Troma boy made good James Gunn (SUPER) returns as director and this time sole credited writer to bring us GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, the continuing adventures of Marvel’s literally-colorful team of intergalactic reprobates. Gunn doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, he just coasts on the charm and humor of the world and characters he set up in the first one. But this time they hit the ground running, already a team, and Groot (Vin Diesel, FIND ME GUILTY) is a baby tree man instead of a giant one, so they only have one big enforcer guy instead of two, and they have to take turns babysitting.
Think about it: wouldn’t it be weird if in one of the FAST AND FURIOUS movies all the sudden Tyrese was a 2-year-old and they still had to take him with them on their missions? It’s a pretty different dynamic.
The team is still earth-born manchild Peter “Star Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt, WANTED), green warrior woman Gamora (Zoe Saldana, THE TERMINAL), wiseass mercenary raccoon Rocket (Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper, THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN), and literal-minded berserker-with-a-heart-of-gold Drax (Dave Bautista, WRONG SIDE OF TOWN, HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN, THE SCORPION KING 3: BATTLE FOR REDEMPTION, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS, RIDDICK, KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE). They fly around in a little space cruiser and battle with laser guns, swords, bombs and jumping and what not. This time they do a security job in exchange for Gamora’s evil cyborg sister Nebula (Karen Gillan, THE BIG SHORT), who becomes the dangerous-prisoner-who-maybe-they-should-free-as-an-ally character like Riddick, Napoleon Wilson or Desolation Williams.
One problem: Rocket stole some shit from The Sovereign, the kingdom of genetically engineered gold people that hired them, so now they’re being chased by an army of drones and the barbarian bounty hounters the Ravagers, including Quill’s space-stepdad-figure Yondu (Michael Rooker, UNDISPUTED, THE MARINE 2). But this adventure is primarily concerned with Quill meeting his biological father, Ego (Kurt Russell, THE THING), a cocky god-like being who is also a weird planet (?) where they come to stay for a while.
This will of course lead to some revelations and some fights and etc. But, even more than in the aforementioned FAST AND THE FURIOUS series, those sorts of things are a skeleton beneath the true meat of the movie, which is the time we get to spend with these characters, enjoying their friendship and bonding and teasing each other and what not. Even more than in the first one, Drax seems to get the most laughs, many of them from talking to Ego’s antennaed empath assistant Mantis (Pom Kementieff, OLDBOY remake). Neither of them understand social interaction, so he calls her a “gross bug lady” not meaning to insult her, and she timidly accepts it.
Movies are often accused of being “like a video game,” but this is one that brings to mind the psychedelic artistic interpretations of crude early game graphics painted on cartridge packaging and the sides of arcade machines. There’s also a pretty great Pac-Man reference, and the rigs where the Sovereign control the drone ships make classic arcade sound effects when they fire and when they “die.” In fact, between the gold Sovereign, green Gamora and bright blue Yondu (at one point shown strikingly with a glowing red cyber-mohawk), it’s the garish aesthetic of a glorious pinball machine.
I like this new fad of bright colors in movies. Keep it up.
Dancing continues to be an important theme. Drax assesses compatibility by categorizing people as dancers or non-dancers, and Gamora’s secret willingness to dance is a sign of her understanding of Quill. “Baby Groot” won the world’s heart by dancing on the end credits of Vol. 1, and I also interpreted that as a sign of Peter’s influence on the crew (just like this one’s detail that Rocket likes to listen to Peter’s tapes during their battles).
If you do the math, this takes place right after Volume 1. It starts with a 1980 flashback, then skips to 34 years later, confirming that it’s still 2014. That’s why Groot is still a born-again baby, and also why they’re happy enough to dance: they don’t know about Trump yet. Even if they kept tabs on earth, he would just be an ex game show host. Actually, Quill was abducted too early to have seen HOME ALONE 2, so he might not know who Trump is, unless he remembers his episode of The Jeffersons. (I haven’t seen it but he’s playing himself so I assume it’s about him settling a lawsuit over housing discrimination.)
So throughout the opening credits, still-a-baby Groot joyously expresses himself to music as the other Guardians struggle to slay a giant blob monster, mostly just out of focus in the background. (A favorite moment: when Groot waves at Gamora and she stops shooting to say “Hi.”) There are also some shots of other characters dancing during the end credits, floating inside frames that recall t-shirt iron-ons.
Quill and his mom’s musical tastes continue to drive the tone of the film – this is still the only space adventure you’d expect to hear E.L.O., Fleetwood Mac and Cheap Trick. Quill has a little soul, too, so he introduces Gamora to Sam Cooke and the end credits use “Flashlight” by Parliament. It’s weird to think that some kids will hear it here for the first time and always associate it with this movie, but it makes a certain kinda sense to pair the Guardians of the Galaxy with the funky afronauts of the Mothership, and an album about using a laser gun to force an uptight dude to dance.
The end credits have a musical treat in addition to the five different tags (which are mostly little gags, but one features two actors we regard highly around here, so I hope it’s setting up future movie happenings). Like DOCTOR STRANGE it has a playful retro version of its own theme song. In this case it’s called “Guardians Inferno” and it’s a Meco Monardo style disco version.
One of the genius moves of Vol. 1 was tying its ’70s rock soundtrack to its emotional core. The songs have a nostalgic power (“Hey, I remember this – hey, I like this now!”) but more importantly, since they’re from the “Awesome Mix” tape that Quill remembers his late mother by, they are his childhood, and her personality, and her gift to him, which he now shares with the Guardians crew. They are his heritage.
So music is our mother, but Volume 2 uses an additional technique of tying pop culture figures to our fathers. It’s a reoccurring gag that Quill growing up told other kids David Hasselhoff (NICK FURY: AGENT OF SHIELD) was his dad. He still speaks of him with reverence, and his stories of Knight Rider have been received as wise allegory by Gamora. This is all paid off in a glorious moment when Ego transforms into Michael Knight – full costume on a digitally de-aged Hasselhoff – as he discusses Peter’s ideal image of a father.
Gunn uses the same damn trick on the audience by casting Russell as Quill’s dad and, in a few scenes, Sylvester Stallone (CREED) as Stakar, who Yondu was mentored by and so desperately wants to win the approval of. On a meta level the sight of these actors instantly stokes our nostalgia and our instincts to seek male role models. They’ve long been our ideals of masculinity, the Tangos and Cashes we want to live up to. We want them to be proud of us too.
You gotta respect Gunn for making a gigantic summer tentpole that feels more like a breezy hangout comedy, and for giving the juiciest roles to ex-WWE DTV star Bautista and abrasive character actor Rooker. Honorable mention goes to Russell, who gets to unleash Jack Burton x Stuntman Mike levels of self regard, revisit his hunkiest age via CGI and transform into a giant floating head (among other things).
Since it’s a continuation of part 1, it doesn’t feel brand new. It’s more of a remix. But they got it just right, this blend of jokes and aliens and feelings.