Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 review: small stories from a big universe

This comic-book sequel is an enjoyably nostalgic second excursion with lovable scruffs from the far reaches of the Marvel canon – but while the fun factor remains, the novelty is wearing thin.

from our forthcoming July 2017 issue

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (2017)

James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) was one of Marvel’s riskier film ventures. Its direct source was the 2006 comics makeover (mostly by Andy Lanning and Dan Abnett) of a grab-bag of spacefaring comics characters who had fallen into disuse. Spider-Man, the Hulk and Captain America were presold pop-culture icons well before they were incorporated into the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

The same can’t be said for Groot (a Stan Lee-Jack Kirby invader from 1960, rooted in 1950s monster comics), Rocket Raccoon (a Bill Mantlo-Keith Geffen joke animal tough guy from 1976 – originally ‘Rocky Raccoon’, named after the Beatles song) and Star-Lord (a ‘me’ generation adventurer Steve Englehart created in 1976). Cannily, Gunn played on the characters’ third-string status by presenting them as puffed-up sad-funny misfits who nevertheless save the galaxy on the pattern of many another set of squabbling, swashbuckling rogues who secretly have the right stuff (precedents range from Carry On Sergeant to The Dirty Dozen).

That the first Guardians did so well seems to have surprised its makers, but winning riffs on cheapjack 1980s artefacts such as The Last Starfighter and The Ice Pirates and Gunn’s way with snappy, snarky patter have earned the losers, whiners, foulups and neurotics a larger-scale sequel (its villain is literally a planet). The MCU has been filtering in elements of the cosmic trippiness that distinguished Marvel’s 1960s/70s heyday as much as the more down-to-earth soap opera – repeated set-ups for Jim Starlin’s Thanos/Infinity Stones saga, a glimpse of the infinitely small in Ant-Man, a trip to the Dark Dimension in Dr Strange. Here, Gunn ventures into a mind-expanded universe typified by the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby creation, Ego the Living Planet – played with genial menace by Kurt Russell (and, briefly, another 1980s stalwart in a creepy-funny cameo).

Comic book films, at least at Marvel, have gained confidence in the material (and skill with CGI) in the ten years since the tentative hash of Lee-Kirby’s Galactus in 4 Rise of the Silver Surfer. Gunn sometimes slows the relentless disco beat for a few seconds to offer images that are the equivalent of full-page Kirby or Steve Ditko reveals of awesome character concepts like the Celestials, the Watcher, Him or Eternity (all mentioned or glimpsed here – though more often as jokes, as with the Howard the Duck cameo, than as gosh-wow moments).

As with many comics series, there’s a sense that the centre can’t hold. With Peter and Gamora hung up on rote family issues with pat payoffs, former baddies added to the line-up as honorary guardians, a concentration on bigger/louder/more action and an insistent ogling of random alien sex workers, it comes perilously close to being The Fast and the Furious in Space.

It’s hard to resist a film so full of fun lines, witty mix-tape soundtrack selections (George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord over an introduction to the multicoloured ostensible nirvana of the planet Ego), engaging characters (Pom Klementieff’s naïve, antenna-sporting empath Mantis is a possible breakout – not least because she has to show feelings amid so many characters who mask their pain with schtick), inventive comic business (a remote-control armada piloted by gold-skinned superior aliens who act like sulky gamers when wiped out) and whooshing rockets. However, some running jokes (“I am Groot”) are running down, the held-over character interplay is on a repeat cycle (Peter likens his relationship with Gamora to Sam and Diane from Cheers) and the smallness of the story – it’s all about petty gripes, projected as a threat to the whole galaxy – hampers the unironic aspiration to infinite wonder, which powers the cosmic reaches of the Marvel universe.


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