At the time, Marvel’s 2014 Guardians of the Galaxy was the biggest gamble the studio had ever taken. Not only that, but it was the most unlikely comic book movie ever made, all things considered. Smaller properties had been adapted (Hellboy for instance), but they were made on the cheap and were in and out of theaters without much drama or curiosity from average moviegoers. The first GOTG movie however was the next movie in a line of films that had been on a hit-making roll. And it wasn’t just supposed to be a throwaway film either; MCU mastermind Kevin Feige was riding on the movie to be the gateway to the next step in Marvel’s movie evolution: The so-called “cosmic” universe.

It should not have worked. The property was almost unheard of, even to comic book fans in general. The cast of characters is so outlandish you’d think it was a joke: A space cowboy, a wise-cracking raccoon, a giant anthropomorphized tree…it should not have worked. The movie was put in the hands of a little known director, with a comedy background, and was to be carried by “the chubby side character on a little watched NBC comedy” as well as “a pro wrestler with basically no feature film experience” not to mention the two biggest stars were Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, both confined to a voice-over work and the latter limited to only three words.

It should not have worked.

But it did, and it worked due to the fact that—underneath all the crazy—the movie never wavered from one fundamental thing needed to help an audience give its crazy concept a chance: It was supremely confident in itself. That’s evident from its wonderful debut trailer, which featured “Hooked on a Feeling” in a way that exuded swagger. That confidence carried over into the movie. It’s hard to really identify it, but you can feel it: The way the film is edited and scored, the way the soundtrack is incorporated. There’s a genuine sense that everyone involved really believed in the project despite how ridiculous it should have been.

The first GOTG was the perfect lightning in a bottle movie, like the original Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark or Back to the Future. It managed not only to successfully sell you on its concept and style, from basically scene-one (when Quill is dancing through the dead planet to the tune of “Come and Get Your Love”) but it sold it so well that, by the end of the picture, it had completely defined its own formula. It takes some franchises multiple movies before it really figures out what it is that works (which is why many sequels drop the ball harder than Matrix Reloaded), but GOTG knew what it was, and knew people would love it if they gave it a chance.

So what is the Guardians of the Galaxy formula?

Effortless humor, wall-to-wall fun, a big heart and a killer soundtrack.

That’s the recipe and audiences at it up in August of 2014. They ate it up so much, not only in theaters but also on home video, that the follow-up was given the coveted “first weekend of May” release date, previously occupied by the big hitters like Iron Man, Avengers, and the Captain America sequels.

The GOTG followup had pre-release talk wholly different from its predecessor. Whereas everyone in 2014 wondered if the original movie would “work,” fans today are wondering if the sequel would “work twice.” Now that it’s here does “Volume 2” live up to the first?

Yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily as great as the first.

WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW

Everything that made the original so great is still here in the follow-up, although nothing about it feels as fresh as it did in 2014. Is that really a fair criticism, though? Why should it be fresh; this is a sequel. Of course it’s going to feel the same as it did originally. And yet, fair or not, you can’t escape the feeling that you’ve “already heard that one before” and “already laughed at that shot before.” Fair or not, it brings the movie down a tiny bit.

And then there’s the run-time. The movie clocks in at almost two-and-a-half hours. As a result, the tempo of the movie runs at a steady moderato. The original was almost two-hours exactly and moved at an almost-constantly brisk pace. Things happen fast in movie one, but here the story takes its time. It strolls, not runs. Considering the story, that makes sense, but at one-hundred and forty minutes, you’ll find it a little easier to sink back into your seat and not sit on the edge as you did for the first one.

Speaking of the story, writer/director James Gunn may have continued the series’ formula of “humor, heart and a steady-stream of one-liners,” but he resisted the urge many directors take with their sequels, and chose not to go bigger to the point of excess. Instead he kept the focus on the performances instead of the set-pieces. Volume 2 puts its attention on character development. Quill, Rocket, Yondu and Nebula are all given well-developed character arcs and plenty of screen time to show their growth. By the time their arcs reach their climax, near the end of the film, there are moments when you might find yourself holding back tears (Cat Stevens was basically put on this planet by God to make grown men cry). By that metric, how can you not say the character arcs (and therefore the decision to slow things down and focus on the people not the action) worked?

The crux of the story is “family.” Peter Quill wants to find his dad. Nebula wants to kill hers (and her sister). Yondu is feeling isolated from his fellow space-criminals and misses Quill. Rocket is nearing his breaking point with everyone constantly mocking his Frankenstein-like history. As a result he butts heads with everyone and pushes everyone away, secretly scared to get close to anyone. Rocket and Yondu end up bonding in one of the movies more surprisingly effective (and unexpected) subplots . Nebula and Gamora come to terms with their past growing up at the feet of Thanos. Quill meets his maker, Ego, who reveals himself as a living, sentient planet that occasionally takes the form of Kurt Russell (penis and all, Drax confirms). Ego is a Celestial (essentially an all-powerful god-like entity that has existed for eons). He tells Quill the sad story of his falling in love with an earth girl and then sending Yondu to retrieve him after she died. Instead Yondu kept Quill for himself (“cause he was small and good for thievin”) and Ego searched for three decades to find him.

Naturally things are not as Hallmark Channel as they appear. Ego has a plan to spread his consciousness across countless other planets, consuming them into his own. Once the heroes wise up to his evil scheme, the fight is on and Quill ends up having to close the book on both parents. Ego’s plan is probably the only other noteworthy problem with the film. It’s a little thin, and a little too cliched. It would have been nicer if Ego wasn’t so “I’m evil and I know it” but instead let him be a bad guy who thought he was doing what was for the good of the galaxy or something. It seems that Gunn suspected he needed more punch to push his villain over the top so he had Ego confess to intentionally putting the tumor inside Quill’s mother. The moment was powerful and really gave Quill some drive in the back-half of the film, but ultimately it felt like a ploy to prop up a weak(er) character than it did an effectively powerful character-defining moment for the hero.

Those are three flaws: the feeling of familiarity, the slower pace than before, and the disappointing motivation and plans of the villain.  Those are enough cons to keep the movie from reaching the level of the first (which is in many people’s top three or four of the MCU), but the pros ensure that the film will still be remembered fondly for what it did on its own, as opposed to what its predecessor did by comparison. The jokes connect, the heartwarming moments are genuine, the feeling of carefree fun lasts from beginning to end. The pros vastly outweigh the cons and make for a movie that, while not a “perfect ten,” is still a “stellar-nine.”

RANDOM THOUGHTS

De-aging technology is the new it-thing in Hollywood, but it continues improving at a tremendous pace. Kurt Russell was brought back to his 1980’s look—complete with Escape from New York hairstyle—through a combination of practical makeup and digital touch-up. It’s essentially flawless.

I was so captivated by the opening credits sequence they could have printed the whole plot synopsis of Infinity War in place of the credits and I would never have noticed.

The film’s soundtrack is just as great as the first. It’s different, though, going for a different feel, but the songs are still used…not overused. Gunn incorporates them into the movie as punctuation marks to the action on the screen, instead of just being slapped on top of everything in a discombobulated way.

Stan Lee’s cameo here is not his funniest, nor will it probably go down as his most memorable, but for those who loved to theorize that Lee was actually playing the MCU’s version of “The Watcher,” this cameo is a real treat. The Watcher is one one of the all-seeing, all-knowing uber-beings that, well, see and know all in the Marvel Universe, which would explain Lee popping up in multiple time periods, in different personas, across the spectrum of movies. It’s a fun theory that isn’t necessarily confirmed here, but it is winked at, which is more than enough.

Baby Groot is every bit as adorable as the advertising hinted he would be, as every bit as marketable as Disney wanted him to be. There’s that late-movie scene where he started to be crushed by rocks around him and then he bursts into tears…it made me feel feelings as the parent of a toddler. And then when he was all tuckered out and fell asleep on Drax’ shoulder…I think I grew ovaries.

As mentioned, all of the character arcs were well done, but Rocket and Yondu’s arc will be something fans and viewers appreciate in years to come, when people look back on the movie more objectively.

Drax once again had little to do to service the plot, but you never notice because he’s such a fun character. He was at his best doing more subtle one-liners, as opposed to his louder “I’m oblivious to how obnoxious I am” bits. His work with Mantis was especially great.

Also discussions on Drax’ turd size brought the second-biggest laugh at my showing.

Yondu shouting “Hey Yall! I’m Mary Poppins!” was the “Blacklight/Jackson Pollock” show-stealing line of the night by a mile.

As someone who has called raccoons “trash pandas” for years now, Quill’s shot at Rocket had me in stitches.

I can’t get over how proudly these movies embrace the look of their comic origins. I grew up with comic book movies that were afraid to look like comic book movies, so it was a real pleasure to see Ego’s “planet with a face” pop up on the screen.

David Hasselhoff being name-dropped could easily been nothing more than a lesser version of the funny Footloose joke from the first movie. Instead they doubled-down and took the joke to a new level. It worked. That’s how you do a sequel joke.

There’s a scene where Yondu, Rocket and Groot are jumping through hyperspace (is that what it’s called in the MCU?) and they’re moving so fast their faces bug out like something out of a Scooby Doo cartoon. It’s bizarre but hilarious.

Along the same lines, Disney/Marvel needs to be praised for their willingness to embrace a dying aspect of movies: color. Too many movies are drab and grey, but this film (and the retro/80’s inspired Thor: Ragnarok) is vivid in colorful splendor. It’s a treat for the eyes. I wish WB/DC would get on board with color and leave the gloomy look behind.

The original GOTG ended with a post-credits scene featuring Howard the Duck. Some fans were angry but it’s clear that Gunn was spoofing the overly-serious nature of those so-called “stingers.” It’s the same reason he ended the first movie with a climactic “danceoff” between hero and villain. It’s all about reminding the audience that it’s okay to have fun and roll your eyes playfully. After years of years the complaints Gunn responded with not one, not two, not even three or four but a cheeky five mid and post credit scenes. And they’re all worth staying put for.

9/10 – Volume Two is Civil War the way Volume One was Winter Solider. It is not as strong as the first in some parts (pacing, freshness) but in other places it rises to be among Marvel’s best (character development, visuals, humor). It’s a worthy addition, not only to the MCU but to the already-great legacy of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise.

See it on the biggest and best screen you can.

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