In 2014, Marvel released the first movie since the original Iron Man film which represented a real risk in their plans for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU); a comedy sci-fi romp starring the guy from Parks & Recreation in his first big-screen role; a former WWE World Heavyweight Champion, a talking tree, a talking raccoon and one seasoned sci-fi actor; helmed by a director whose biggest movie credit at that point was the irreverent superhero spoof SuperGuardians of the Galaxy was released to an audience who attended theatres with baited breath – but $773.3 million and a 91% Rotten Tomatoes score later; Marvel’s gamble has definitely proven to have been worth it.

We could discuss the factors that made Guardians a success all day (and if you ever find me out and about, please do); but that isn’t why we’re here.  The immediate effect of that success was the green-lighting of a sequel, named in accordance with the series’ musical theme as Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2.  As with all sequels, the fans of the MCU waited with baited breath once again – would the sequel meet the expectations created by the original?

Vol 2 sees the continuing adventures of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World); Gamora (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek: Into Darkness); Drax (Dave Bautista, Spectre); Rocket  Raccoon (Bradley Cooper, Joy) and Groot (Vin Diesel, Chronicles Of Riddick) as they travel the galaxy as heroes for hire, firmly operating in the grey area of the heroic spectrum.  After one such heroic endeavour turns sour, the team find themselves crash-landed on a remote planet after being saved by a pair of mysterious figures;  Mantis (Pom Klementieff, Old Boy) and Ego (Kurt Russell, The Hateful Eight), Peter’s long-lost father.  What follows is another wickedly funny sci-fi romp with a lot of heart, much like the first outing – except this time, James Gunn and the gang didn’t have to worry as much about setting up the personalities of the 5 central character; but instead could launch straight into their second ridiculous story.

The Guardians second outing brings back a lot of the wonderful factors which made the first film such an immediate hit; namely a wonderful sense of humour (that which permeates the entire MCU); a bright, colourful and engaging version of the universe, and a warm story full of peril, heart and joy.  All of these aspects are separate entities that contribute to the overall experience – but without all three, the story wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it did.  So, let’s look at all three, then.

Guardians Of The Galaxy stood out in the MCU due to its unashamed use of humour to drive its character development arcs forward.  While Marvel certainly haven’t shied away from jokes in any of their properties so far; it was Guardians that first loving embraced the necessity for levity to a greater extent, paving the way for similar tactics in Ant-Man (and, no doubt, something which we’ll be seeing in Spider-Man: Homecoming).  Quill, Gamora, Drax and the duo of Rocket and Groot were all strangers to each other at the beginning of the first instalment, which presents a problem when you’re trying to build a coherent team.  So (and spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the first film); they didn’t.  By leaving the team as a haphazard, ill-conceived band of thieves and murderers, who have a lot to learn about being real heroes – despite all the hero-ing that they’ve already done.

This is where we find the team at the beginning of Vol 2; continuing to help out planets and civilisations in need, for money… but not getting it quite right.  It is these misjudgments in their heroic endeavours that leads to them going on the run, chased out of one solar system by the forces of the Sovereigns at the command of their High Priestess, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki, Everest; who puts in a wonderful turn as the vengeful race’s leader).  However the thrill of the chase is not what brings these misfits together.  Rather, Gunn’s script builds on the thematic relevance of family and togetherness established in the first film, and the Guardians come closer together as they are forced to explore how their feelings for each other continue to manifest.  However; this is still the MCU and it’s still the Guardians; so for the most part this is done by each character ribbing each other relentlessly – especially Drax.  If you were shocked by Dave Bautista’s talent in the first film, get ready to be shocked again; as the big guy easily earns the Most Improved award for Vol 2.  Bautista builds beautifully on the straight-forward personality of the behemoth, accentuating his established inability to understand metaphors with a healthy lack of subtlety; leading to some difficult but hilarious interactions with all of his teammates.  His elevation as a comedic presence is enhanced by his riffs with Mantis; a character who can feel the emotions of others with just a touch; an ability which brings great amusement to Drax.  As the other characters explore their established relationships, Drax and Mantis are oft seen together at pivotal moments to break the tension, and are used very well to do so.

The concept of family is explored outside of the main core of the group as well, interlacing with the main story to develop the tale as well as the characters.  A large portion of this comes from the story of Quill and Ego; an estranged father and son meeting for the first time, and the revelations that Ego has about his history and about his mother.  Pratt embraces the emotional turmoil he has to display with both hands, adding a new depth to his character without losing any of the fun or joy that Star Lord represents.  His sense of childlike-wonder about his father is fuelled beautifully by Kurt Russell, and it should come as a surprise to no-one that he fills the role of Quill’s estranged, rock ‘n’ roll alien dad with much enthusiasm and aplomb.

Zoe Saldana gets her examination of family values too with the return of Nebula (Karen Gillan, The Circle), as she continues the quest to help her adoptive sister reform her ways and join the team in the fight for goodness in the galaxy, alongside the continuation of underlying tension between Gamora and Quill.  Saldana is a veteran at exploring intergalactic, interspecies and interpersonal relationships on screen from her roles Avatar and the rebooted Star Trek, and she uses that experience to continue building another set of compelling, on-screen relationships.  Her scenes with Gillan in particular are wonderful; in fact, every scene featuring Nebula is a highlight, as Gillan’s acerbic wit and ice-cold delivery is a scene stealer every time she makes an appearance, whether Gamora is around or not.

It would be remiss not to mention the joy of Groot in this review.  A huge hit from the first film, Baby Groot provides as much of the levity from the main story as Drax does; and is completely adorable while doing so.  The rest of the Guardians team have taken on almost parental roles over the young sapling in Vol. 2; a change from the dynamic of the first film which saw Groot as the largest and most powerful of all the Guardians.  His relationship with Rocket in particular sees a dramatic shift from the original outing; as Rocket now finds himself looking after the entity who was once essentially his bodyguard.  Bradley Cooper once again lends his voice to the psychotic rodent, and a barely recognisable Vin Diesel reprises his role as Groot; they fulfill their roles beautifully once again, and both characters are at their strongest when on screen together – though the relationship between Rocket and Quill is also explored more thoroughly in this outing and has matured in an interesting way.

Gunn’s design team enhances the experience with another huge variety of fascinating and beautifully intricate locations, costumes and weapons.  Despite being at the cutting edge of the MCU’s sci-fi world; everything the Gaurdians themselves make use of looks decidedly homemade and rather unreliable; which is thrown into stark contrast with the sleek and polished craft of the Sovereigns and Ego, for example.  Of course; the series’ reliance on great music as an emotional connection to Quill’s mother is used with great effect once again, and the Vol 2. mix-tape soundtrack is another delightful mix of classic tunes, including Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain and Sweet’s Fox On The Run, to name just a couple of great classics on a soundtrack that also includes an original, non-orchestral composition for the first time in the series.

All in all, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 is very much an enjoyable return to the series; with interesting new dynamics and relationships explored throughout, a number of fresh, interesting characters added to the series and some welcome returns from the first film.  The series is in good hands under the direction of James Gunn and, with Vol 3. already announced, looks to continue in that vein – though the next challenge for the Guardians will be to face off against Thanos, in next year’s The Avengers: Infinity War, which is shaping up to certainly be something worth looking forward too; especially considering The Mad Titan is a villain with whom they all have unfinished business with following the events of Vol 1

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2. is currently screening at Odeon, Showcase and Vue in Leicester; and opens at Phoenix Cinema on Friday, May 26th.

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