This is a bit late, given that I’ve now seen the movie twice (once with my wife, based on the fact that it’s one of the few comic book movies which she’ll willingly let me pay for her to see and the other with the rest of the #geeksquad), however it’s written with the benefit of perspective. I make no promises that it’ll be valuable.
I make no apologies that I fall down pretty squarely on the DC side of comic fandom. I desperately want the DCEU to succeed and, shout me down as much as you want, really like the Ultimate Edition of Batman V Superman due to the ideological conflict it sets up and the stakes of that conflict; one of my major complaints about the MCU is that the stakes are too low, and that there’s little real sense of peril. Guardians 2 handily fails and succeeds in that regard, however it is (yet) another quality addition to one of the most ambitious and consistent series of movies ever created.
You have to hand it to Marvel and to Kevin Feige, its mastermind. The media lawyer in me loves the MCU’s secret origin; Marvel leveraged what were (at the time) their second and third-string characters to raise money from Merrill Lynch and launch a franchise based around an uninsurable star fresh out of rehab. Those characters are now well and truly entrenched in the mainstream, and after a dozen or so films the MCU is really starting to stretch its legs and plumb all-new depths of geekery.
Which brings us to James Gunn’s latest. The first “Guardians” took a reboot of a 60s series from british writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, casting an underappreciated lead with charisma to spare and surrounding him with a dependable supporting cast (sound familiar?) in a genre-trashing mashup to extraordinary success. Regardless of the superlative quality of the movie itself, it succeeded above all else in proving that Marvel’s strategy of turning its individual franchises into themed stories with their own tone (Thor as sci-fi fantasy, Captain America as political thriller, Ant-Man as a heist caper) can launch pretty much any set of characters that they decide will best spawn a toy line.
So, which genre is “Guardians” staking a claim to as part of its four-quadrant domination of blockbuster film-making? If you watch the first movie in isolation, you’d be forgiven that it’s aimed at the Star Wars audience, but that probably doesn’t give it enough credit. Much like its sequel (I’m getting there…), underneath snarky dialogue, memorable characters and abundant spectacle, Guardians succeeds due to the fact that it packs a surprising emotional punch, largely around Peter Quill’s family history and the power of friendship. Where Fast & Furious drones on about “family” amidst the sheer lunacy of CARS FIGHTING SUBMARINES (!), Guardians’ emphasis on real and extended family helped audiences around the world really buy into the adventures of a pick-and-mix bag of obscure Marvel supporting characters and, by the way, its establishment of the Marvel Cosmic Universe, throwing in the Kree, Thanos and the Nova Corps (make that movie!!) for good measure. It’s no surprise that, helped along by an all new mixtape soundtrack which may be better than the original, the movie has found a huge audience.
And yet, on first viewing I was pretty conflicted by “Volume 2”. The majority of the elements that made the first such a success were all present and correct – soundtrack, witty rejoinders, huge CGI set-pieces and abundant comedy, but it felt….different. I wasn’t sure I liked the change and I wasn’t sure why. Marvel has a formula, and it works, but this sequel breaks its own set of rules – it’s lighter on story, heavier on character development, has a very different villain (nearly as good as Loki), kills a main character (who stays dead) and is, in many ways, a broad comedy more than sci-fi, following the arc of one character (but not at the expense of others; everyone gets a moment) and with an ending that brought a tear to more than one eye at The Printworks (in the same way as the end of “The Wrath Of Khan”).
On second viewing, I can happily tell you that the movie really works and succeeds far more often than it fails. The story’s paper-thin, some of the dialogue seems to try too hard to maintain a sense of banter, the secondary villain is a bit rubbish and I’d say it could be 15 minutes shorter, but these are all fairly petty criticisms. Chris Pratt is a bona fide movie star, and he’s even better here than he was first time around with the payoff of the parental issues set up in Vol.1 lasting the length of what is ultimately his vehicle. If you haven’t seen it, I don’t want to spoil how or why, but his relationship with his father is the spine of this movie and his interaction with Dear Old Dad is one of the real highlights of the entire MCU. I can only hope Marvel has Pratt locked into a 10-movie deal, because their bet on him will pay off for years to come.
The supporting cast is similarly awesome, notably Michael Rooker’s far more rounded take on Yondu and Pom Klementieff’s charming turn as Mantis, but I’m very pleasantly surprised to tell you that Dave Bautista of all people very nearly steals the movie away from Pratt and Kurt Russell. The former WWE Champion has really grown into his role, with a new sense of comic timing on show alongside some surprisingly well-judged dramatic moments. If Vol.3 introduces Moondragon (look her up) then we’ve got plenty to look forward to in a couple of years, alongside the possibility that Adam Warlock could finally make his MCU debut – hidden amongst one of the five post-credit scenes, he’s one of the best unused characters in Marvel’s roster and it’s a shame that he won’t follow his comic trajectory and get involved in “Infinity War”.
Like I say, this sequel is different – yes, there’s the traditional THREAT TO THE UNIVERSE to be conquered, but even that is a world away from Ronan the Accuser and the resolution of that threat involves the standard massive battle sequence and it feels surprisingly intimate. The action junkie who loved the idea of the clash between the Kree and Nova Corps in Volume 1 missed a larger-scale showdown, but that’s mainly because I want to see “Annihilation”, “Annihilation: Conquest” or “Thanos Imperative” adapted next, which is no small challenge. If formula is the enemy, then James Gunn’s more human script is the answer, even if you don’t expect it.
The real success of Volume 2, however, is to finish the work done in Volume 1 by fleshing out the characters we now know and love and set them up for the next chapter of their story. It make take half a narrative step back to get there, but I fully expect we’ll be so invested in their futures by the time Volume 3 is released that the payoff there will be even more spectacular. It may not seem it, but Volume 2 may actually be a story of restraint over spectacle and family over cosmic conflict. I have a feeling that it’ll only improve with age, but if Van Halen don’t appear on the soundtrack of a volume 3 which sees the Guardians duke it out with the Phalanx or Annihilation Wave, I reserve the right to throw a teenage Groot-inspired strop.