Guardians of the Galaxy volume 2 (2017)
WRITER: JAMES GUNN
DIRECTOR: JAMES GUNN
RELEASE DATE: May 5 2017
After the success of 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, of course a sequel would be in order. The comic book adaptation of cosmic Marvel characters bickering with each other and dealing with galactic level threats proved to be popular with audiences, opening up new parts of the Marvel cinematic universe. Now the cast and crew have returned for the second film in the series, helmed once again by director James Gunn, in a story that maintains the banter, humour, and cosmic scope of the previous film, while opening up new horizons.
In the wake of the previous film, in which the rag tag band of misfits called the Guardians of the Galaxy brought down the Kree accuser Ronan and his schemes to destroy Xandar, the team find themselves dealing with Ayesha (Elizabeth Debickie), the somewhat cranky leader of the Sovereign, after a job doesn’t go quite according to plan. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and the sapling version of Groot (Vin Diesel) encounter a mystery man called Ego (Kurt Russell), who promptly reveals himself to be Quill’s biological father. Meanwhile, Ayesha hires Yondu (Michael Rooker, returning from the first film) and his rogue crew of Ravagers to track down the Guardians. It doesn’t take long before things get complicated.
Gunn wrote the story, having had co-written the original screenplay. The tale is largely based on the status quo of the team as brought together in the comics by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, who assembled a motley assortment of cosmic characters together to face dire threats in the universe. There’s an older version of the Guardians in the comics, from a thousand years in the future, and some of those characters show up here as well as the story goes along, albeit in a different context. Gunn’s story continues the funny, space meets swashbuckling tone of the original, blending in the personal - the search for answers about a person’s heritage - with the large scale in the form of a dire threat to galactic peace.
Rocket and Yondu
Along the way there are some character developments woven into the narrative - Nebula’s change of allegiances is a welcome one, while Yondu’s motivations for taking the young Quill from Earth in the first film become clear, and having Groot remain pint sized through the bulk of the film is a creative contrast from the first film, where the three word speaking walking tree was the biggest member of the ungainly team.
The story also presents a new character, Ego, in pretty much the only way he’d work in a live action movie. In the comics, Ego is a living planet - when one approaches him, you see a planet, and facial features on that planet. Trying to transfer that over to live action, you’d wind up with something out of the original Star Trek television series - if all we saw was a floating head in space, it would end up coming across as very cheesy. Instead we have a Celestial being who can present himself as a human being, but is deeply connected to the planet he calls home, and it’s a good work around of where the character came from.
Gunn takes all of these elements and weaves them into the film, which his directing style is well suited for. As previously shown, Gunn has a good touch for the comic book adaptation, particularly the cosmic level of it all. He can give us a scene set in the midst of chaotic battle and ferocious fighting, and keep track of what’s going on. We see fantastic worlds, distant stars, and strange looking alien beings, and while a lot of that comes down to CGI, it all blends well in with what the actors do. This is probably best manifested in Ego’s planetary form, which winds up being perhaps the biggest visual effect in movie history, but it also shows earlier on, giving Russell a younger look in the opening sequences set in 1980.
The cast are all well chosen in their roles. There are a multitude of cameos- Stan Lee gives one of his funniest yet, and actually kind of feels like a connection to all of his other cameos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Michelle Yeoh, best known to American audiences for her Chinese spy protagonist in the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies turns up as Aleta, one of Yondu’s old crew, while Sylvester Stallone joins the MCU as another former friend of Yondu, Stakar, suitably grumpy but principled in the role. There’s a moment between his character and Rooker’s Yondu that’s a good reversal of roles the two actors played in terms of an estranged friendship in Cliffhanger.
Star-Lord and Gamora
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Elizabeth Debicki in a film - she appeared briefly in the 2015 Everest, but this time she makes more of an impression as Ayesha, a long time presence of the comics. The character is a high priestess and leader of her people, and the actress plays her as someone devoid of humour, pompous, and not to be trifled with. Pom Klementieff appears as Mantis, a character well established in the comics with ties to the Guardians, the Avengers, and others. She’s an empath, with connections to Ego, and her encounters with the Guardians brings out a new aspect to the character. Lacking social interaction throughout her life, she’s something of an oddball, curious about what she encounters, and the way she plays off of Drax, who’s an oddball himself, is particularly fun to watch. Karen Gillan returns from the original film as Nebula, where she was an antagonist. She’s a sister to Gamora, and the film touches on the darkness in their backgrounds. Gillan takes what was an unsympathetic character and makes her someone the audience can empathize with - we see the emotional cracks in her armour as the story goes along.
Kurt Russell turned out to be an inspired choice for Ego. In the comics, Peter Quill’s father is a ruthless BASTICH and ruler of an alien race called the Spartax. It was clear that the cinematic version would not be that character, but it was hinted in the first film (courtesy of Yondu) that Quill’s father had that same quality. Ego is welcoming and friendly at first, but he’s hiding a whole lot of secrets from everyone, and Russell plays the character in a way that’s close to the vest - we’re not really getting inside his head. He might seem friendly, but there’s more beneath the surface, which is fitting, considering he’s a planetary being.
Michael Rooker returns as Yondu, the hardass alien with a rather handy fighting style from the first film. He was less sympathetic last time out- after all, he came to Earth, kidnapped a child and took that child out into the stars for an unclear reason, and was generally hesitant to get involved and do the right thing at first. The reason he didn’t bring Quill to his father plays out here in this film, and Rooker retains the hard-ass aspect of the character while becoming the third element of a story of a son and the two father figures in his life. His character rises to the occasion as things go along, and the actor makes it the best performance of the film.
Bradley Cooper does voice duty as Rocket, the genetically engineered cranky alien mercenary who happens to look a lot like a raccoon. He complains, he wonders what his place is among the Guardians, and he takes care of Groot (whose same three words over and over again he understands perfectly well). Rocket’s a formidable character, largely CGI, but Cooper, whose work in live action I generally avoid, gives the voice of the character the right amount of grumpiness (and even poignancy) it requires.
And speaking of vocal roles, the same applies to Vin Diesel, who returns to voice Groot, the walking tree who’s more of a sapling this time out. All we ever hear him say is “I am Groot”, even though in each instance, the meaning of the words are vastly different. The CGI of the sapling Groot (or Baby Groot if you will) renders the character as oddly cute, where the full sized version of the first film was formidable. For Diesel, the challenge would have been in the nuances of a line recorded in post production - what context are those three words used in at any given moment - and in giving Groot a vocal sound that’s quite different from what the actor actually sounds like.
Rocket and Baby Groot
Dave Bautista returns as Drax, and again, proves to be hilarious to watch as he goes along. The character is a warrior sworn to revenge against Thanos (who will eventually turn up big time in the cinematic universe). He’s a formidable looking wall of alien muscle, the sort you wouldn’t want to pick a fight with, which works well for the actor, who comes from that kind of background as a wrestler. Bautista adds into it a certain obliviousness, socially speaking, to personality interaction (Drax can make the whole room feel awkward), and a hint of innocence and heartbreak - there’s a moment when he’s speaking of his late wife that plays to that. He’s also become more invested in the idea of the Guardians as a family.
Zoe Saldana returns as Gamora, the fierce warrior without much of a sense of humour, drawn out of a dark background. She’s resourceful and cunning in a fight, but keeps her guard up, particularly with Nebula (until the walls come down for both of them), but also in a different way with Quill. The actress gives the character a sense of tough fortitude, and a yearning for redemption from her own past. As much of a force of nature as she is in combat, she’s also the voice of reason in this motley team of misfits at times, which is a refreshing touch, and she and Pratt give their characters just the right touch of chemistry.
Chris Pratt reprises the role of Peter Quill, the human boy who’s spent most of his life out in the stars, abducted in the wake of his mother’s death from cancer, not knowing who his father was, and growing up among inter stellar mercenaries. It’s made him something of a swashbuckler, a dashing charmer who’s trying to be more responsible now. Finding his father - with the mixture of emotions that has to bring - doesn’t quite lead to what he might have expected, which Pratt plays off of. Learning that his half-Celestial side gives him access to great power might seem ideal at first, but ultimately the character’s humanity serves to be his anchor.
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 serves up more of the irreverent, adventurous tone of the first film, while addressing the idea of what family really means. While its protagonists might bicker endlessly, we can see the informal family they have become, and the story, cosmic in scope but quite personal too, plays to that. It opens new horizons in the Marvel cinematic universe, presents a threat of a formidable scale, and proves to be a thrill ride that mixes together humour and poignancy - sometimes in the same conversation.