Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opens in now familiar territory: our intrepid band of heroic space-goofs trade some quips, tease out some deeper emotional conflicts, and lay the smack on a cosmic slug to some super sounds of the 70s while Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) shakes what he’s got. It’s moments like these that made this franchise a smash, and Guardians 2 starts off playing the hits. The hijinks continue to roll along, and it looks like we’re set for a fun, if familiar ride. And then Guardians of Galaxy Vol. 2 zags somewhere new. Vol. 2 is a strange sequel in what was already a pretty daffy franchise. Rest assured, it’s packed to the rafters with the same humor and action of its predecessor, but it doubles down on the emotional core that made the the first film a standout in the Marvel Studios canon. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is somewhat smaller and slower, and certainly sadder than the first pass, but it makes for a satisfying trip.
The story picks up with the newly-minted family of space-faring weirdoes chafing in those family bonds. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is capital-A about family, and more specifically about fathers. The film shifts with the introduction of Kurt Russell as Ego, the human avatar for a sentient planet and Star-Lord’s (Christ Pratt) long-absent father. Armed with the same cocksure swagger of his 80s hits, Russell ushers the film away from large scale battles (though there are still plenty) and more towards deeply personal ones. That the film can pull off a second act that is largely a heated argument between the protagonist and his deadbeat father is a testament to the writing and to Pratt and Russell’s performance it. Were it not for the surrounding scenery looking like a Roger Dean album cover, it’s not a scene that one would expect in a blockbuster space opera.
While Star-Lord’s is the main thread in Vol. 2, it’s far from the only one the film pays due attention. In particular, it excels in taking the bit players of part 1 and bringing them to center stage. Karen Gillan’s villainous Nebula returns a more nuanced and sympathetic character with a score to settle with her sister Gamora (Zoe Saldana). What emerges is one of the films finer scenes, managing to both explore the lingering effects of childhood abuse and include a nod to the North By Northwest cropduster scene. Similarly, Michael Rooker steals the show as Yondu, paired off with Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot for much of the film’s run. Rooker gets some of the films best lines (though it might be a toss-up with Dave Bautista’s Drax), and his scenes with Rocket provide some of that classic Guardians of the Galaxy flavor as things get emotionally fraught elsewhere.
While the film makes gains in narrative ambition, it wobbles in pacing as a trade-off. The second act moves at a slower pace than many may prefer. Where the first film is a cosmic travelogue, Vol. 2 is relegated to a handful of locales. There are some complex emotions being discussed throughout (abuse, abandonment, loss) that make it a curiously affecting watch for older viewers, but mileage may vary for younger audiences during the movie’s weightier moments. That’s not to say Vol. 2 is a weighty drama, it’s easily one of the funniest movies out this year. But, as in the best comics, James Gunn takes the opportunity to use the outlandish sandbox of the Guardians world to tap into very real emotions. It’s undoubtedly a rote comparison at this point, but Vol. 2‘s slower pace, limited locales, and daddy issues a-plenty lend it somewhat the air of a certain other second installment in a sci-fi saga, but with funnier gags.
Marvel’s second installments tend to function as previews of coming attractions as much as they do as proper stories, so Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 feeling as self-contained and character focused as it is still feels like a bit of a shock. In its remoteness from the rest of the MCU’s proceedings, James Gunn has found a corner the blockbuster empire in which to weave some compellingly different stories. Vol. 2 provides a satisfying watch, just not maybe the one you’re expecting. Throw in an unexpectedly emotional ending and an excellent and sparingly portioned appearance from Sylvester Stallone, and it makes for a potential highlight in the Marvel canon.