If you liked the first Guardians of the Galaxy - and I did - Vol. 2 very successfully delivers more of the same. This is a fratboy's vision of a sweeping space opera. It's weirder than your other Marvel movies, as if a horror film, a Tarantino film or an Adult Swim comedy were lurking around the corner somewhere. Not to mention a lot of easter eggs and in-jokes. This is CGI overkill, and in 3D it was a little headache-inducing. There's always a lot going on. Tons of special effects action.
Chris Pratt returns as dudebro space hero Peter Quill, alias Star Lord. He's got Han Solo's swagger and Luke Skywalker's mysticism about him, but hasn't matured otherwise since his last outing. The film gets a lot of chances to make him smarter than your average brick, but chooses not to. Zoe Saldana's Gamora gets the thankless task of being the humorless buzzkill who either admires or admonishes him as he's being alternately a hero or a loudmouthed jerk. It's to the credit of Pratt and Saldana that both remain reasonably likeable in spite of this. For most of the film's runtime you really are on Peter's side.
This is not a film which relates very well to women, but still gives its actresses good material. Much more interesting is Gamora's sisterly rivalry with Karen Gillan's Nebula, who gets more to do here than last time, showing real intensity and giving Saldana something to play off. Gillan doesn't walk off with the movie entirely. That distinction belongs to Michael Rooker as Yondu. A secondary villain last time round, the blue-faced pirate steals the show here. He also gets to look a bit more like the comic hero he's named after. His rough, dirty and grotesque band of Ravagers are here for a lot of in-fighting and a metric ton of violence, but we also find the humanity in Yondu, and Rooker plays it all like the old pro he is.
Speaking of old pros, Kurt Russell turns up as Peter's long-lost father, coming off like the screen legend he is at this point. He's in full Jack Burton mode here, all macho swagger, although this film takes that more seriously than Big Trouble In Little China did. It is eerie how good this choice of casting is, as Chris Pratt's Star Lord is very clearly trying to be a Kurt Russell sort of character, albeit without as much irony. It's worth remembering Kurt Russell was the second choice when casting Han Solo. Star Lord is all about looking cool. That's one thing all the Guardians of the Galaxy have in common. They're all trying to look cool, and they pull it off.
Kurt Russell has been de-aged for a brief flashback sequence to his youth. It's convincing that we're looking at a person, although that person does look a lot puffier in the face than Russell ever was - a sign of age they must have left in.
The production design is lush and detailed, suggesting David Lynch's Dune by way of Kirby and Ditko, for the CGI era. The action is nonstop once it starts.
As with the first film, the movie is funny, though not as funny as it could be. Dave Bautista as Drax has his comic relief role down to a fine science, as well as his action hero role. It's like someone carved an autistic man out of concrete. His best scenes are with Pom Klementieff as Mantis, a welcome addition to the cast who is as clueless about social interaction as he is. The pretty French actress has been given black bug eyes and antennae here. Mantis and Drax recognize one another as kindred spirits, and he alternately bonds with her and insults her appearance. Bautista is at the heart of the chemistry that this team has. He's the rock behind so many scenes and makes it look easy.
This film being balls to the wall CGI, Bradley Cooper's Rocket Racoon gets a lot to do. Actionwise his scenes come off like a live action cartoon, but emotionally Rocket is going through a lot, and for a CGI character he manages at times to ground the film. In some scenes he could pass for the film's stealth protagonist.
Vin Diesel's Groot is now a baby, and more of a minor comic relief character. In the intro he dances to ELO's "Mister Blue Sky" while the Guardians battle a squid monster in the background. That nearly sums up the sort of film we're watching.
As before the film is wallpapered with classic tunes from the 1970s and thereabouts. A climactic battle is scored to Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain." At the screening I went to, you could feel people tapping their feet recognizing each new track that came on.
Sean Gunn, brother of writer/director James Gunn, returns as Yondu's crewman. The Nova Corps don't return. Instead the Guardians face off against the Sovereign, a gold-painted race of people led by Elizabeth Debicki's Ayesha. And there sure are a lot of pretty people painted funny colors in these films. I could call the Sovereign villains but it's murkier than that. The Guardians earn their antihero cred by doublecrossing them. Or Rocket does anyway, and they pay the price.
The film is full of nerdy easter eggs for the Marvel faithful. We finally get a hint on what role Adam Warlock has to play in these proceedings, and there is gearing up to take on Thanos in Infinity War. Howard the Duck (Seth Green) gets a speaking cameo, and another in the credits, and he looks pretty good. The credits also show a photo of Cosmo, dog astronaut from the comics who cameoed in the first film. Stan Lee gets what is probably his most interesting cameo yet, meeting a group of cosmic Marvel characters in two scenes. This was something fans had theorized about and it's made more or less canon here.
The credits find a moment for Jeff Goldblum's Thor: Ragnarok character, and if we're talking cameos, we get Sylvester Stallone, with Ving Rhames and Michelle Yeoh. Oh, and David Hasselhoff as himself.
Yes, it's definitely a quirkier film than other Marvel pictures. Darker too, in some ways. We like these space pirates best when they're showing no mercy. It's macho posturing, and in some ways it's going to fall short because of that. At times it's like a video game, and boy is it fully aware of that.
If you liked the first film you'll like this one just as much. Certainly this corner of Marvel's Universe has carved out its own feel, and that's entirely due to writer/director James Gunn. It's a hugely-expensive production, and that budget is certainly visible onscreen, but it doesn't feel watered down or compromised. It feels like an original and weird and very particular vision, closer to Tarantino than Disney but 100% James Gunn, for good or for bad. That is remarkable under the circumstances, and so is what this movie gets right. Let's face it - the superhero landscape has needed this kind of weirdness since Sam Raimi stopped making Spider-man films. If nothing else you'll have a good time. I am Groot.