The original Guardians movie came out of nowhere. As much as a $200 million movie ever could. I have been a Marvelite my whole life and I didn’t know these Guardians at all. Back in my day, they were led by a blue-skinned bloke with a fin on his head (yes, Yondu was very different in those days); so these characters were a complete blank sheet to me. The film’s biggest stars are only doing voice work and James Who? was hired as writer/director. The expectation was pretty-much zero, at least until the first trailer screened.
Y’know, this one ...
Y’know, this one ...
The film proved to be an unexpected unalloyed joy, unlike anything that Marvel had yet produced, and rightly made both Chris Pratt and director James Gunn into stars. But, here’s the thing, it’s not that difficult to exceed zero expectation. The level of expectation for the sequel, on the other hand, is ... Well, out of this world. (Sorry. I won’t do any more of those. Promise.)
It simply isn’t possible for the sequel of a film that successful, to feel as satisfying, because we will be comparing it in a way that we weren’t with the first one. That doesn’t matter, of course, because this film is now so anticipated that it will be review-proof. Even if it stank, it would still make a billion dollars. (It doesn’t stink. Don’t worry.) However, reaching to exceed this audience expectation is what, I believe, drives most sequelisers into making a second film which is the same as the first, only more-so.
I understand that there is a certain pleasure to be had in seeing several familiar routines being run through in new, amusing ways (as, for example, with the two-dozen times James Bond has been issued with new toys that will save his life). But that only gets you through the two hours you’re watching the film. The law of diminishing returns applies to well-tried tropes; they don’t live with you afterwards and don’t inspire you to revisit the film because, in a very real sense, you’ve already seen it more than once.
For me, a sequel is at its most alluring when it breaks its own mold and heads off in a different direction (provided it’s a good direction, obviously). This, I believe, is also the only way a sequel can exceed your expectations, by completely ignoring them and going off in a different direction all its own. This way, the film stands a chance of being as surprising as the first one was. Aliens (1986) is the obvious example. I’d also offer Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982) - both of which, incidentally, this film echoes. All three of those sequels were significantly different from the films which preceded them, and were all the better for it.
|"That's no Moon!" "Wrong film, Harrison. They hired Kurt, not you. Get over it."|
James Gunn is a very clever film-maker. He knows exactly what he’s doing and he knows what works. Therefore, Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2 isn't a radical departure from the first film, but it isn’t a slavish copy, either. It is, instead, more of a continuation. It has the same characters (sort of), the same tone, the same childish sense of humour, along with an even-more vivid colour palette, and an even bigger universe to play in.
The opening scene features the gang working as mercenaries for hire, fighting a huge Cthulhu-type tentacle monster, but seen from the point of view of the new(ish) character, Baby Groot, who is dancing to ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ and is totally oblivious to the pitched battle going on around him. This sequence features several call-backs to the first film. Which is great, ’cos it gets the fan-service out of the way early.
|Production art of the opening scene beastie. If it remind you of anything you might have seen in Gunn's horror debut 'Slither' (2006), I'd suggest that isn't accidental.|
This beastie vomits in Technicolor, and that’s an indication that this film is going to be even more colourful than the first one was. We get even more rainbow-coloured aliens; namely the gold-skinned Sovereign, a race of walking Oscar statues, who light one of this film’s various plot fuses.
Possibly by way of inviting comparison with Empire Strikes Back, Gunn has our heroes propelled into an asteroid field as soon as they leave the planet, but there’s no point in anyone quoting them the odds as these asteroids teleport in and out of the way, just to make things even more interesting. Besides, Quill and Rocket wouldn’t be listening, they’d be too busy bickering over who is the best pilot.
Drax, meanwhile, is experimenting with having a sense of humour. Oddly, I was finding myself resisting the film, until this scene featured Drax laughing hysterically, while a wide-eyed Groot sits and eats popcorn, during the mother of all space-battles. That was it, I was on board. It took about 15 minutes.
|Come on, then, Mr. The Destroyer. Show us your war face!|
It is to the film’s credit that Gunn takes the trust he has earned, and uses it to spend screen-time greatly developing the characters of Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), who was particularly poorly served by the first film (which must have been expecially vexing, since she committed totally to her big-screen big-break and shaved off her trademark red hair for the role).
We also meet Quill’s dad, who was referenced a few times in the first film and who, the pre-release publicity has been telling us for a year or more, is called Ego (played by the shy and retiring Kurt Russell). With a name like Ego, you might be forgiven for expecting the character to be a little self-obsessed, but he’s a charmer and a delight. Initially.
It’s just a delight to see Russell having fun on the big screen again, and actually quite poignant to see the digitally-de-aged version they give us for the flashback to 1980 (the year the real Russell was wearing an eye-patch and shooting Escape From New York).
|"You thought your prison escape was impressive. That was nothing, kid! Listen ..."|
When comic-book legend Jack Kirby created Ego, as a character in The Mighty Thor comic, he was visualised using a cutting-edge photo-montage technique. Gluing photos together, photocopying them and laying drawn artwork over that genuinely was cutting edge comic-book art in 1966. It also gives something of a 3D effect which, of course, will be an important ingredient in this film version - for those willing to pay extra to see the digital fireworks.
In the film, Ego’s planet is a visual feast, one more visually beholden to a Rodney Matthews or Bruce Pennington than directly to Jack Kirby. But the overall feel of the film, from the colours in space, to the psychedelic shapes and patterns we see throughout, are very much a response to Kirby’s visual experiments from the sixties.
The masterstroke in Gunn's script, is to split the team up. So Quill, Gamora and Drax go with Ego; while Rocket, Nebula and ickle Baby Groot stay behind, and get mixed up with Yondu’s gang. From here on in, the two stories run in parallel and, I must say, it reflects on Gunn’s confidence as a story-teller that neither of these plot-lines is in a hurry. Yes, Chris Pratt is the star, but everyone else gets a fair showing here, too. The film is a genuine ensemble piece. Gunn shares Joss Whedon's ability to juggle a huge number of characters and yet give them all room to grow. It's quite a trick.
Pappa Ego rattles off pages of exposition to Quill, about what it’s like being a Celestial, with the power to create life; while Drax strikes up a friendship with Ego’s assistant/slave/pet, Mantis (played by new recruit, Pom Klementieff), and Gamora is left with precious little to do, save fend off Quill’s persistently childish attempts to woo her.
|"I'm auditioning for the remake of Jaws. What's your next job, Basil Brush The Movie?"|
Meanwhile there is long (and I do mean really looooong) comedy sequence on Yondu's ship, featuring Rocket trying to explain to Groot how to break him out of jail. This sequence is delightful, deliciously funny, and adds literally nothing to the plot. But you don’t care because, if you have any heart, you’re just enjoying spending time with your CGI friends.
If the film has a theme, it’s about families and the way they are complicated. In the first film, Drax and Gamora begrudgingly admitted that the others were their friends. Now that relationship steps up and they consider each other family. But, of course, with Quill adjusting to meeting his long-lost dad, plus sisters Gamora and Nebula still dealing with their own daddy issues, and (at least in an off-camera sense) a substantially increased role for the director’s brother, Sean Gunn, as Yondu’s lieutenant Kraglin ... There’s a lot of family fun to be had.
The film glitters with other gems, too. Rocket gets to chew off some wonderful insults, and go full-Rambo on an entire army in a forest. Yondu has a wonderful moment showing what his little remote control arrow can really do. Sly Stallone has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo. Stan Lee’s there, of course. And there are more little in-jokes than you can point a no-prize at (far more, I’m sure, than I spotted in one viewing) plus a riot of audacious visuals and outrageous imagination throughout.
|"Strike a pose for the group shot, guys. Suck in those ... Damn, Karen, you is tall, girl!"|
The ending is very much as you’d expect, lots of bright colourful stuff flying around. Lots of noise. The inevitable count-down clock. Lots of CGI that will look mind-blowing on an IMAX screen and - surprisingly - a properly emotional coda. Yes, there are five end-credits scenes (one of which - involving a golden cocoon - got this old Marvelite genuinely excited for the upcoming Infinity War film), plus there are one-or-two other little surprises in the background images while the credits are rolling, so keep 'em peeled.
And I haven’t even mentioned your new favourite soundtrack album.
Gunn has confirmed that he will be back to round out the trilogy with Guardians vol 3. Which is very much as things should be. It’s Gunn’s Galaxy. He does things wonderfully there.
|Night-night, Baby Groot, see you next time. Night-night.|
Dir: James Gunn
Writer: James Gunn
Dur: 136 mins