The Guardians of the Galaxy’s second run starts with one of the greatest opening sequences put on film. The Guardians are together to face off against a giant space monster, and it seems like we’re in for a thrilling action sequence to kick things off right. Instead, Baby Groot takes center stage, joyously dancing around the screen to Mr. Blue Sky while all of the action takes place in the background. You just can’t help but have a smile on your face right away. There’s really no other film franchise like this, and it felt good to see that the Guardians were back.
Director James Gunn took a hard left turn for Vol. 2. Where almost all sequels take the opportunity to up the stakes, making everything twice as big, Gunn goes a bit smaller, choosing to tell a more personal and in-depth story this time around. The fate of the galaxy is still on the line here, but it feels more theoretical, and the focus is on the characters and their past and current relationships. The first Guardians of the Galaxy was about a group of broken, abused people coming together for the chance to make a difference. This film is about the group learning to become a family, and how difficult that is for them when their initial families were their abusers.
Peter Quill finally meets his father, a living planet called Ego (subtle). Ego shows and gives Peter everything he’s ever wanted, from a simple game of father-son catch to unlocking Peter’s latent celestial powers. But Ego is also the one who put a tumor in Quill’s mother’s head, and when Peter doesn’t take too kindly to that, Ego straps him up to use him as a battery, a battery that will power his plans for galactic conquest. Not exactly father of the year.
Peter’s adoptive father, Yondu, has lead a life full of regrets. A victim of abuse himself (his parents sold him into slavery), Yondu raised Peter as his own, disobeying the orders that Ego gave him to turn Peter in to him. Yondu shows how the cycle of abuse works, terrorizing Peter throughout his whole life whilst also showing him how to survive and take care of himself. He does genuinely care deeply about the boy, but the trauma that his parents inflicted on him leave him with no healthy way to show his affection. While he does get his moment of redemption in the end, attempting to make up for his past mistakes, it doesn’t necessarily excuse the way he treated Peter growing up.
Yondu spends most of the film with Rocket, easily the best character of the Guardians franchise. Rocket is essentially just a lab experiment, his makers continuously tearing him apart and putting him back together. His lack of any sort of warmth and love throughout his life stops him from being open to the concept entirely; he constantly berates and antagonizes his only friends, keeping them at arm’s length even though he loves them and wants to be loved by them. He simply doesn’t think he’s capable of either.
Gamora and Nebula were both horribly abused by their father, Thanos, and forced to battle each other constantly. This grew resentment not just towards their father but to each other as well. Gamora would always win, never yielding, making life infinitely worse for her sister. While their attempts on each other’s lives eventually comes to an end in this film, culminating in an embrace and acknowledgement of their trauma, their situation is similar to Yondu and Peter. Their reconciliation can never completely make up for the mistakes and abuse of their past.
Marvel’s strongest element is attention to their characters, but no film goes quite as in-depth and personal as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. It’s strange to see such nuance and care given to themes of abuse, neglect, trauma, and how those things carry on into our adult lives, interwoven into a film that has dick and nipple jokes, but that’s just part of what makes the Guardians franchise so unique and special. The humor is as good as it was the first time, but sometimes it becomes exactly what critics of the MCU chastise the studio for: A sacrificing and undermining of true emotional moments for the sake of a joke. This only happens twice in the film for me (Ego turning into David Hasselhoff and Peter turning into Pac-Man) but it’s still enough to take me out of what I’m watching and frustrate me.
Guardians of the Galaxy’s vast array of colors and beautiful cinematography are on full display (Yondu and Rocket waltzing through the Ravager ship is one of the greatest scenes I’ve ever seen in a theater), and every element of the film turns it into a cinematic experience that is arguably superior to the first film in many ways. However, James Gunn’s biggest weakness is that he doesn’t seem to ever truly trust the audience to get his point. There are several scenes where he feels the need to spell it all out for us; what’s happening and how we should be feeling. It’s a bizarre instance of both showing and telling, as opposed to one or the other. We have already been shown all that we need to understand the scene and the characters, but we’re then unnecessarily, and blatantly, told everything as well.
The choice to go smaller rather than the bigger for the sequel to one of the most successful action franchises ever was a bold one. There’s no greater connection to the rest of MCU, no Infinity Stones, and Thanos is only mentioned by name. But the film may be the better for it. It’s the solidification of the Guardians as a family and the expansion of that family with Nebula, Yondu, and Mantis. In taking the time to dig deep into these characters, their lives, and their dreams, we end up feeling like a member of that family ourselves. The film ends on a shot of a raccoon, tears running down his face as he believes in the power of forgiveness, reconciliation, and the fact that he could be and is loved. There’s nothing quite like Guardians of the Galaxy, and the world is a better place because of it.