GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2
** SPOILERS **
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an incandescent starburst of coloful joy candy, the gooey center of which is the heartwarming theme of family. Director James Gunn's deeply personal and idiosyncratic follow up to his 2014 smash that truly made the Marvel movies a cinematic universe, Vol. 2 brings big laughs, all the feels, and doubles down hard on everyone and everything audiences loved from the original film. Yet Vol. 2, packed to the gills with jokes, songs, heart, and good times, ends up with too much of those things while not enough of important other things.
As we careen across the Marvel multiverse with Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), we visit some far-flung and truly odd-ball places as the Guardians work out their various family issues. First and foremost is the issue of who is Peter Quill's father? A flashback to Missouri in 1980 reveals it to be Ego (Kurt Russell), an ancient and powerful Celestial. Ego is a god (small G) on a mission: to seed the inhabited worlds of the universe with himself. He hopes to spawn an offspring capable of wielding his Celestial powers while his seedlings grow to allow Ego to absorb all those planets into himself. In Star-Lord, who previously held an Infinity Stone in his hand without dying, Ego has found a son worthy of following in daddy's footsteps. Peter and Gamora, who's committed to not dealing with the unspoken sexual tension between them, don't trust Ego, but follow him anyway back to his planet - which is also Ego. Originally a giant brain floating in space, Ego became a planet, and then became a man, taking the form of Kurt Russell and later David Hasselhoff while still being a planet. It's weird.
Meanwhile, the Guardians are being hunted by the Sovereign, a golden race of perfect beings, whom Rocket promptly stole from after taking a job from them to fight a giant space monster. The Sovereign's high priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) soon turns to the Guardians' old nemesis the Ravagers, lead by Yondu (Michael Rooker) to kill the Guardians for her. Yondu has other ideas, and as long-held secrets as to why Yondu, who was hired to abduct Peter Quill as a boy, never delivered Peter to his father Ego are revealed, Rocket begins to commiserate with the tortured soul Yondu really is. More family issues: Nebula (Karen Gillan) is back, looking to murder her sister Gamora for a lifetime of abuse inflicted on her by their adoptive father, the Mad Titan Thanos. All of these belabored family dynamics come to a head in a series of heartfelt conflagrations where the characters gradually make peace with their long-held resentments and come to understandings with themselves and each other.
Vol. 2 is overflowing with 1980's TV and movie references and major laugh out loud moments where Gunn trades wholesale on the warmth and love audiences feel for the Guardians. It's also crammed with more of Gunn's favorite hits from the 1970's and 1980's; the previous Guardians soundtrack was so commercially successful (its style of blasting hits since shamelessly copied by other superhero movies like Suicide Squad) that Vol. 2 rocks out even longer and harder. What Vol. 2 is missing, however, is a powerful through line for its story. Much of Vol. 2 sees the various Guardians separated from each other and waiting around while information is gradually revealed to them before they come together for the slam-bang big fight finale in, on, and all around Ego the planet.
The biggest victim of this malaise is Drax, who literally has nothing to do for the entire movie except sit around, point, and laugh at his fellow Guardians while being brutally and hilariously honest and forthright with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Ego's antennaed, empathic servant. It's a testament to Dave Bautista's charisma that he repeatedly gleans the biggest laughs in the movie. A detractor might say the real Ego of this movie is James Gunn, who operates without limits and pushes Vol. 2 as far into excess and absurdity as it can go, but Gunn routinely pushes all the right buttons for sweetness and feels, even when a world literally ends around the Guardians. In the end, the Guardians of the Galaxy are more than an island of misfit toys jaunting through outer space; they're the family we wish he had when we have no one else. We are Groot and we love them.