When James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy hit theaters in August 2014, I thought, Well, that's it, Marvel, pack it up. It'll be hard to top this one. Two and a half years later, heading into the theater to screen its sequel a few weeks ago, I still thought the same. I should know, too - I had been plastered all over the critics' TV spots and the Blu-ray/DVD having declared the original GotG the "best Marvel movie ever."
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While I'm not sure #GuardiansoftheGalaxyVol2 can be crowned the new best Marvel movie ever - the MCU is now too vast and diverse to compare them all so easily - I'm happy to say it just might be better than its predecessor. It still has all the trademark wacky Gunn humor, but comes with even more heart.
If the first movie was about a boy and his mom, then its sequel is about a boy and his dad. And a girl and her sister. And a man and his past. And a--well, you get the picture. And a Baby Groot. It's definitely about a Baby Groot.
This time, it's not just #ChrisPratt's Peter Quill/Star-Lord whose story is explored. While his is still the central story around which the film pivots, the rest of the motley crew gets more than their fair share of character development, and it's a far more complete film for it. The first time, we were having so much fun watching the unexpected spectacle that #JamesGunn wrought to care much that we weren't getting more than a brief introduction to these characters; with that groundwork out of the way, it enables Gunn to take us on a richer, more complex emotional journey this time around.
I should probably take this moment to say that I will try to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but if you are of the sort that wants to go in with expectations as pure as untouched snow, I'd turn back now. Now that that's out of the way, let's get to it.
The film opens with a flashback to Peter's mother, Meredith Quill (#LauraHaddock), and the man we know from the trailers is his dad, as a much younger, digitally de-aged #KurtRussell. (By the way, Disney is getting very, very good at the whole digitally reversing the aging process trick - we've now seen it in at least three Marvel movies, a Star Wars movie, and soon to be a Pirates of the Caribbean movie). The two are clearly in love, but the scene takes a perplexing turn when he takes her into the forest and shows her some sort of alien, glowing plant that he's cultivated in the grown, telling her that soon, they'll bloom all over the universe and how beautiful it will be. Okay then.
Flash forward to present day. The Guardians have been tasked by an alien race known as the Sovereign to defend a platform of cosmic batteries from a giant space-Kraken. After a clever fight sequence-slash-opening credits-slash-introduction to Baby Groot (#VinDiesel) and the mischief he wreaks, the Guardians have collected their valuable reward, which turns out to be a captured and extremely pissed-off Nebula (#KarenGillan).
Unfortunately, due to some thieving by their misanthropic not-a-raccoon, the entire Sovereign fleet, led by Ayesha (#ElizabethDebicki), ends up chasing after them. After some cosmic interference which ends up saving their lives, if not their ship, the Milano crash-lands on a nearby planet. One thing leads to another and soon, Peter's dad, who turns out to be a guy named Ego, arrives and reveals who he is to his disbelieving son.
It's when they split up that the movie really takes off. Peter, Gamora (#ZoeSaldana) and Drax (#DaveBautista) go with Ego and his--servant? adopted daughter? helper? ...slave? We're not sure yet--Mantis (#PomKlementieff), back to Ego's home planet so Peter can learn about his past. Meanwhile, Rocket stays behind with Baby Groot to repair the Milano and a still pissed-off Nebula. Even Yondu (#MichaelRooker) gets in on the action here, along with his loyal second-in-command, Kraglin (#SeanGunn). Soon, however, the fragmented group realizes all is not as it seems on Ego's planet and it's up to them to save the galaxy--again.
This is the real strength of the film, the heart that beats within. It's not the eye-popping visuals, it's not the quirky weirdness, it's not even its rollicking humor that makes this film pulse and gives it life. It's the emotional journey we go on with these characters. Each one of them (save for Baby Groot, who steals every single scene he's in) is dark, damaged, fragmented. And in #GuardiansoftheGalaxy2, each character must confront the worst parts of themselves they hide deep inside, atone for grave mistakes they've made in the past. As I said above, it creates a movie that is perhaps one step less nonstop fun, but richer, deeper, and dare I say more surprising than anything we've gotten from the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet. And in case you were wondering, yes, it manages to avoid Marvel's villain problem. All due respect to Lee Pace's Ronan, but the sequel's villain is a much more fleshed-out role with a believable and poignant motivation.
The richness of the visuals complement the narrative tapestry that Gunn weaves--truly, this might be the most gorgeous movie #Marvel has ever put out, and I don't use the word "gorgeous" lightly. Before shooting started, Gunn made a point of revealing it was the first feature length film to shoot with Red's 8K Weapon cameras, and boy, Henry Braham deserves credit here as the director of photography, as do all the crew who worked on the post-production VFX. 'Cause this movie is a stunner, as colorful and vivid as anything you've ever seen on screen. Doctor Strange dazzled audiences' eyeballs last year; Guardians 2 will do more of the same.
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It's a complete cliche to say a movie has everything you could want, but, well...sometimes cliches work. Gunn has managed to pack everything into this movie: Belly laughs, warmth, heartbreak (you will cry), unexpected twists, and, yes, even dancing on the edge of romance. If there is one flaw in the film, it's toward the middle act of the movie, where perhaps a few too many of those heavy character moments are strung together and it slows things down a touch. But even that is a minor nitpick; while 10% of my critic's brain was noting, Mark down it drags a bit here, the other 90% was engrossed in the scene unfolding.
Is it a perfect movie? No. As I mentioned above, Gunn is trying to do a lot here; sometimes the pacing suffers for it. There are moments in transition between light and heavy where it falls momentarily flat. Comic book fans should love it, but general audiences might leave the theater slightly less in love with it than the original. But while not perfect, it really comes damn close. The weaknesses of the first are addressed in the second, and that, to me, makes it a stronger overall movie. The love and care with which Gunn and crew have crafted this film show through in every moment; the result is perhaps the most special film we've gotten from the Marvel universe yet.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is in theaters on May 5.