Going into the second film in this particular cosmic corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise looks a lot like a certain other, non-MCU, Disney franchise—Pirates of the Caribbean. Both initial installments were met with much skepticism—none of the characters in either iteration of Marvel Comics’ Guardians of the Galaxy were household names even among comics lovers, and Disney’s whole “Let’s make movies based on our theme park rides!” approach caused its fair share of eyebrows to be raised. (If Eddie Murphy’s Haunted Mansion had been released a few years earlier instead of concurrently with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, one suspects the past decade’s drunken pirate population at Halloween parties and convention floor cosplay would have been decimated.) As it turned out, both “gambles” paid off, buoyed by charismatic leads, a solid supporting cast and a script that effectively mined the humor in pretty much every scene. Even better, both sequels boasted for all intents and purposes the same cast, crew and creative direction, making each that rarer version of a “sure thing” that promises to please both the studio execs and fans alike.
If only that had been the case for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, which brought in the bucks but also showed that there are, indeed, exceptions to the conventional wisdom that “the second film is better.” (Apparently their answer to, “Why was the first film successful?” included, “Because people love to see Johnny Depp balancing on things!”)
Fortunately, in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, James Gunn shows that “second verse, mostly same as the first” can serve the viewer (and, inevitably, the box office) well, especially when one has most of the Marvel universe to pull from.
To a large extent, GotG Vol. 2 follows the playbook from the first film, though now, with the entire cast familiar faces to the audience, Gunn skips introductions and goes right to the funny. In this case, that means an opening credits sequence featuring the entire team and what amounts to a highlight reel of character traits meant to amuse: rapid banter from Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), humorous ’roid-rage from Drax (Dave Bautista), quiet bad-assitude from Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and an extended cute-Groot frolic. During this sequence and throughout the movie, the comic elements of this particular space opera feel as if they have been ratcheted up. But though he doesn’t seem to want the audience to have too much time between laughs, Gunn also seems determined to match the increased comic volume with more heart. Daddy issues, sibling rivalry, friendship struggles and questions of what makes a family, all themes present in the first film, are even more evident in the sequel. That’s not to say they are subtly or deeply explored—this is space opera, after all—but they give the proceedings a bit more oomph than if it were all quips and pratfalls.
The other notable achievement in this second go-round is how the late-’70s-transitioning-to-early-’80s vibe is so deftly extended beyond the soundtrack to the overall design in ways that exhibit just enough restraint to enhance the narrative without distracting from it. (Admittedly, at times it’s a razor-thin margin.) The gold-skinned Sovereign serve as the primary canvas for this, looking like a race of proto-glam spin class refugees even as they serve as the film’s most consistently positioned antagonist. (It also doesn’t hurt to have Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone in your film.)
By the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the audience is unlikely to feel they’ve seen anything that different from Vol. 1, but it’s clear that Gunn and company knew exactly what qualities made the first film so enjoyable, and what they needed to do to make sure this particular sequel was worth the wait.
Director: James Gunn
Writers: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Karen Gillan, Michael Rooker, Kurt Russell, Pom Klementieff, Sylvester Stallone
Release Date: May 5, 2017