This one’s worth checking out.

Did I mention it’s about Family?

It’s that time of the month again. James Gunn and our good friends at Marvel Studios follow up their 2014 treat Guardians of the Galaxy with Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2. And yes, much like last time, it doesn’t feel like “one of the bunch” and instead inhabits its own world of camp, purposeful oddity, science fiction madness, and David Hasselhoff cameos. Our favorites from the last chapter are back and several new faces are introduced, so how much could it possibly fail? I will get to that.

Kurt Russell as Ego reunites with his son.

It opens on a mandatory action spectacle and is immediately more interesting than most superhero blockbusters in this respect, keeping the fight itself in the blurred-out background while Baby Groot (a high-pitched Vin Diesel) dances happily to some of Peter “Star-lord” Quill’s cassette tape tunes. The other members of the Guardians, Quill himself (Chris Pratt), no-nonsense warrior princess Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the brutish Drax (Dave Bautista), and partially reformed bounty hunter Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), are hard at work vanquishing a tentacle beast before it destroys a collection of powerful batteries belonging to an alien race called The Sovereign. The leader of said people, a golden queen named Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), rewards the Guardians by handing over a shackled Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora’s adoptive sibling and fellow daughter of Thanos. We’ll get to him.

Alas, once the deal is done, Rocket puts his greedy paws on some of the batteries and prompts the Sovereign to chase after our heroes as they depart from the planet. An easily avoidable plot point to start things off on but whatever; they are saved from their pursuers by a human-looking graybeard named Ego (Kurt Russell). He introduces himself as a Celestial, a being that has simply come into existence from nothing and formed its own planet around itself, as well as this human form. That, and he reveals that he is Quill’s long-lost biological father. Bonding, exposition, and jokes like “So does your human form have a penis?” ensue.

Meanwhile, Ayesha gets a hold of Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), the Ravager captain and “space pirate” who raised Quill as part of his crew instead of bringing him to Ego as instructed all those years ago, to track down the Guardians for her. As you can imagine, Yondu quickly alters the deal, much to the dismay of his subordinates, and questions are raised as to what being a true father and family member truly means. Yondu also laments his exile from the Ravager council, helmed by Sylvester Stallone as a guy named Starhawk. Why not?

In some ways, this may be a superior film to the first one but in other ways it is a large step down. Whereas the first film nailed the tone and the balance of moods, this film is either too goofy or a little too touchy-feely and dramatic, as well as on-the-nose with its family Aesop. Whereas this film gives the characters more equally distributed screen-time, the first one was too concerned with Peter Quill. In addition to the intriguing relationship between him and Ego, Drax gets in touch with a softer (yet still delightfully cruel) side once he makes the acquaintance of Ego’s socially hopeless pet empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Gamora’s relationship with Nebula is finally fleshed out, we learn more about the emotional struggles of Rocket, and honestly, the one with the best lines and most moving character arc of all may just be Michael Rooker’s Yondu (I even got emotional towards the end, not gonna lie). I get the sense that James Gunn put the most effort into the scenes that featured his long-time friends, hence why his brother Sean, who plays Yondu’s lieutenant Kraglin, also gets some memorable moments.

From left to right: Nebula, Gamora, Star-lord, Groot, Rocket, and Drax.

This is all well and good, but it does make the film feel bloated and it doesn’t help that many of the jokes come off as awkward, unnecessary, and borderline “cringey”. Maybe this is an appropriate feel for scenes in which the socially inept Mantis (a pretty wonderful character, I admit) bonds with the equally irremediable Drax, though I worry we were meant to laugh along with them. I’ve been told by fans and critics that Drax has become the funniest member of the group, a promise that the film did not fulfil.

It is also rampant on fanservice; for average film-goers in the form of Baby Groot doing just about anything (for every girl on the row behind me that went “d’awww”, I wanted to put the little twig man in a box and throw it away) and for turbo geeks in the form of lines of dialogue that sound like they’re super important, but won’t come off that way to anyone who hasn’t read comics. Thank God the layman still has Baby Groot.

As much as I unexpectedly enjoyed Civil War and Doctor Strange, I tend to trust Gunn the most when it comes to diverting from the Marvel Universe template – not only because he still gets to do both directing and screenwriting undisturbed. He’s always struck me as remarkably down-to-Earth for a big-studio filmmaker, such as when he went on Facebook and treated fans to a long outline on precisely what will and will not happen in the next Guardians film, indicating that he doesn’t limit his speech and that he doesn’t encourage whatever disturbingly obsessive clickbait will be farted out every week on what MIGHT be in the next Marvel product. After he published this, I came to respect him even more than I already did, but also became worried he would suffer the same fate Edgar Wright did during the making of Ant-Man – a film that I loved when I saw it the first time, but loved signficantly less upon learning its behind-the-scenes stories.

Michael Rooker as Yondu and Rocket as himself.

Even during its obligatory end credit scenes, Guardians 2 is as self-aware as Marvel movies will ever be permitted to be. It has far more than two, which seems borderline parodical, features celebrity cameos that seem equally tongue-in-cheek, and confirms something oft-theorized about the appearances Stan Lee has had in almost every Marvel adaptation since X-Men. Leave it to James Gunn to give us fun stuff like that.

Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is, as foreseen, much more interesting to look at than most Avengers-related pictures, both in terms of color vibrance and style. However, I only just barely recommend it. Its tone can seem bipolar, I “got” the big message about 20 minutes in, its action scenes are bombastic (as much as they run on character, it’d be even better if said characters weren’t invulnerable and ran the risk of getting killed, hurt, or even getting their hair a bit messy), and the comedy needs tweaking.

With that said, though, it is still a tasty refreshment from the otherwise monotonous superhero table. It is as campy as old-school science fiction should be, I felt for its titular team moreso than I do any Avenger, the new additions to the family are memorable, and its designs are starting to become more varied, with Ego’s ship that looks like something out of Valérian et Laureline and his planet, which looks computer-generated but interesting (my favorite world is the snow planet that looks like an Ian Hubert set). Finally, there’s the de-aging they did on Kurt Russell at the start of the film (a not entirely digital effect, apparently), which made my VFX-programming father go “whoa” in the theater. A pretty good endorsement, sez I.

3/5 whatever