It’s difficult to catch lightning in a bottle twice, and that’s exactly what James Gunn tries to do in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Ultimately Vol. 2 isn’t and suffers from some pacing issues, but it still proves to be a fun time with a lot of heart. We pick up in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 a few months after the events of the 2014 movie, with the Guardians’ reputation now spread across the galaxy. They’re heroes for hire and are working a mission for the hilariously conceited Sovereign (led by an excellent Elizabeth Debicki as Ayesha). Things quickly go awry when Rocket steals some of the items the Guardians were supposed to be protecting, and the team goes to the top of the Sovereign’s to-kill list for slighting the golden, genetically-advanced race. The Guardians trying to stay one step ahead of the Sovereign and the team of Ravagers hired to kill them is the main thrust of the action of Vol. 2, but the real heart of this movie is Peter Quill meeting his father at long last. It’s established in the first scene that Kurt Russell’s Ego is the star man who impregnated Peter’s mother, and it doesn’t take long for Ego to show up and introduce himself to his son. The real question is whether Peter meeting his genetic father fills the hole his absence had left in Star-Lord’s life, and whether or not that hole had already been filled by people like Yondu, Gamora and the rest of the Guardians. Family is a big theme in this movie and serves as its unifying plot thread. If the first Guardians of the Galaxy was about bringing the team together, this one is about testing that bond. While Vol. 2 does a good job of earning their group arc, the journey there involves splitting up the team for their own personal missions. Gamora and Drax join Peter when he goes off with Ego and Mantis.
Rocket and Groot end up paired with Yondu and Nebula. As such, the wonderful chemistry that drove the first film is diminished a bit here. We learn a lot more about why Nebula has such hatred for Gamora and what went on during their childhood with Thanos, and there’s more insight given into Drax’s relationship with his deceased family. While Peter Quill’s lineage is a big focal point, there’s time spent exploring how Rocket’s creation caused him some major trust issues, and it’s even explained where Yondu came from. As the team grapples with the conflicts and personal demons that threaten to tear them apart, their individual stories dominate the movie. That would be fine if each arc was a bit better balanced. But with each of these more isolated story threads comes with a new cast of supporting characters, and it’s in trying to flesh them out that Vol. 2 starts to get unwieldy. There’s Ayesha and the Sovereign, Taserface and his Ravagers, another new group of Ravagers, and of course Ego and Mantis. PomKlementieff is a standout as Mantis, but then so is Debicki as Ayesha, and Kurt Russell is as great as you’d hope as Star-Lord’s father. All these moving parts cause one to start to lose track of where the main thread of the story is as the movie gets very dense, and it’s problematic that major characters in the third act are absent for big chunks of the second act. The decision to keep those specific characters out of big chunks of the movie might have been to make certain elements of the plot be more of a surprise, but also could have occurred simply because there was trouble balancing the standalone storylines of a bunch of characters people already like. The best thing Vol. 2 has going for it is the love we already have for each team member.
Coming into this movie, you’re rooting for Peter to find the relationship he longs for with his dad, you’re livid when Ravagers bully Baby Groot and you’re tickled every time a joke doesn’t go over Drax’s head. The emotional growth Gamora and Nebula go through as sisters has real weight because we know what came before for them. Rocket’s struggle with allowing himself to find acceptance feels like a worthy follow-up to his tragic backstory. Even though the team chemistry isn’t there for parts of the movie, splitting everyone apart does allow each character’s arc room to grow and build off the foundation of the first movie. But Vol. 2 tries too hard to lean into what people loved and responded to in the first film. You thought Baby Groot was adorable in the post-credits of Guardians of the Galaxy? Here’s a dozen more over-the-top cute scenes with him. Thought Drax’s lack of self-awareness was great? Here’s him making a bunch of TMI toilet humor jokes. James Gunn plays into the strengths of his characters, but goes a bit too far with some of them; overusing certain gimmicks makes some of the moments lose their punch. Vol. 2 lacks a lot of the effortless charisma of the first go-around because it’s trying hard to meet and surpass lofty expectations. That being said, Guardians brings itself together in its third act. Yes, there’s yet another massive, almost-incomprehensible set-piece battle sequence that is now a staple of superhero movies (no last-minute dance-off challenge in this one), but this is one of the most emotional conclusions to a Marvel movie yet. Because these are characters we care about, there are real stakes here across a wide array of heroes. And after keeping everyone apart for a lot of the movie, their reunion and reaffirmed affection for one another feels earned by the end. Gunn addresses common criticisms about one-note villains and a lack of stakes in this film. He isn’t afraid to have this adventure cost his characters. And while the main villain’s ultimate plan is universal domination (isn’t it always?), the culmination and aftermath of that story feels like it’s something these characters could still be talking about and dealing with in movies to come, unlike Ronan and many other throwaway MCU baddies. It also shouldn’t be understated that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is as beautiful to look at as the first movie, with its bright, almost psychedelic aesthetic getting some more ’70s influences this time around. There are plenty of new planets, though it’s unfortunate that the more interesting ones don’t get explored much and the ones where people are stranded for a while aren’t especially interesting; Berhert is essentially a massive forest, while Ego’s planet is stunning but feels empty. (There’s an argument to be made that that’s the point, but more on that another day.) Similarly, Gunn makes Awesome Mix Vol. 2 impactful just like its predecessor, and it’s smart he versus shifting into more well-known pop music. All this is to say that while Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has a lot more problems in terms of pacing and storytelling than the first installment, it’s still very much a Guardians of the Galaxy movie. There’s no slavish need to tie this into every other movie in the franchise; in fact, this is probably one of the most standalone MCU movies in Phase 3. For all that it over-delivers on the things you love about Guardians of the Galaxy, they’re all still in there.
In any other movie, the problems with Vol. 2 might have made for a much less satisfying film-going experience. But it’s hard to complain about another adventure with characters you love, and in that way Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 fully delivers. The Verdict Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a fun go-around with characters we love to spend time with, but the second film is far denser and has a few more pacing and story problems than the first. Still, it’s a very good movie with one of the most emotionally impactful endings of any Marvel Cinematic Universe story yet. Vol. 2 does a great job developing its characters and growing them over the course of the story, and does its best to address frequent criticisms of MCU movies, including throwaway villains and a lack of true consequences.