If you’ve seen “Guardians of the Galaxy,” you already know a lot about “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” — a lively comedic space opera filled with banter between humans and imaginative aliens, astonishing visual effects, and the most idiosyncratic set of characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (As a bonus, no distracting Iron Man cameos.) However, if you’ve seen “Guardians of the Galaxy,” you’ve also encountered a better version of this experience.
Still, Gunn doesn’t fall short of the potential; he excels at turning cheesy, technologically overwrought material into next-level spectacle. There’s so much to enjoy about the “Guardians” that one can easily relax into its formula. It’s often a thrill to simply roll with the lively classic rock soundtrack, smarmy banter, slapstick battle scenes, and a wooden alien named Groot, now more adorable than ever.
All of that takes center stage in the movie’s brilliant opening number, which finds Groot — a giant tree thing in the first movie who has resprouted as a cute child — dancing around to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while his adult peers battle a giant space monster in the background. Taking action for granted, “Guardians” foregrounds something far more endearing, and it’s a welcome relief from the onslaught of slick action mayhem found in other superhero movies. At its best, both “Guardians” movies unfold as pop-fantasia alternatives to the typical blockbuster tentpoles. Gunn throws a raucous party within familiar constraints.
This time, however, he can do away exposition. We’re right back where we left off, with our gang of quixotic superheroes. There’s human marauder Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), still pining for the affections of green badass Gamora (Zoe Saldana); knuckle-headed muscleman Drax (Dave Bautista), cracking up at awkward moments; while Rocket (an animated Bradley Cooper) continues to sneer and insult anyone in his general vicinity, flipping out whenever he’s called a raccoon.
Eventually, the pair find themselves marooned on a planet where they encounter Ego (Kurt Russell), a celestial being who claims to be Quill’s long-lost father — a revelation that complicates Quill’s relationship to his past. Meanwhile, the space raider who raised Quill after he was kidnapped from Earth, the blue-faced punk Yondu (Michael Rooker), pursues the Guardians for a bounty but winds up joining forces with them against a threat bigger than any of them could have anticipated.
Let the major plot spoilers end there, and they’re irrelevant anyway. The first “Guardians” worked because it created a next-level digital environment with colorful characters to match the visuals, and “Vol. 2” keeps them all in check. Karen Gillian surfaces again as Gamora’s feisty sister Nebula, a scowling assassin who struggles against her familial bonds. The pair face off in one dazzling scene of physical combat that works fine outside the movie’s plot (and seems to be the moment Gunn has mentioned when boasting about “Vol. 2” passing the Bechdel Test). Quill’s romantic chemistry with Gamora remains charming and subtle, while Rocket’s stormy personality and Drax’s crass remarks remain reliable sources of punchlines.
Still, “Vol. 2” is also weighed down by clunky attempts to tap into the original’s appeal. The banter often feels forced (the word “douchebag” can only be dropped so many times before it grows tedious) and the sentimental developments surrounding Quill’s discovery of his father are half-baked. Much of the material gets rehashed with slight variations (a recurring David Hasselhoff joke should probably go dormant for now) and many of the space battles have a redundant quality.
But when the music kicks in, “Vol 2.” snaps back to life. You could argue that Gunn overdoes the effect, but it’s still far more exciting to watch a shootout set to a funky beat rather than cacophonous sound effects. With the Guardians always eager to blast the stereo as they head into action, “Vol. 2” is basically the best mainstream American musical since “La La Land” (at least until “Baby Driver,” which uses a similar device, hits theaters). Those moments are complemented by the romantic vibes of Pratt and Saldana dancing to Sam Cooke, and a nice use of “My Sweet Lord” as the team arrives on Ego’s psychedelic planet. Drop the narrative altogether, and the whole thing might play as a 21st-century “Yellow Submarine.”
But the narrative keeps getting in the way. As “Guardians” careens into its second hour, the deja vu becomes increasingly annoying. Another major death, more bickering and one-liners, more desperate attempts to escape a giant burning thing before it burns everyone to bits. Yes, it’s still a whole lot better than the industry standard, but the “Vol. 2” formula doesn’t try hard enough to move in surprising directions.
Nevertheless, Gunn remains a wizard of a nearly impossible task. The ex-Troma director is ideally suited to transform what should be a hokey B-movie into one of Marvel’s most audacious ongoing storylines. He takes the material seriously, not literally, couching most scenes with a wink to the audience while rooting the drama in credible human challenges. Whenever the story takes over, it’s a notable distraction from the real reason we’re compelled to keep watching, so it’s concerning that the movie closes by hinting a whole lot of new characters. Fleeting scenes with Sylvester Stallone as classic Guardians comic book character Stakar suggests a welcome addition to the universe, but also the sense that this familiar playground could get a whole lot more crowded.
And it’s coming. With Gunn already announced as the director of a third volume, audiences may as well get comfortable with this Avengers alternative. Fortunately, Gunn seems to be building an autonomous world from the ground up, rather than attempting to stuff in a zillion other active superhero franchises to enhance the marketing synergy. The Guardians can keep themselves relatively safe as long as they stay away a very cluttered Earth.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” opens nationwide on May 5, 2017.