James Gunn has done the double. Three years since the relatively obscure director turned bottom-tier Marvel universe characters into one of the biggest cinematic successes the superhero studio has ever seen, he’s repeated the trick with this funny, imaginative and surprisingly soulful second adventure through space.
The sort-of heroic Guardians are back with a new purpose – taking jobs from conceited golden aliens who have an unexpected love of arcade games – until an unwise move sees them thrown across the galaxy and left at their lowest ebb yet. Without a ship and at each other’s throats, they face surprising new challenges as old friends and foes return, while leader Peter/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) finally discovers the truth about his alien father Ego (Kurt Russell).
After setting up the team effectively in the last movie Gunn spends a lot of time here delving deeper into their psyche, and pretty much everyone has a satisfying emotional arc. Peter resolves his daddy issues and his apparent place in the universe, deadly assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) reconnects with stepsister Nebula (a scowly Karen Gillan), overly-literal Drax (Dave Bautista) makes a friend, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) overcomes his urge to push the people he cares about away and Groot…well, Groot (Vin Diesel) is mainly just a cute little tree man the whole time, but hey. He is VERY cute (at one point spared by enemies because he’s literally “too adorable to kill”).
In fact, said cuteness (Grootness?) is actually the basis for one of the film’s stand-out scenes, an opening number that sees the diminished hero (regrowing after his injuries in the first film) bopping away to ELO’s Mr Blue Sky while his teammates are being battered and thrown around by a terrifying space-creature in the background (with some visual callbacks to a similar Groot dance number at the end of the original movie).
Later action sequences are equally as imaginative, whether it’s sardonic racoon Rocket’s meticulously-planned traps for a crew of intruders, a battle at the core of a planet set to the strains of Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain (yes, the 80s soundtrack in this film is just as good as the last one’s) or foe-turned-friend Yondu’s (Michael Rooker) balletic dance of death with one mind-controlled arrow, wiping out an entire spaceship while leaving intricate scribbles of glowing red energy in his wake.
Overall, there’s more visual creativity in this film than in any of Marvel’s recent efforts (even including the mind-bending world of Doctor Strange), combined with a compelling story that contains some genuinely gasp-inducing twists, bucketloads of exciting cameos and an effective villain that becomes creepier the more time you spend with them.
And yes, in case you were wondering there are LOTS of extra scenes hidden after the credits (this is a superhero film, after all). There were five at my count, which might be a record, so as usual it’s wise to wait right up until the bum-numbing conclusion – especially if you’re a fan of the more obscure comic-book characters in the Marvel oeuvre.
Of course, not everything’s perfect. After bursting onto the scene so effectively the first time around its inevitable that characters and locations feel a little less fresh in this second take, while one or two of the jokes fall awkwardly flat and a few action sequences lack jeopardy (Nebula, Drax and Gamora in particular seem to be completely indestructible except when the story needs them vulnerable).
Pom Klementieff’s new team member Mantis is also a bit of a damp squib, admittedly contributing to a couple of decent jokes and helping in the final battle but mainly moping around Ego’s planet while talking in an irritating sing-song voice.
Still, despite these minor niggles the wonderful worldbuilding, strong character work and gag-packed script make Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 one of the Marvel Universe’s worthiest and most original sequels, building on the the original while not relying on repetition of its beats for success (epitomised by the first film’s best joke about Drax taking metaphors literally being jettisoned, presumably to avoid it becoming tired).
Oh, and don’t worry – against all odds, in its final moments the film finds a way to shoehorn in a whole new collection of tunes given to Peter to listen to, assuring that the already-confirmed sequel will continue these films’ record for soundtrack perfection. After all, to quote one of this Guardians’ biggest and best featured songs – “you would never break the chain.”
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is on ITV at 8.30pm on Saturday 28th December 2019