The opening credits sequence of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the most fun I’ve had at the cinema this year. It contains all of the irreverence, inventiveness, and joy that poured forth from its predecessor and have built up during the intervening years. The film that follows is better than a mixed bag – hell, it’s still better than the rest of Marvel’s output during those intervening years – but it can’t quite reignite the spark.

Part of the problem is that Vol. 2 has lost the element of surprise. Audiences went into Guardians of the Galaxy with no expectations, and were delighted with the irreverent space adventure that greeted them. Two years later, and expectations are high, so Vol. 2 instead trades on the goodwill generated over those years.

This is no victory lap, though. Vol. 2 doesn’t just rehash the first, giving us another galaxy-saving romp. Rather, it looks inward and delivers a more personal story, albeit written on the grand canvas of zany space opera. Starlord’s (Chris Pratt) father, teased in Vol. 1 (I’m going to type Vol. 1 rather than Guardians of the Galaxy, to save my keyboard the stress) and played here by a magnificently maned Kurt Russell, tracks down his son, and the film uses this is an opportunity to explore themes of family, making much of the old adage, “Friends are the family you choose.”

That family, of course, comprises Starlord (a.k.a. Peter Quill), a kind of young, goofy Han Solo; Gamora (Zoe Saldana), adopted daughter of Thanos and all-round badass; Drax, a warrior with no concept of metaphor; Rocket, talking racoon and diabolical engineer; and of course Baby Groot, who is just as adorable as the name implies.

The script, by director James Gunn, makes the decision towards the end of the first act to split up the Guardians. At first, this seems like a bad move: much of the appeal of Vol. 1 was in the bickering, and there can’t be much of that if everyone is spread all over the place. But it soon becomes clear that the division is an excuse to zero in on the characters and give them some development. Rocket and Yondu (you know, the guy with the arrow) benefit most from this, becoming, as TVTropes would have it, the Ensemble Dark Horses.

The division, however, does have the effect of turning the second act into more of a series of skits rather than a cohesive narrative. They’re damn funny skits – Vol. 2 is a far funnier film than its predecessor (which was already hilarious) – but it can feel like a writer indulging himself rather than crafting a story. It is only the constantly referenced theme of family that prevents the film from plummeting over the edge into a patchwork melange.

None of these criticisms seem to matter when the film is running. Taken as just a reason to spend more time with these characters, Vol. 2 works splendidly. Having set itself up as the weirdest, and arguable best, corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Guardians has perhaps earned the right to a little indulgence. Go with it, and you won’t be (too) disappointed. Welcome back to the freakin’ Guardians of the Galaxy.

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