GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 | ★★★½

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 | ★★★½

On its shiny surface, “Guardians of the Galaxy” succeeded because of its characters’ incessant knack for speaking in one-liners and spewing dirty-minded quips fast enough to make Tony Stark blush. You would never hear an Avenger or anyone back on Earth in this universe engage in verbal jousting like it, so it’s no surprise that the film became the big blockbuster event that it was back in 2014. However, the film’s true power derives from pure 80s-child wish fulfillment. If you gave a nine-year-old boy who had just seen “Star Wars” the money to make his own mainstream space fantasy, it would probably be something like James Gunn’s film. With this in mind, if “Vol. 1” was Gunn’s love letter to the era of cinema that inspired him and legions of fans across America, then “Vol. 2” is his love letter to the childhoods of those who lived through that same era. The novelty of the brand has indeed faded, but this is ultimately a smarter and sweeter film than its cherished predecessor.

Peter Quill / Star-Lord (Christ Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) are having a good ol’ time leaving up to their team name as they protect various corners of the galaxy. After completing a mission for the gold-skinned Sovereign race, led by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), in exchange for Gamora’s estranged sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), Rocket manages to steal from Ayesha, provoking her to send a fleet of ships after the Guardians to retrieve the stolen goods. Before long, the team is saved by Ego (Kurt Russell), a Celestial who reveals himself as Peter’s father. Ego takes Peter, Gamora and Drax to his own planet, where he begins to make amends with his son, while Rocket and Groot look after the imprisoned Nebula. As Peter learns about his heritage and the power within him, Rocket and Groot encounter Yondu (Michael Rooker), who is now excommunicated from his own group of Ravagers.

“Vol. 2” starts off exactly how you might expect it; lights flash, colors pop, lasers fly, and Baby Groot continues to dance to hits from the 80s. The opening is sure to give casual viewers enough bang for their buck, as the adorable little tree-dude blasts Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” as his friends battle an enormous tentacled beast. (Disney really should consider retiring the tentacled alien shtick for a while - just look at “The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One.”) And of course, the quippy mentality of the characters is back, and mightier than ever, though not entirely to its benefit. The first half of “Vol. 2” banks on the success of the original through an unstoppable barrage of sex and potty humor, some of which pushes the limits for what studios will allow in a PG-13 superhero flick. (This marks the first time an MCU flick has ever used the word “penis” in a sentence.) Some of the jokes do not land, others feel a bit out of place, but the ones that land do so with terrific aplomb. The film could have used a few more sight gags, which are frustratingly spare to make room for quips. The best of these gags comes when Rocket, Groot and Yondu make far too many jumps through space. I won’t spoil what happens to them in the process; just you wait and see.

This is not to say that all the jokes should be toned down. After all, they are extensions of the characters and their reactions to both each other and the enemies they face. Surprisingly enough, “Vol. 2” is at its best when it quiets down to give Quill and Co. room to breathe and develop. There’s a lot of down time spent on Ego’s Planet, but Gunn is sure to maintain a sense of momentum by cutting back and forth between the individual arcs of all the main players. Quill was more-or-less the centerpiece of “Vol. 1,” and though “Vol. 2” is still his film, Gunn fleshes out every character well enough that you might be distracted from the fact that there is very little action in the second act (which is not a complaint, mind you). The overall scope of the picture is both bigger and smaller than before, but since it becomes increasingly introspective as it goes on, “Vol. 2” feels more resplendent and rewarding than you might be ready for, something not every sequel achieves these days.

Through its baseline introductions to its characters, Gunn’s first film allowed viewers to project whatever emotion onto the ones they connected to the most. Kids today most definitely see themselves as Star-Lord they way kids back then saw themselves as Luke Skywalker or Han Solo. Here, Gunn turns his camera on those who see pieces of themselves in these characters, asking them to confront their own childhoods through the emotional unraveling of the Guardians as they deal with the greatest conflict of all: family drama. Those with absentee parents will connect with Quill even more as he finds what he has been searching for through the return of Ego (played with style by Russell). Sibling rivalry comes into play through the banter between Quinn and Rocket, as well as in Nebula’s quest to finally beat Gamora in physical combat and relinquish the pain inflicted upon her from constant defeat. There’s a fantastic scene between the two sisters that has echoes of the famous desert scene in “North By Northwest,” featuring Saldana and Gillan at their best in the entire film. The most heartwarming arc, however, is that of Yondu, whom Rooker plays with unexpected depth and sincerity this time around.

Gunn’s bittersweet intentions are undermined only by the requirement to satisfy general audiences with what worked before, and by a fairly choppy plot structure that fully embraces every 80s classic it can pay homage to without sacrificing its integrity. There is, however, just a bit too much of “The Empire Strikes Back” laced within that makes the plot feel more pastiched than it should (there’s a hint of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” at the end as well). Nevertheless, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is definitely a step up from what has come before, both thematically and visually (this is the best-looking film in the MCU to date - take that “Doctor Strange!”), hindered only by its need to capitalize on the success of the original.

(7/10)