Marvel Strikes Gold With "Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2"

August 2014: James Gunn’s “Guardians Of The Galaxy” lights up multiplexes, knifing a yawning hole in Marvel’s big screen comic book fabric. A whole new world of storytelling is opened to the Disney-owned studio. Tired superhero origin stories are out, celestial ne’er-do-wells fighting serialized space battles are back in, spearheaded by a boyish outlaw, a jade assassin, a dagger-wielding superhuman, a trigger-happy raccoon, and an anthropomorphic tree. Life is good in Star-Lord’s neighborhood. At least until the next psychotic E.T. comes gunning for him.

But just as soon as “Guardians” ignited, Marvel brought a neutered “Ant-Man” (“Hot Fuzz” filmmaker Edgar Wright famously left the project late in pre-production) and a stale “Doctor Strange” into the fold. It was almost as if Marvel president Kevin Feige had no idea that a film version of an obscure Marvel property helmed by the writer-director of 2006 body horror flick “Slither” and starring a previously schlubby “Parks And Recreation” funnyman would do nearly $800 million in worldwide box office receipts.

Behold a new wrinkle in Feige’s post-Guardians run: The sprawling, sinewy madness of James Gunn’s “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2.” How a mogul like Feige could part ways with Edgar Wright over creative differences only to subsequently put his name on a summer tentpole as beautifully bizarre as “Vol. 2” might never be known. But “Vol. 2” is here, and it kills.

Immediately, as Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and his band of scrappy mercenaries take down a toothy, tentacled monster to the tune of Electric Light Orchestra’s Beatles-aping “Mr. Blue Sky,” it’s obvious that writer-director James Gunn is all in. More than ever before. What might have been an indistinct action scene turns into a full-on musical number that uproariously sets the stage for how useless Groot (Vin Diesel), now the humanoid tree equivalent of a toddler, will be throughout the film. Audiences are guaranteed smiles all around, but Gunn is just getting started.

As the group collects their bounty, Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) willfully angers their uppity employer (Elizabeth Debicki) and our quirky quintet is unwittingly off on a brand new life-or-death space odyssey. At first, what follows seems like an overlong, undercooked chase scene but soon becomes much more. Peter’s mysterious long-lost father Ego (Kurt Russell) enters the picture and the story’s frame has its engine.

By the end of act one, it’s obvious that Gunn has nothing but unconcern – maybe even a little disdain – for Marvel’s notoriously creaky plot mechanics. You know the ones: Bland villains with boring plans for world or galaxial domination and strained connections to the Marvel Cinematic Universe at-large. Wonderfully, almost impossibly, “Vol. 2” is a teeny-tiny family drama dressed in interstellar garb with not an Iron Man reference in sight; a sneakily brilliant juxtaposition of the small and the infinite that doubles down on what made the original so unique.

At the same time, it’s a very different film from its predecessor, making dozens of bold, risky choices certain to give many parents pause. It is, in its own way, more adult than the R-rated juvenilia of “Deadpool,” more mature than the rudimentary bloodlust of “Logan.” Off-color jokes and punctuations of violence are but a small part of the picture’s surprising maturity. It deals intensely with some very big themes (none of which this review will reveal), played strikingly by an uncommonly attuned cast and heightened by James Gunn’s adoration for his players.

It’s extraordinary to see a studio filmmaker so in love with his characters and the people playing them, a love that’s felt deep in the movie’s marrow. From the leads (Dave Bautista’s Drax is a standout) to supporting players like Gamora’s adopted sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) and telepath Mantis (Pom Klementieff), all receive meaningful moments that bolster the whole of the narrative. Look no further than the return of blue-skinned space pirate Yondu (Michael Rooker). For reasons that won’t be explained here, Yondu is the swollen, beating heart of the film, unknowingly connecting everyone in his universe. It’s a slightly different take on the character than that of the first film, but Rooker plays it masterfully, lending Yondu a multi-dimensionality that’s representative of the movie at large.

Steadily paced and bursting at the seams with humor (shout-out to Groot’s “finding Yondu’s fin” montage), the film works on nearly every conceivable level, from special effects sizzle reel to big studio comedy to the aforementioned family drama that Marvel hasn’t yet pulled off with its Avengers films. As such, Gunn has delivered a much better Star Wars film than either “The Force Awakens” or “Rogue One,” updating the contradictorily sprawling intimacy of George Lucas’ original series for the twenty-first century.

The only drawbacks are nitpicks. A few clumsy cameos, an excess of end credit stingers, and a soundtrack that doesn’t pop as much as the first time around. But that’s the magic of “Vol. 2.” No single element diverts attention from the big picture, with each song, each character, and moment working in concert to tell a pleasingly familiar story that’s never been told this distinctively.

“Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2” is a special movie that meaningfully improves on its predecessor, tastefully dusted with more of the same while giving spectacular new dimension to some already pretty spectacular characters. By firing them off into the far reaches of space to engage in a weird, wild voyage of self-discovery, James Gunn has done something few before him have managed: He’s followed a great film with an even greater sequel. Hats off, Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” on.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: May 5, 2017
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios
Director: James Gunn
Screenwriter: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Sean Gunn, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Kurt Russell, Sylvester Stallone
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and brief suggestive content)