Tuesday, May 9, 2017

'Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2' review

*Light SPOILERS will follow. I'll try to avoid anything explicit, but it's hard to talk about what makes Vol. 2 so great without talking spoilers.*

It's easy to forget that when Guardians of the Galaxy hit theaters back in 2014, nobody really thought it would be a hit. Pretty much everyone was skeptical of Marvel's intergalactic superhero team-up film, myself included. After the success of The Avengers, the idea of the studio making a movie about a talking raccoon and a giant tree fighting in space was insane- it seemed like a film that would be far too ridiculous for mainstream audiences. But after a tremendous marketing campaign and early word that the film was delightfully entertaining, Guardians of the Galaxy turned into the biggest breakout hit of the summer. Even adjusted for inflation, it grossed more than both Thor movies, the first two installment in the Captain America franchise, and Iron Man 2, a feat that I don't think can be overstated. It also introduced audiences (and even some comic book fans) to characters that have since become icons, legendary heroes that hold as much weight as anybody in the Earth-bound Avengers.

The Guardians of the Galaxy are established superstars at this point, and the surprise factor that turned the 2014 film into a runaway smash is gone. With popularity comes the weight of expectations, and few films in 2017 were as hotly anticipated as Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2. Marvel sequels have a tendency to fall into the trap of being over-stuffed, over-crowded, and generally pointless, existing merely to set up a myriad of future films. I think most people would agree that Marvel doesn't have the best track record with sequels, save for the espionage thrills of The Winter Soldier and the blockbuster mayhem of Age of Ultron (even this will likely be a controversial statement). Writer/director James Gunn had a monumental task on his hands, and he could have taken this sequel in so many directions, including some that could have gone very, very wrong.

Instead, Gunn chose to take a different path, one that is essential to the success of this magnificent sequel. While maintaining everything that fans loved about the first one- the visual energy, the chemistry between the characters, the kick-ass soundtrack- Gunn takes the Guardians in a more personal direction that establishes this franchise as Marvel's most emotionally resonant. He expands the world so that the film almost feels like a sugar rush of cosmic eye candy, but he grounds the stakes in a way that really hits home. He doesn't feel the need to connect the Guardians to the rest of the Marvel universe or set up 10,000 different sequels- he knows that this story and these characters can stand on their own. The result is one of the studio's best, a pure blast of fun that works as pretty much everything you could ever want from a summer blockbuster. As someone who walked in with a certain degree of skepticism, Gunn made fall in love with this film. And much to the shock of this fan, it's even better than the original.

Picking up some time after the events of the original film, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 reunites us with Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), the lovable criminals who saved the galaxy and became instant legends. As our story begins, the Guardians have been hired by the Sovereign, a race of uptight alien beings, to kill a giant space creature in exchange for Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora's evil sister and the daughter of mad space titan Thanos. Everything goes surprisingly well, until Rocket decides it's a good idea to steal some of the batteries that the Sovereign hold as their most precious asset. High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) sends a fleet after the Guardians, resulting in a chase that sends their ship crashing into a nearby planet.

But somehow, it could have been much worse. At the last moment, the Guardians are saved by a mysterious man who managed to destroy thousands of Sovereign ships in one fell swoop. That man also lands on the planet, revealing himself to Ego (Kurt Russell), a god-like being and the father of Peter Quill. Leaving Rocket and Baby Groot to fix the ship, Peter, Drax, and Gamora travel with Ego and Manits (Pom Klementieff) to the celestial's planet. Meanwhile, Yondu (Michael Rooker) and the Ravagers are undergoing a crisis of their own. Yondu is shunned from the order by renowned Ravager Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone), which prompts his colleagues to start a mutiny over his allegiance to Peter Quill. Led by Taserface (Chris Sullivan), the crew of vengeful Ravagers track down the Guardians and kidnap Rocket, Groot, and Yondu. While they face death on a Ravager vessel, Peter learns the secrets of his own origin, reuniting with the father he always wanted. But as a dark new threat is revealed, the Guardians will have to come together to save the galaxy once again.

As I watched the marketing campaign unfold for Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, my main concern was that amid all of the humor and comedic insanity, it seemed like the sequel was lacking in the story department. And as I watched Vol. 2, that concern remained for much of the runtime. The original film wasn't story-driven either, but Vol. 2 rides the wave of its laid-back vibe to the point that it begins to feel meandering. Thankfully, Gunn knows that he can only rely on the individual character threads and jokes for so long before bringing it all together, and he does so at exactly the right point. There's a scene towards the end of the second act that involves Nebula chasing down Gamora with a spaceship in a North by Northwest-style moment, and as it progressed, I thought "Okay, this story really needs to start going somewhere." Almost immediately, Gunn kicks the whole thing into high gear, uniting all of the different stories and creating a final act that is as visually dazzling as it is heartbreaking and beautifully emotional.

Gunn certainly relies on the interplay between the characters once again here, but he also improves on some of the flaws that stood out to me in the original film and in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. Despite being able to do almost everything else right in the realm of superhero movies, Marvel has consistently struggled with crafting good villains and using death in a meaningful way. While I can't say who ends up being the main antagonist is for fear of spoiling the surprise, just know that they're one of Marvel's best- Gunn has created the most fearsome and memorable Marvel baddie since Tom Hiddleston's Loki. And to make things even better, Vol. 2 becomes the first Marvel film to deal with death in a real, permanent way that has a profound, moving impact. For a franchise that relies so much on being funny and silly, the fact that Guardians: Vol. 2 is so emotionally frank and honest is a welcome surprise, firmly placing the Guardians as the heartfelt core of the Marvel universe.

Much will be made about the tear-jerking conclusion to Vol. 2, and deservedly so. Gunn really pulled off something magical here, and he deserves all the praise in the world. He never stretches to connect this film to other corners of the MCU, nor does he include story threads that feel like extraneous filler. The closest blockbuster comparison is last year's Star Trek Beyond, and this film has a faster, funnier vibe that makes it vastly more entertaining than its sci-fi counterpart. But as critical as Gunn is to the success of this movie, he also places quite a bit of importance on the characters and the actors who play them. That's no surprise considering what made the first film so successful, but the focus on character is still a welcome component. Gunn gives everyone a little something to do, and that makes the first two acts fly by before it all collides together for one hell of a finale.

The obvious centerpiece of the story is Chris Pratt's Peter Quill, the roguish hero who is forced to deal with more personal issues in this installment, mainly involving his relationship with his father. Pratt pulls off the critical moments quite well, and I love the way that Star Lord's narrative progresses in this film. The central storyline is complimented by the terrific performances of Kurt Russell and Michael Rooker as Ego and Yondu, respectively, who provide a wonderful contrast that works excellently. Russell is clearly having a blast as the godlike Ego, while Rooker gets a chance to twist his villainous Ravager into a more sympathetic, fascinating character. Gunn touched on the idea of misfits with broken pasts banding together in the original film, and here, he takes a closer look at the idea of family and what that word really means. To say much more would be a spoiler, but I'll note that it applies both to Quill's relationship with his father and with the Guardians.

But even beyond the central character of Star Lord, each and every player in Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 gets a chance to shine. The relationship between Gamora and Nebula is explored in a new way, giving Gunn another chance to show the softer side of an antagonist from the original film. But in addition to the emotional beats that are so critical to Gunn's script, several supporting characters get an opportunity to perfectly utilize the trademark humor that made the original film such a smash hit. Dave Bautista is absolutely wonderful once again as Drax, delivering some of the best lines of the film and displaying excellent chemistry with Pom Klementieff, who stands out as one of the best new characters. Bradley Cooper is a blast as Rocket, with some of the funniest moments coming from the angry raccoon's interactions with Taserface, Chris Sullivan's villain who suffers from an acute lack of self-awareness. And of course, Baby Groot is the most wonderfully enjoyable character in the whole movie.

With all of the character work holding Vol. 2 together and standing as its essential key to success, it's even more impressive that the film is quite possibly the most visually incredible piece of entertainment that Marvel has ever created. Just like the villain issues and the lack of true stakes, Marvel always suffers from a visual staleness that permeates every one of their movies. Their best movies don't usually have much in the way of splashy colors or clever cinematography- even the original Guardians of the Galaxy suffered from the basic Marvel style. Here, James Gunn and the production design team go absolutely wild, crafting gorgeous setpieces and fully embracing the retro 80s vibe of this franchise. Vol. 2 is a joy to behold, an explosion of sci-fi madness that's so good it doesn't even feel like a Marvel movie. From the shimmering gold of the Sovereign world, to the snowy and metallic party universe that houses the Ravagers, to the beautiful landscapes of Ego's majestic planet, everything in this film exists as a unadulterated blast of visual stimulation.

And the soundtrack! How can I even talk about a Guardians film without mentioning the soundtrack? Gunn perfectly matches the visual power of this mega-budget hit with a mixtape of retro favorites that manages to miraculously work as well as it did in the original. The soundtrack kicks in almost immediately, with Baby Groot dancing to Electric Light Orchestra's classic "Mr. Blue Sky" during the joyous opening credits scene that re-establishes that perfect tone that made the original a sensation. Gunn follows that up with a collection of hits that immaculately underscore each and every scene, bringing an added sense of fun and pathos to the proceedings. Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" is used expertly as the film's anthem, there's a sweet dance set to Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home to Me," and "Come a Little Bit Closer" is incredibly placed during one of the film's most shocking bits of action. I'll be listening to Awesome Mix: Vol. 2 for the next several weeks- and I expect that anyone who watches this film will be doing the same.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 could have coasted on the success of the original and delivered something that was as disposable and forgettable as many of the Marvel sequels that have come before it. But thanks to the passion that James Gunn has for these characters and his relationship with the actors who portray them, Vol. 2 is one of Marvel's best films, a surprisingly superior sequel that takes everything we loved about the breakout hit and expands on that success in ways that logically serve the characters and the narrative. It's fun, it's action-packed, and it's hysterical from start to finish- it's the best possible way to start off the summer movie season. Vol. 2 upended my expectations at every single turn, which is something that rarely happens with these kinds of blockbusters. Superhero films don't get much more enjoyable or heartfelt than this- Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 is a blast of the highest order.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                                 (9/10)

Images: Marvel/IMDB

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