We’re three films into phase three of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, and as it bloats and grows, it becomes more and more apparent that they have it under control. While our Earth Bound heroes turn on each other over decades of old secrets, people discover magic, street level vigilantes team up, and even more of Marvel’s creations, such as in their new Inhumans TV series, are now coming to the fore.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 kicks off as several Marvel films do, by de-aging old people, and showing us the 80s. This is a fun, enjoyable prologue that takes place somewhere before the tragic opening of the first. When we jump back into the “present” day, our Guardians of the Galaxy are already meddling their A-Team in space schtick by fighting a giant monster from a race of genetically perfect gold people, lead by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki). As the main four take on this dinosaur-squid mash up, we meet one of the three MVPs of the film, Baby Groot (the voice of Vin Diesel), who dances around the place to ELO’s Mr Blue Sky; it’s a perfectly well done sequence that shows they’re back, and they’re bigger.
James Gunn, like Whedon, The Russo’s and even Jon Favreau, comes at the sequel with confidence, throwing his flashy camera moves, edits and jokes at the screen like he’s a seasoned pro, even if he’s only on his fourth directorial feature. Pumped up with a sense of wonder and excitement, he shows why phase three is destined to change the face of the Marvel Comics Universe forever. While phase one was clearly centered on Avengers Assembled, an introduction to the world, and phase two was Avengers Diss-assembled as they went their separate ways, phase three appears to be Avengers drop acid, as the neon colours come out in full force. Our universe is changed, with Captain America retiring, and the group disbanded. But now, following Doctor Strange’s LSD laced mania, this film – along with the other two Marvel releases, appear to be taking the 80s nostalgia to a new level.
Much like the trailers for Thor: Ragnarok, this film appears to be one that Jim Henson should have made back in the day, with make up galore, and many characters are just lazy CGI creations. We have the returning crew of Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Baby Groot, Rocket Raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), as well as space pirate Yondu (Michael Rooker), and adoptive sister to Gomora, Nebula (Karen Gillan). Here, many of the returning players get a chance to play about with the dynamics of their roles, and they enjoy them fully. Baby Groot is a scene stealer, but the glimpse into the back story of Yondu and Nebula do enable us to care and understand their actions in the first films, and therefore it does what a proper sequel should do: expand the world.
The main theme of the film, however, is family. This will probably come as no surprise, as any film in the Marvel canon is about both blood family, and the family we forge together. The group are a bunch of misfits, mercenaries, contract killers, thugs, pirates and a talking tree, how can they live together? How can they trust one another? What becomes clear is that the film wants to pose the question: are they a better family together or apart? This is where the new people come in; despite at times feeling like Gunn is building to an uneasy cluster-mess with four plots going on at once, two conspiracies, six crisis of identities and four villains, the film actually manages to pull it all together.
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Kurt Russell is great as Ego, Quill’s celestial planet father who is a broad, bearded type who appears to be benevolent and loving, but also has a disregard for the other Guardians. Then there’s his adoptive daughter Mantis, who appears to live in fear of him, and echoes to some extent the character arc of Gamora. There are great action sequences with most characters, and touching moments too, but as the film goes through it’s mid-point having thrown all these aspects into a big melting pot, you spend your time wondering why we’ve been with Yondu, Rocket and Groot during a space mutiny lead by a joke-villain when he’s clearly not the big bad. The same goes with Ayesha, who’s race of gold supermodels isn’t that funny a joke, nor do their threats seem legit.
This is an 80s acid trip with songs, cameos and sound effects to make everything okay, from pac-man gags, arcade sound effects, weird scene transitions, a great playlist and a trip across space that appears to be riffing on Bugs Bunny cartoons. It’s a wild ride, but it also has heart. The sister relationship between adoptive girls Nebula and Gamora is to some extent a lady version of the Thor-Loki dynamic, but when it builds to it’s emotional climax the revelations and resolution feels like it belongs in the film, and the same goes with Rocket’s emotional arc.
But, really, the MVP characters here are Baby Groot, Mantis and Ego, all of whom are so compelling you could watch them for hours. It’d be easy to ruin the film by revealing the best gags and cameos, but we won’t. What we can reveal is this takes the Marvel Comics Universe to an even weirder place than Ant-Man or Doctor Strange, this time it’s neon colours with strange concepts that don’t slow to let you get a grasp. The minute one gag ends, an action scene begins, and so on. In the end, this and Thor: Ragnarok signal that when Avengers: Infinity War comes to town it’s going to be a trip we’ve never seen. Gunn pulls out all the stops, and even if you feel the films climax is a little bloated, a little long and a little messy, it’s so much fun, and such a thrill that it’s hard not to go “screw it” and strap in for the fireworks.
The first of Marvel Studios films this year signal that there is no sign they’re dropping the ball any time soon, and if anything are really hitting their stride.