Well, this had some big boots to fill. Guardians Vol. 1 (which I guess is what we're calling it now?) remains one of my all-time favourite films and (arguably) the best MCU film to date. A huge amount of what made it work, though, was that no one thought it could. You had a movie about a gun-slinging Racoon, a tree which can only say three words, two aliens, and Chris Pratt as a heroic lead. At the time (and even a little bit still today) that sounded bonkers... but it worked. It worked so very well.
As the MCU continues to go from strength-to-strength, can the oddballs from outer space stick a second landing? Yes, but it's a little wobbly. Let's get the biggest win out of the way first: this film is beautiful. I thought the first Guardians was a visual smörgasbord, but it has nothing on the sequel. Every new environment feels unique and real, both Ego's planet and the Sovereign culture are masterclasses in alien world-building, and that Ravager funeral!? Utterly stunning.
Acting is absolutely on point throughout as well, though Chris Pratt gets double props for hitting every emotional mark with style. In general, character development is nuanced and respectful, though there were a few bits which irked me. Whilst I like the duality of Yondu and Rocket's arcs, Rocket being this much of a dick feels a little undeserved. I get that time has elapsed since the end of the first film, but he's gone from roguishly sarcastic to emotionally destructive without any intermediate states, so it felt a little forced. I'm also not a fan of making Drax into a full-blown comedy sidekick. Bautista gives it a solid shot, but this new "whacky" Drax feels like a step backwards for a character that was fueled by anger and pain. He still gets some moments, such as his scenes alone with Mantis reminiscing about his daughter, but all these really achieve is making me wish he was given more range throughout the film.
There are also more than a few moments where the humour is pushed too far. The first movie played fast and loose with superhero satire, allowing its characters and plot to point out some of the more ridiculous elements of the genre, but they worked because they felt natural. Volume 2 occasionally ends up in the "this feels forced" or "that's unrealistic" camps. A lot of the scenes with the Ravagers fit this category. These are hardened mercenaries, feared by advanced military cultures like the Novacore. They do not all sleep in comedically childish bundles, spooning one another and sucking their thumbs. Nor would they respect a man named "Taserface" who looks like a discount Klingon. For a film that goes out of its way to flesh out the Ravager culture, it consistently undermines its own messages with slapstick moments, which is a real shame.
That said, I'm a huge fan of bringing Yondu and Kraglin back and both characters get some excellent arcs. That Michael Rooker is a brilliant actor surprises no one – though his work here is still exceptional – but I was equally impressed with Sean Gunn, who delivers some really moving moments throughout the film. It was equally a lot of fun to delve into the relationship between Nebula and Gamora, which was handled deftly.
In fact, I'd say all the main story beats were spot on. Kurt Russell is a great Ego and I really enjoyed the slow evolution of his character as we learn more and more about him. For a Marvel villain, he was surprisingly fleshed out and his plan, whilst mad, was clearly born from a mind that had gone insane from loneliness and made a kind of perverted sense as a result. It brought nice closure to the big questions posed from the first movie and centred it all around Peter Quill in a way which gave his character a lot of scope for development, without pushing everyone else too far away.
I'm not entirely sure about Mantis, though, it has to be said. I thought the character was done justice and I can't fault her from a writing or acting standpoint, but I just have this niggling feeling that you could cut her out of the film and it wouldn't really make a difference. She feels like a character which James Gunn just likes and wanted to include, but the reasons for that inclusion are never properly realised. Yes, she helps in the final battle, but really you could just have had Peter begin using his (short-lived) superpowers sooner.
Of course, we can't talk Guardians of the Galaxy without mentioning the soundtrack. I mean, it was such a huge part of the first movie's success that it even defines the sequel's title. So does Volume Two pull it off again? Eh... I'm not sure. It's still a great soundtrack, but it felt a little more "Greatest Hits" to me than film one did. Part of why that soundtrack worked is that it used a lot of songs which I'd never heard before, but which fit the specific story moments perfectly, either lyrical or from a pacing perspective. Even when it used big artists like Bowie, it was still less-popular tracks that were chosen. That felt more real somehow and it made the music part of the fabric of the film.
The sequel, by contrast, uses a lot of songs that are still hugely popular today. ELO's Mr Blue Sky, Fleetwood Mac's The Chain, Cat Steven's Father and Son. These songs almost feel too big and pulled me out of the story a little bit each time. The way in which the songs were used also felt a little forced. Film one so deftly wove the Walkman into the plot that every time a track started playing it felt right. They couldn't get away with that second time around, which means there are moments when it feels crowbarred into place. Heck, no matter how beautiful Yondu's attack on his mutinous crew is, and no matter how well the song choice works, it's all slightly marred by Rocket having to explicitly ask for one of Peter's old tapes. Why would he do that? The silly thing is that just moments before, Rocket is there bolting Yondu's new fin (which I love) into place. He could have just as easily pulled out a box from some cupboard whilst trying to find a tool, open it, and find a bunch of tapes; Yondu could then have explained he'd been meaning to give them to Peter when he came back to the Ravagers. Something like that would have been a nice character moment, would have neatly foreshadowed the (excellent) Zune reveal at the end, and provided a more natural route for that song to have played.
Oh yeah, and then there's that opening sequence. If the music was the big commercial win of film one, then Groot was the big emotional one, so it's no surprise that he was made a core part of the sequel. On the whole, I enjoyed angry, forgetful baby Groot, but there's something about that opening sequence which just felt too forced and too fan-service. It started the movie off on a sour note for me, though I admittedly can't quite pinpoint why.
Sour notes aside, however, I want to stress that I did love the film. There are moments (the face dilation during warp jumps; the intro; the slightly forced dialogue at times) which are problematic, showing that this is far from being as tight as the first movie, but there are more moments of heart, genius, or exceptionally executed action which more than make up for the pitfalls. I'm very glad we managed to get to see it before heading on holiday and I'll definitely be watching it many more times in the future. Bring on Volume Three!