Are we really saving the galaxy again?
Great! We can jack up our prices!
I always come to these movies so late that my reviews are often just restatements of what other reviews have said a hundred times. I think I may have a somewhat atypical judgment on this film however. I think that this film and its predecessor have a lot in common with another duology in the MCU: Avengers & Avengers: Age of Ultron. In both the case of the two Avengers movies and the two Guardians movies, the first film was a near perfect distillation of entertainment. They both have serious moments, but what separates them from other movies of their type, even within the MCU, is the sense of pure fun. They’re both pretty light, all things considered, which is not an insult in this context; they’re jokey, often slapstick, bright and filled with a kind of wide-eyed wonder at how cool everything is. And in both cases, the second film has been seen as a step-down in quality, a more or less minor one in the case of Guardians, Vol. 2 and a really major one in the case of Age of Ultron. I think this is a misapprehension in both cases; in both cases, the second installments are significantly different, but not necessarily worse. In both cases, the pace is a lot slower, the tone darker (which is still kind of light in Guardians’ case) and the focus is on character, not plot. These aren’t lesser films, just more serious, which isn’t a problem unless the main reason everyone loved the first ones is because they were so much fun.
First, a word for the first Guardians film. It isn’t aiming to be a serious movie, so it’s no insult to say that it’s a fun adventure-romp. It is, I think, basically a perfect film; it executes what it’s aiming for to something like absolute success. Vol. 2 is . . . not a perfect film by a stretch, but it’s trying to be a lot more. Let me hit a few flaws and then I’ll get to why Vol. 2 really worked for me. Oddly enough, a lot of the humor feels very forced here; strange because the humor was at its most natural in the first movie. There’s a running gag surrounding a piece of fruit not being ripe or something and I think it was supposed to be funny, but I’m just basically guessing on that because nothing about its actual substance suggests humor at all. And the film has what is maybe the MCU’s worst five minutes, an interminable sequence near the beginning that is entirely based on the premise that it will be hilarious (HILARIOUS) to just watch Baby Groot dance around during the credits. That’s as dreadful as the MCU gets, honestly, guys; it really is. And I think I’ve basically maxed out on scenes in/after the credits; this one has, what, five? Honestly, if I never see another credits/post-credits scene I’ll be fine with it. This one finally broke the premise.
But the film is surprising and bold in its focus. All the performances are good and the action is fun occasionally brilliant. A bravura sequence of Yondu’s arrow wreaking havoc all through a large ship is the show stopper for sure. And these movies are ensemble pieces in ways that even the Avengers movies aren’t; everyone gets moments to shine and their own small character arcs. But the film’s emotional heart is at about the weirdest and boldest place imaginable. It’s on three characters no one would expect. The first is Yondu; to the degree the ensemble yields place for the movie to be about one character in particular it is Yondu. Rooker knocks it out of the park with a finely tuned, incredibly emotional performance. It’s minimal at all the right times and big at all the right times. His skin is blue, he has a red fin on his head (and, by the way, that big fin is awesome) and he has an arrow that he can whistle for, but damned if he isn’t the most human of all the characters here. Next is Nebula and I’m going to be honest: I had forgotten about this character entirely. But her arc here is grim and painful. If Yondu is haunted and sorrowful, Nebula is rage-filled and merciless. Gillan’s performance shines through all the makeup and her growling voice is raw and filled with anger. As she exits the movie, on her own strange path to, not her own redemption, but evil’s destruction, I found myself marveling at how the movie had turned me on the character. When Vol. 2 started, I didn’t remember her; when Vol. 2 ended, I was honestly thinking to myself that I would be thrilled to get a solo Nebula movie. What a twist. Finally, there’s Sean Gunn as Rooker’s sidekick; his arc is very tied to Yondu’s, but again, it’s just amazing to me that this movie chooses as one of the most emotional figures in the movie someone who basically no one remembers from the first movie. The focus on these three characters is really daring and strange, I think. And it’s the reason that I end up with the opinion I do end up with.
Honestly, I think that this film goes for a completely different level of character drama than the first one did and it basically succeeds, all while keeping a lot of the fun elements from the first movie. There’s still a lot of humor that works and all of the “main” characters get nice enough character moments (the Drax/Mantis relationship is another real highlight). But the emotional content is way higher than the first movie and I found this one much more moving in a lot of ways. I’ve argued that Age of Ultron is just as good as the first Avengers movie, just in a different way. I’m not arguing that in this case. A lot of people say Vol. 2 is good, but just not as good as the first one. Well, I don’t think it’s as good as the first one; I think it’s better. It’s weird to say that the first Guardians is a perfect movie for what it is and that this one isn’t perfect, but is better, but I can’t escape the way this movie goes for so much more in the way of heart and complicated characters while still keeping the elements of the first movie that worked in play. Vol. 2 is more complicated, not more fun. That probably isn’t what most people expected from the big budget MCU movie this summer; but, hey, the Guardians of the Galaxy have always been about surprising us. 4 stars.
tl;dr – following up amasterpiece of fun with an emotionall complicated & evocative movie is a daring move, but it enables the Guardians to be even better the second time around. 4 stars.