Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 may be the most eagerly-awaited sequel outside the Star Wars brand, and James Gunn has delivered a winner. Some online critics feel that it doesn’t live up to the first, but I believe they are confused by the fact that the first one was an unexpected surprise they didn’t know they wanted, and this one is an eagerly anticipated treat that they are pumping up high expectations for. Since that joy of discovery is replaced by expectation, which can’t really compare, they are feeling a self-inflicted disappointment that is unwarranted. I loved it. Gunn still has some tricks up his sleeve.
This time out, there’s no McGuffin for our heroes to chase after, making for a less linear story structure. Instead, there are multiple intersecting storylines, all intended to illuminate the characters and their relationships, since relationships are the central theme this time out. The first film was your classic “getting the band together” story; this episode is more about how these misfits fit together and bridge the gap between team and family.
The intersecting storylines:
The Guardians have been hired to protect some assets by the most obnoxious race in the galaxy, The Sovereign, a society made up entirely of genetically perfect golden-skinned supermodels with a Trump-level sense of entitlement. After successfully securing the property while bickering constantly (except for Baby Groot, who dances obliviously through the battle), Rocket decides to help himself to some of the goods, thereby turning clients into enemies and provoking a vendetta that continues to escalate throughout.
Meanwhile, Star-Lord is reunited with his father, who turns out to be Ego, the Living Planet, a celestial who has taken on human form.
Also meanwhile, Yondu’s band has been exiled from the larger Ravagers group by their leader Stakar (Sylvester Stallone) for breaking the Ravager Code, specifically the prohibition on trafficking in children, more specifically young Peter Quill, whom Yondu had been hired to abduct 25 years earlier. As part of their effort to get back into the Ravagers’ good graces, they join in the Sovereigns’ bounty hunt for the Guardians, which in turn leads to a mutiny.
Also also meanwhile, Gamora is reunited with her sister Nebula, a seething bundle of anger and bitterness who burns for revenge; while all that’s going on, Drax is developing a friendship with Ego’s pet empath Mantis, and Rocket is finding a kindred spirit in Yondu, all of these characters exploring different facets of the concept of family.
Family looms large over the film; one of the earliest scenes shows us the romance between Meredith Quill and the spaceman who would become Peter’s father. Not long afterward, that same spaceman shows up, older but still resplendent in a flowing mane of graying hair, to rescue the Guardians from their irate former clients, after which he announces that he is a celestial named Ego.
Inevitably, these storylines converge on Ego’s world.
That’s a brief overview of what happens, but that’s not what Vol. 2 is about. What it’s about is choosing your family, forgiving some and removing others as necessary, building and maintaining the bonds that allow a motley crew of misfits to become a family while at the same time letting blood relatives sever ties without hesitation or regret. Those of us who had less-than-admirable fathers may find the film a rather cathartic exercise. We understand the concept of a DIY family, the difference between a family and relatives, the incredible difference between being a father and a dad, and the difficulty of finally admitting that one’s father is, to use Quill’s word, an a-hole.
But it’s not all Oedipal angst.
There’s a lot of comedy here, and of course the pop-fueled soundtrack keeps things moving. This time out, some of the songs are integrated into the plot, the 1972 hit “Brandy, You’re a Fine Girl” taking on particular significance, as well as Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” while Jay and the Americans’ “Come a Little Bit Closer” provides the perfect accompaniment to Yondu’s relentless walk of retribution. A number of other ’70s and ’80s tracks, some obscure and others almost forgotten, fill out the soundtrack album, which will no doubt be on repeat in a lot of cars this month. I suspect that a few of these oldies-but-goodies will end up back on the Top 40 again, or in some cases, for the first time.
Now to the important stuff, as spoiler-free as I can make it. If you’re paying attention, and you know your 1970s-90s Marvel Comics, you may very well notice some familiar faces, some more prominently placed than others. If you find yourself pointing excitedly at a minor character while your mundane friends wonder what you’re so excited about, look around the theater for the other guys pointing excitedly at that same character; you may have found some new friends. If you subscribe to a certain fan theory, there’s a scene you may enjoy. If you’re a fan of Howard the Duck, keep your eyes peeled when they go to the alien version of Vegas. And naturally, this being a Marvel movie, you’re not going to leave your seat until the lights come on. (Who ARE these people who just get up and leave? That’s like walking out of a Springsteen concert before the encores.) This time, there’s not just one or even two scenes inserted in between the credits; there are five. A couple of them are just fun, one is a bit of minor character development (so to speak), and at least one is a portent of things to come, either in Avengers: Infinity War or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. It’s one of those scenes where a large segment of the audience will turn to their nerd friend and ask “what the hell is that?” but their friend will not hear the question because he’s too busy yelling “oh hell yes!” In short, both my movie-loving and comic fanboy sides were well satisfied by the time the screen went dark.
And now the countdown to Vol. 3 begins. Fortunately there’s a kickass soundtrack to enjoy while we wait.