Guardians of the Galaxy was a clattery rocket zipping around on a tank full of silly, self-aware, spacefaring fun. Hurling likable every-bro Chris Pratt into the midst of an alien super-team alongside a murderous raccoon and a talking tree, the movie was a grand but breezy respite from ever more leaden superhero blockbusters. With as much zest in the script as in the visual effects, its loving mockery—of superhero movies, of sci-fi tropes, of itself—was so well pitched that "more of the same" didn't sound like a bad deal.
That's what we get in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, where the plot is a little more cumbersome but the jokes have even more gusto, as the budding franchise settles into its role as the soulfully meta annex of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The cheekiness begins in the opening sequence. As a garishly expensive CGI-monster battle unfolds, the camera loses interest and zooms in on a tree-like being with a three-word vocabulary ("I am Groot!") as he pratfalls on the edge of the battlefield. Groot was regressed to a sapling at the end of the last movie, and he provides an unabashed squee-factor here—this adorable baby mascot bumbling through panoramic dangers, adding a microcosmic vantage to the movie's sweeping ones.
After changing from thieves to galaxy defenders in the first movie, the Guardians are established under the leadership of half-Earthling Peter Quill (Pratt), if not entirely reformed. Rocket, the raccoon-like creature, steals some batteries from a eugenically perfected, gold-skinned race called the Sovereign and all hell breaks loose. But the ensuing ruckus is spindled by a more intimate story.
We know from the first movie that Quill's dad was a spaceman who abandoned him and his Earth mom, but nothing more. When that suddenly changes, Quill is a little skeptical, as you might be if your long-lost dad showed up claiming to be a living planet called Ego who made himself a body to experience humanity. (That body is Kurt Russell, who can somehow still play young Kurt Russell in flashbacks.)
The astropolitical conflicts and factions that buffet our heroes through space are byzantine and remote, but the emotional stakes are clear and present. There's Quill's repressed romance with Gamora, a sort of reformed alien-kung fu assassin; Gamora's unbalanced rivalry with her insane cyborg sister, Nebula; and, of course, Quill's paternity problems.
Ego convinces Quill that their separation is the fault of Yondu, the space pirate who sort of enslaved and sort of raised him, and they start to bond. Father teaches son how to shape raw energy into a ball with his hands and they play catch. (Damn, and I thought it was cool when my dad taught me woodburning.) This was a missed opportunity to use Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle." The era and tone would be spot on, because the film reprises the device of scoring cosmic battles with an "Awesome Mix" heavy on minor seventies pop from Quill's childhood Walkman. Of course it does—the last one somehow caused a compilation including Rupert Holmes's "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)" to go platinum. In 2014.
What else? We roam over ravishing landscapes that blend Star Wars and Oz, sail around in a spaceship that looks like Ikea designed the inside of an egg, pirouette through skies filled with psychedelic astronomical events, and glut our 3-D glasses on lushly sparkling particle effects. The hulking, scarified Drax is a bit less of a straight man this time around, passing that role to Ego's assistant, an empath called Mantis, so Drax can deliver dialogue more along the lines of, "I have famously huge turds." Sly Stallone shows up to shout gravel in a few scenes, and you have to wonder how much they paid Hasselhoff for a split-second cameo that exists solely to call back a joke from the first film.
But that's the kind of enterprise Guardians Vol. 2 is, hitting all the big beats with an irreverent twist. Even the Sovereign's stately grandeur is played for laughs. Director James Gunn especially skewers the otiose somberness endemic to modern sci-fi in an understatedly hilarious scene involving an awkward march down a hand-cranked red (well, blue) carpet.
The Sovereign's leader, Ayesha, looks exactly like an Oscar statuette. That's probably not in the stars for anyone outside of technical categories here, as the movie is neither profound (siblings compete and reconcile, sons need father figures) nor subtle—need we think too hard about the Oedipal implications of a conflict taking place on a father called Ego's actual body?
No, but no matter. The humor is there, as is the emotion and the spirited wonder of comic books, so oddly rare in the self-serious superhero flicks they've unleashed.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Watch This Space."