Like any space-epic sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has boxes to check. That becomes evident from near the beginning of the much-awaited follow-up to Marvel’s 2014 joyride, when the film announces itself by placing an opening fight scene with a giant space squid almost entirely in the background of a super-cute tree thing grooving to “Mr. Blue Sky.” (When last we saw Baby Groot, he was shimmying to the Jackson 5.) All sequels repeat the best tricks of their predecessors, but director James Gunn’s choice of tricks is way more fun than most: recurring prosthetic-eyeball gags, slo-mo walks to cosmic ’70s anthems, lots of insult comedy from a gun-toting raccoon. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t merely derivative of the original, which was a better-than-capable space opera and an odd, manic, big-hearted tonic to our unceasing superhero moment. It would be better to say: Hell yes it’s derivative.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 knows why these obscure misfits fueled a hit three years ago, even if by virtue of that film’s success it is exactly the thing the first one subverted: a huge corporate comic-book movie. Three years later, Gunn (Slither, Super) has preserved the rib-poking, scowl-destroying, rainbow-hued verve of his first Guardians movie: His mercenaries banter faster than Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, and their action set pieces might be more thrilling than his, too. But at times he also takes a slower, sappier stroll through his corner of the Marvel Universe, getting to know his cast and what makes their crooked gears tick.
Following a soft rock–filtered prologue that takes a fairly intimate look into one of our protagonists’ pasts, the second Guardians film picks up a short time after the first, with the team of Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Rocket (the voice of Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (the extremely pitched-up voice of Vin Diesel) doing contract work for a race of snooty aliens called the Sovereign, whose gold-plated homeworld looks like a pinball machine in the Mar-a-Lago arcade. The crew is as functionally dysfunctional as ever, bickering and one-upping each other and plowing forward with boneheaded decisions—and still managing to take down that giant vampire squid. In one of the film’s countless jabs at genre clichés, the dense-but-game Drax allows the impenetrable monster to swallow him—only to find, dur, that he can’t cut his way out because its skin is just as tough on the inside.
This bumbling and squabbling among pals will eventually lead to the group splitting up for a large chunk of the film but not before they encounter Ego (Kurt Russell), a humanoid with the powers of a god who says he is Peter Quill’s father. Family, the kind that flawed people can build together when they have no one else, is the film’s theme—and not a shocking one for an ensemble movie with lots of explosions and one-liners (hello, Fast and Furious franchise). Gamora, a cool-as-ice assassin who we learn is a child of trauma, hunts down and then must come to terms with her even more damaged stepsister Nebula (Karen Gillan, back with more ’tude and screentime).
Because Groot sacrificed himself in the last film only to be reanimated as an infant twig, Rocket is now effectively fathering his former muscle—while with a constant stream of put-downs beginning to alienate his colleagues, who of course dish it back. (He doesn’t like being called a raccoon, so Peter calls him a “trash panda.”) Drax, still grieving for his family but mostly serving as the film’s straight man, has some humanizing moments with the glassy-eyed empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a new ally with a dire warning about Ego. And Peter must decide just how much he would embrace his lineage—and whether the blue-skinned space pirate he once rebelled against, Yondu (a fantastic Michael Rooker), might have been more of a father figure than he thought.
The film sends half the crew to Ego’s planet, a verdant utopia with a subterranean secret, and the rest into the hands of Yondu’s crew of ravagers, where there will be a mutiny, a prison escape, and a balletic sequence of carnage involving Yondu’s psychically controlled flying arrow (just go with it) set to the brassy oldie “Come a Little Bit Closer.” Gunn sometimes lays his character moments on a little thick, as when Yondu explains at paragraph length Rocket’s motivation to push his new friends away, even though viewers could easily have diagnosed the furry bristly guy themselves. But Gunn also has his little subversions, as when the villain of the film is revealed not through an act of evil but by a self-centered exegesis of the lyrics to “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” the 1972 song by Looking Glass.
When it’s not cooling its pace, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is moving faster than the back-and-forth in a Joss Whedon script. But its unthwartable tempo of quips, gags, cameos (Sly Stallone!), and loud noises rarely feels grating if only because of how loving it feels toward its characters and soundtrack, and how respectful it is toward the limits of its audience’s appetite for superheroic universe-building. Yes, as has become the custom with these movies, there are after-credit scenes, one of which does lay breadcrumbs for a future sequel. The other four (four!) are total put-ons.
Soon the shtick of juxtaposing traditional space adventure with ’70s and ’80s pop culture will likely grow tiresome. (Maybe around the time of the next Thor film, which seems like it might tap into a similar vein.) But here it still works, as when Peter, the only human on the team, uses a Sam-and-Diane analogy to describe his feelings for Gamora, who can only reply, “I don’t know what Cheers is.”
Eventually the Guardians will reunite for a planet-sized climax, but the most remarkable moments come at the end, in a bravura funeral sequence that is twice as long as I would’ve anticipated and which pays off most of the emotional notes the film has played until that point. It involves colorful space fireworks and is set, of course, to Cat Stevens. Hell yes it is.