A Guardians of the Galaxy sequel is Marvel’s greatest Catch-22. It’s impossible to not sequelize one of its most surprising box-office hits, a lesser comic book entity that turned into an audience favorite among the titanic Marvel canon. However, at the same time, adding a sequel automatically turns the film into a franchise, which normalizes the Guardians entity when a major part of the original film’s appeal was how abnormal it was in the scheme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even within the restraints of the broader Marvel narrative, the appeal of Guardians was that it felt like an injection of punk within the Top-40 sameness of the MCU. A sequel is inevitable…and yet it firmly entrenches this heroic team into the Marvel machine.
In light of that inherent conflict, writer-director James Gunn seems to have molded Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 as a sort-of bulwark against the negative effects of franchising, mounting a sequel that is more insular to the personal stories of his main characters, even while the fate of the universe still does, indeed, hang in the balance. While the implications are galactic, the stakes are firmly internal to such an extent that at times this Volume 2 almost feels like a Side Volume, a flashy stopover to fill in acute personal details before our heroes resume in their broader fight against Thanos. To be sure, there are introductions throughout the story that are clearly sprinkled as seedlings to blossom in future MCU films – after all, the Marvel Empire still maintains a certain degree of control. But unlike any other Marvel sequel – and really, unlike its own predecessor – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 feels like a standalone entry in a comic serial.
This particular issue could be titled “The Saga of Ego and Peter,” or something immensely better that communicates the same idea (I write movie reviews, not comic book titles). But this story is very squarely and acutely centered on the relationship between earth-and-space mutt Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and his father, a pure-bred galactic titan named Ego (Kurt Russell). Ego’s name makes a lot of sense, given the fact that he’s essentially an arrogant celestial adonis whose power is so all-consuming that he created his own planet…also named Ego, natch. Through reconnecting with his father, Peter discovers that he, too, possesses the celestial powers of creation, the kind of juice that could turn him into a legit superhero, as opposed to a crafty interplanetary outlaw.
That’s basically the gist of the whole film – son reconnects with father, son realizes new powers because of father, son must reconcile his new Guardians family with his actual familial origins. There’s plenty of shade and complications tossed in, buoyed by a menacing army of gold-tinted space raiders dubbed The Sovereign, who hire the Guardians’ old foil Yondu (Michael Rooker) to hunt them down after Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) steals some batteries from them. Literally, battery theft is a catalyst for this 136-minute father-son story, and somehow it all makes sense.
Tangential MCU connections notwithstanding, Gunn’s screenplay is tightly self-contained, the benefit of having a singular authorial voice with an independent spirit. In general terms, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 feels every bit as rewardingly oddball as its forebear simply by virtue of its avoidance of sequel pitfalls. Standard logic is that the sequel doubles down on everything audiences loved about the original. This film is sort guilty on that front, with Drax’s (Dave Bautista) irony-less misstatements popping up every other scene, Rocket’s cynical shtick on overdrive, and so much Baby Groot (apparently voiced by Vin Diesel on helium) that it would be offensive if it wasn’t so cute. Another standard conceit of mega-sequels, especially in the superhero realm, is that the scale of the conflict must be increased ten-fold. Not so here, even with a character whose capabilities are limitless, and with an escalating conflict that literally threatens the balance of the cosmos – naming convention aside, the galaxy is a secondary interest this time around, with the Guardians focusing on sustaining themselves both together and separately. The canvas is still vast, but the drama plays out amid this cast of colorful characters – which is, admittedly, ever-expanding, but nevertheless specific. As opposed to most franchise sequels, which become writ-large regurgitations of the originals, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 functions as a funky new riff.