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Friday, May 5, 2017

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol.2 (2017): Written and directed by James Gunn.  Starring: Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Kurt Russell, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone.  Running Time: 136 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            It’s May, which means another gravy train has pulled in to Marvel Station.  Out of all the active franchises currently running within the now sprawling Marvel CU, Guardians has consistently billed itself as being the strangest and most eclectic of them all, the wacky adventures of an ensemble cast of previously-unknown Marvel properties.  The first film was a box office and critical hit, setting itself apart as easily the funniest, most colorful, and most joyful comic book film out of….well, pretty much all of them, so far.  With that sort of surprise-hit magic behind it, it would be all too easy to imagine the sequel getting too big for its britches and being unable to match expectations. 

            Thankfully, James Gunn knows what he’s doing; Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is not only every bit as great as the first one, it might even be better.   It’s funny, it’s joyful, it’s over-the-top in every way I wanted it to be, and it’s so, so colorful.  Let the Wild Summer Blockbuster Rumpus begin!   

            After saving the galaxy from the boringness of Ronan the Accuser, the Guardians have taken to hiring themselves out to paying clients for various odd jobs.  When we find them, they are in the midst of protecting crucial energy plants belonging to a snobby, genetically-controlled race called the Sovereign.  This opening sets the whole tone for the entire movie- although everyone else is in the midst of a desperate battle against huge octopus-like behemoths, we don’t see much of it.  For most of it, the camera is focused squarely on Baby Groot (later proclaimed by one character to be “too cute to smash”), dancing joyously to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” around the edges of the fighting.  The message is clear; yeah, this is a tentpole studio action movie, but we’re here to laugh and feel good first and foremost, and if the expensive CGI laser shows have to take a back stage to that, so be it.   
            Said Sovereign soon being pursuing the Guardians with intent to destroy after learning that Rocket pocketed pieces of their machines on the way out.  This opens one of a few rifts between the characters that define the story.  Like with the main Avengers films, these are movies about the Importance of Family and Friendship, no matter how oddball your family may be.  Rocket has a habit of deliberately stealing from/offending everyone he meets and driving them away, Gamora has unresolved business with her foster sister Nebula over their mutual, tortured childhood under Thanos, and Drax (still my favorite character) continues to find ways to make already bizarre situations even more awkward for all involved. 

            To top all this off, Quill is thrown for a huge emotional loop when his absentee father appears, a seemingly supernatural being named Ego (played by a fantastic Kurt Russell), offering him the chance of a normal family relationship he never had.  Yondu and that wonderful arrow of his, head of a scrappy Ravagers crew, returns as well, and through his appearance in the plot we learn a lot more about the seemingly very intricate rules that govern Ravenger life.  The interactions between him and the other Ravager captains (including a surprise cameo by Sylvester Stallone) reminded me of the more interesting bits of world-building in the Pirates franchise. 

            All these different side stories, variations on themes of strained family dynamics, eventually combine in the grand finale on Ego’s home planet, an affair that, although once again featuring a threat to all existence, still finds ways to be far more interesting, unique, and funny than that of most other comic book fair.  This more than anything helps the movie rise above its competition, because repetitive sameness in most exploding climaxes has been one of the consistent bugbears of the superhero/comicbook franchise, with only a few really managing to stick out.  In this regard, both Guardians movies have been pleasingly successful. 

            The key here is that Guardians never loses its sense of fun, which, crucially, makes the few genuinely tragic or serious or hard scenes feel more unique and earned.  This is an ensemble show about characters broken in very real and relatable ways, but it’s raised to greatness by the perfection of its casting and the tightness of its writing.  I’m being deliberately vague about the major thrusts of the plot, because it has a lot of various “twists” that, while not unpredictable, are better appreciated in the moment.  For all the fun the movie has with itself, there are plenty of thought-provoking avenues it opens up for discussion afterwards, and I recommend seeing it cold. 

            Anyone who is tired of screens overflowing with CGI creations will not be converted by this one- so many scenes are bursting with special effects that this might be one of the biggest bendings of the line between live-action and animation since Avatar.  But I never minded, because all the outlandish visuals and garish colors felt of a piece.  This is a movie that yearns for exuberant excess in all forms.  Because this is exactly what I wanted, I was well-pleased, but anyone who doesn’t will likely not have as much fun as I did. 

            For my money, this and the Captain America franchises represent, for now, the best of this current wave of superhero films, and I am glad another entry is here.  Rock on Baby/Teenage Groot.  ‘Til next time. 

-Noah Franc 

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