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‘Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2’ Is Marvel At Its Best

gaurdians of the galaxy

Spoilers below.

2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a big risk for Marvel Studios. After all, the leads—a wisecracking space cowboy, a green-skinned assassin, a brawny alien thug, a talking tree, and a bullet-spraying raccoon—weren’t exactly household names. But in the capable hands of director James Gunn, “Guardians” ended up as one of the wildest, most rousing adventures in the entire franchise.

Obviously, that’s a high bar for any sequel to clear. Happily, though, “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2” delivers the goods on nearly every front, leaning heavily on character development while preserving its distinctive charm.

Picking up shortly after its predecessor, “Vol. 2” finds snarky Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), sword-wielding Gamora (Zoe Saldana), beefy Drax (Dave Bautista), and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) hunting an inter-dimensional monster for the gold-skinned alien Sovereigns. (After sacrificing himself for his companions in the last installment, Groot the talking tree has been reduced to a tiny, adorable sapling.) An attempted heist gone awry forces our heroes to flee the planet, with a horde of enraged Sovereigns in hot pursuit. Following an intense chase and a violent crash landing, the Guardians encounter a strange newcomer: Ego (Kurt Russell), the incarnate form of a “living planet” who claims to be Quill’s long-lost father. (Yes, it’s a bit of a deus ex machina plot twist. Let it slide.)

As it turns out, Ego’s actually an immortal Celestial, a “small-G god” with the power to manipulate matter and energy within a limited range. Quill, as his son, possesses the same gifts. But even near-omnipotence isn’t enough for Ego: the Living Planet needs “meaning” in his life, and Quill might just be the one to help him find it.

‘Guardians’ Is The Perfect Summer Blockbuster

If you liked the original film, “Vol. 2” is a total delight (if you didn’t like it, well, you’re an Ebenezer Scrooge). This flick is the consummate summer blockbuster, jammed with everything that makes it fun to go to the movies. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt my blood pumping during a climactic action scene, but “Vol. 2” really got me enthused.

One of the greatest strengths of the “Guardians” films is their commitment to a genuinely unique aesthetic vision. Gunn’s flicks are filled with eye-popping bursts of neon, psychedelic light—bright colors that reflect the film’s generally upbeat tone. It’s a wonderful change from the ugly, desaturated color palettes that’ve become far too ubiquitous (consider last year’s ill-fated “Batman v Superman,” which looked like it was shot through blue cellophane).

And just like before, Gunn resists the temptation to over-explain what’s happening. His worldbuilding doesn’t rely on endless information dumps, but on shot after shot of mesmerizing visuals. And as a result, what’s onscreen seems genuinely new and different, not a regurgitation of the same old sci-fi tropes. Even fleeing glimpses of this universe’s seamier side—for example, a club frequented by mercenaries and staffed by buxom robot waitresses—feel intriguing and multilayered, not tawdry.

‘Guardians’ Is About Quirky, Fun Protagonists

Best of all, the real zest of “Vol. 2” doesn’t come from its technical flair. This movie is driven first and foremost by its quirky stars, who all have plenty to do. Without giving too much away, everyone here grows as a character—including even some peripheral figures. Their engagement with their own flaws, and their deepening relationships with one another, help “Vol. 2” take wing.

But “Vol. 2” isn’t always breezy and fun. There are some seriously dark themes involved this time around. Consider the backstory of Gamora’s murderous sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), which we learn midway through the film. As it turns out, their cruel father Thanos—the archvillain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—pitted them against one another during childhood, forcing them to compete over and over again. And every time Nebula lost, Thanos would remove one of her body parts and replace it with a robotic equivalent. It’s a truly horrifying revelation, one that bites deeper and deeper upon reflection…and one that’s grimmer than almost anything explored in previous Marvel flicks.

That’s just the beginning: most of the characters who die in “Vol. 2” aren’t robots or faceless drones, but humans and humanoid aliens. Many die brutally. Accordingly, in seeking to juxtapose the film’s humor against moments of real sorrow, Gunn attempts to strike a nearly impossible balance—yet pulls it off in fine form. Somehow, this is a movie that captures both tragedy and comedy at the same time, and that’s truly remarkable.

The Sequel Doesn’t Quite Live Up To The Original

With that said, “Vol. 2” doesn’t quite outdo its predecessor. There are a few small elements I might nitpick about—a saggy second act that meanders a little, an argument about big philosophical ideas that goes largely underexplored, a soundtrack that doesn’t mesh with the plot quite as pristinely as the original’s, and so on. These are minor sins, though. Far more important is the fact that Gunn doesn’t waste time situating this adventure within the larger Marvel world, which is where films like “Age of Ultron” and “Thor: The Dark World” lost their way. Instead, Gunn’s focused on his own story, and that’s exactly the way it should be.

In a moviegoing season suffering from sequel fatigue, inexpert execution of grand concepts, and the politicization of everything under the sun, “Vol. 2” is a real breath of fresh air. It’s a Marvel movie that doesn’t feel like a Marvel movie, but something much less cluttered by the demands of a mega-franchise. In short, it’s fun.

Go see this movie.