I've made no secret that I love love love Guardians of the Galaxy. The film hit me at a very specific time in a very specific way and - aside from the fact that there'd been a dearth of quality space adventure films back in 2014 (got DANG does it feel good to have Star Wars back in the realm of "not terrible") - the film was a love letter to children who grew up in the 1980's and managed, in its own small way, to help me personally work through a major loss that year.
So, to say that writer/director James Gunn had a big jump to hurdle in a second entry would be an understatement. And while no one could hope to recapture the "Holy crap, is this actually happening?" surprise of the original (a similar "problem" faced by Age of Ultron) Gunn delivers a film that is packed with his signature style and humor, is 100% character-driven, and packs an emotional wallop that is unrivaled in the MCU.
It's a sophomore superhero film to rival Spider-Man 2.
Firstly, I'm rather astounded by how little of the film's central narrative the marketing for Guardians Vol. 2 has given away, so I'll do my best to respect the same goal. However, if you wanna go in completely cold, walk away now, go to the nearest theater, buy a ticket, and enjoy the film with the biggest crowd you can find.
For those of you still with us, we pick up shortly after the events of the first movie with the Guardians in full swing but not quite settled into their roles of surrogate family. The film opens with a sci-fi battle is not only as gonzo as anything we've seen in the genre, but sets up a lot of the awkward dynamics at play in the still coalescing team. After a successful job for an arrogant alien race, a spiteful snub from Rocket and Drax end up putting the Guardians on the run with Yondu's band of Ravager mercenaries on their tail. That would be enough inciting incident for most pulp sci-fi yarns, but the appearance of a man claiming to have intimate knowledge of and connection to Peter's past throws a real spanner into the works, and provides what proves to be the film's ultimate secret weapon.
The boring observation of genre fiction is "the second one is the darker one, like The Empire Strikes Back," and while I've grown tired of that generalization, it's a cliche for a reason. Empire took a step back from the ultimate galactic stakes of its predecessor, split up the characters to examine their individual foibles, and really dug into their arcs in a way that a film only can once its had a chance to play with some well-established dynamics. And while Vol. 2 is still as fun and funny as the first film, and it certainly doesn't try to steal the structure of Empire, I've never seen a movie so successfully emulate that film's emotional ethos in the genre.
What's astounding is that, where "Vol. 1" had a solid sense of ensemble development for the main Guardians, this film not only more deeply explores the core team, but also delves into a bunch of the side characters, both from the first movie as well as new arrivals, and folds their arcs neatly into that of the other characters and the movie's central thematic statement. Where the first movie was not only about the found family but also the subtext of rejecting the "one hero" in favor of a group of imperfect individuals accomplishing seemingly-impossible things, Gunn's second outing turns the subtext into text, providing a blistering indictment of the genre tradition of "super destiny magic blood" signifying someone as having worth or purpose. "Where you come from is not as important as what you do" may not be the most original message, even in comic book films, but Gunn sets it up, ties it into all the individual characters, and pulls the whole off with masterful aplomb.
Ultimately, the film ends up slightly shaggier than the first movie's lean and breathless 2 hours, but it only slows down to explore this marvelously dysfunctional family. And what's lost from the new-movie shine the first time around is more than made up for by a wealth of genuine heart and a finale that had me in tears.
Here's hoping these A-holes never break the chain.