Marvel dishes up, there are some truly spectacular sequences and stunning production design to be found throughout the film. Much like last year’s Doctor Strange, the entire production is a visual triumph. Ego’s planet is a CGI masterpiece that absolutely needs to be seen in 3D, IMAX or both. And while we’ve now become accustomed to photo-realistic animal design, the work put in to crafting a believable talking raccoon is pure artistry. It should also come as no surprise that baby Groot is hands down the most utterly adorable thing you’ll see on screen this year.

While the film drags a little towards the middle, it ultimately delivers a knockout punch with its final act. The epic, action-packed finale sequence may carry on a little longer than necessary, but it’s still a feast for the eyes and ears regardless, with glorious action and tense melodrama. Avoiding spoilers again, the film’s final moments are the most emotional and tear-jerking we’ve seen from the MCU so far. There are feels. Lots of them. And you can’t help but love a blockbuster with a touching ending that makes you cry.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was never going to top the wondrous surprise of its predecessor. That’s not to say it isn’t just as wonderfully entertaining and impeccably produced. It is. You will leave the cinema richly satisfied, even if it isn’t quite the film you’re expecting. Gunn has taken risks to try different things here, particularly his refusal to just rehash every element that worked in the original film, and that has to be admired. Does it all work? No, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. Just like the first film, it’s sensational, entertaining and purely fun popcorn cinema.

And yes, the rumours are true. There are five post-credits scenes to devour which are all well worth sticking around for, and just like its predecessor, the best one involves Groot.

★★★★☆

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