Let’s get this out of the way first: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is no Vol. 1. That 2014 Marvel gem, released hot off the heels of the darker, conspiracy-fueled Captain America: The Winter Soldier, hit like a bolt of lightning. Dazzling, surprising, and best of all fun, it had a crowd-pleasing classic-rock soundtrack, a ragtag team of instantly lovable heroes, and a refreshing disregard for the MCU’s larger world-building machinations. It reveled in its weirdness and was all the better for it.
Vol. 2 is no less idiosyncratic, but it doesn’t feel as fresh. It clings to superficial markers of what made the first one fun (there’s still a great rock and soul soundtrack, rapid-fire banter, and a deep, abiding love of ’80s pop culture), but often to the point of exhaustion. The jokes come harder and faster, but more of them miss their mark—some by a lot. No one needed this much intel on Drax’s boners, really, or his “famously huge” poops.
The movie seems afraid to linger too long on its sadder, more human themes—along with the jokes, the feels get dialed up to eleven this time—lest it lose our smartphone-addled attention. It really didn’t need to fret. When Vol. 2 isn’t busy exploding into visual and aural spectacle, the unexpected story it tells about our swashbuckling heroes’ hidden traumas, flaws and insecurities is gripping enough. These misfits, after all, are the heart of this franchise. All the rest is just window dressing.
Like Vol. 1, Vol. 2 revolves around family, both biological and surrogate. Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) finally meets his long-lost father, a literal living planet named Ego (Kurt Russell, introduced via the uncanny valley as his CGI de-aged self in a ’70s-set flashback). Eager to overcompensate for the life he missed with Peter, Ego squeezes in life lessons and a game of catch before unveiling a sweeping proposal: that Peter leave his Guardians behind and live on his planet instead as a demigod.
Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Drax (Dave Bautista) meanwhile, weather their own emotional upheavals. Rocket grapples with insecurity over his abilities and role with the Guardians. Drax, still an uproarious source of deadpan literalism, reveals truly devastating details about his past, and finds a way to move forward. Gamora, meanwhile, is reunited with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan, cool and menacing), who reluctantly tags along as the Guardians’ captive.
Of these, Gamora and Nebula’s story is easily the most affecting. Raised as sisters by ultra-baddie Thanos (the guy in the chair), there are shades of real-world resonance in their history of being pitted against each other for his approval. Nebula resents Gamora for always “winning” the fights he forced them into—not only because it meant losing parts of her body and having them replaced with machinery, but because really, she “just wanted a sister.” It’s one of precious few instances of two women characters sharing meaty, emotional scenes together in either Guardians film—or hell, the entire MCU—and the difference it makes is palpable. (So, more of that please.)
Elsewhere, Yondu (Michael Rooker) stands out in rough-edged contrast to perfect god Ego, two competing father figures in Peter Quill’s life. Rooker reaches subtly tragic depths with the otherwise swaggering, wisecracking Yondu, which might surprise those unfamiliar with the Alabama native’s previous work. But even in his best-known role apart from Guardians—as the cruel, cutthroat Merle Dixon on The Walking Dead—Rooker routinely spoke volumes with just a crook of his jaw or glint of weariness in his eyes. Watch Merle’s death scene, in which Rooker near-silently imbues his character with more regret and vulnerability than the show’s writers bothered to over three seasons, and you get a glimpse of what makes him the perfect Yondu.
And then, my god, there’s baby Groot. That budding little “twig,” as Rocket calls him, is as painfully adorable as promised; honestly, even his vomit is somehow the cutest thing. This little one might have ended up feeling superfluous—he is, after all, a baby and not capable of much this time around—or worse, like a shoehorned-in advertisement for toys and merchandise. Instead, Vol. 2 makes him an indispensable source of sweetness and mischief. The other Guardians watch over him like protective parents, driving home the image of their surrogate family. This proves important because for about half the film, the Guardians stay split up.
Splitting the Guardians into two groups yields generally uneven results. For one thing, it invites too many villains to juggle and facilitates a few pacing issues. That crackling group chemistry that helped Vol. 1 feel oh-so-light also falls by the wayside temporarily. But it’s for a good cause: with fewer Guardians onscreen, things slow down long enough to dig deeper into each character’s psyche. Where Vol. 1 had ragtag misfits coming together as a family, Vol. 2 is a deconstruction of them as individuals.
There’s a new, gold-hued race of super-perfect beings called the Sovereign (led by Elizabeth Debicki as the priestess Ayesha) who want Rocket and the Guardians dead in revenge for, um, stolen batteries. The Sovereign employ the Ravagers (Yondu’s group of space pirates, now split into two warring factions—another tiring development) to hunt down the Guardians. While the Ravagers bicker, the Sovereign unleash their own remotely-piloted ships to do the job. (All this and I haven’t even mentioned the film’s real villain, a spoiler too big to drop here.)
Those ships’ control systems look and sound just like an arcade game, with distinctly Pac-Man-like sound effects. It’s a funny little quirk, as amusing as the Sovereign’s repeated childlike temper tantrums. The result, however, is that the Sovereign never actually feel threatening. Sure, the fate of the galaxy ends up at stake, a Dairy Queen is lost, and the requisite portal opens up in the sky spelling certain doom or whatever. But the stakes feel shallow. Nothing here approaches the thrill of watching Xandarian pilots link their ships together in a desperate last stand against Ronan’s fleet, for example.
That said, the movie looks incredible. Director James Gunn proves a master at humanizing stunning visuals with wacky, memorable details: the colorful bubbles floating above Ego’s planet; Rocket and Groot’s bulging, Looney Tunes-like eyes as they ping-pong through space; the sky-spanning Ravager salute that reminded me of the Lite-Brite I wanted as a kid. (I shed a tear.)
This sequel is a continuation, not a reinvention—and that’s fine. Fifteen films deep into the beloved but predictable MCU (see: portals of doom in the sky), a little weirdness still goes a long way. And Vol. 2 has quirk aplenty. While the Earth Avengers turn against each other and debate moral gray areas of superhero-ing, the Guardians are still marching to the beat of their own drum. Or dancing, actually. It’s still impossible not to groove along.