'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2'

Guardians of the Galaxy was by far the most interesting and unique Marvel movie; at a time when a template of sorts was being finalized—Marvel: fun but cookie-cutter, DC: bad—James Gunn took characters we've never heard of and made us love them through clever dialogue and an engaging story. What a novel concept!

Justifiably, there were fears that Guardians Vol. 2 would be consumed by the Marvel machine and reduce its most enjoyable elements to rote pandering. And for the first 45 minutes, those fears appear to be justified. Luckily, it settles in to become another entertaining romp, along with proof that Marvel Studios still recognizes as least some value in standing out from the crowd.

The general formula remains the same: Peter "Star-Lord" Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (the voice of Bradley Cooper), and a now-baby Groot (apparently still the voice of Vin Diesel) have become an official team of famous hero-mercenaries. They're also trying to figure out exactly how to love each other, sometimes romantically (Quill and Gamora) and sometimes platonically (Rocket and everyone else). After Rocket does some bad stuff and people gets mad, they're spirited away by Ego (Kurt Russell) who turns out to be not only Quill's father but a god. As these things normally go, gods don't typically befriend mortals unless they have an ulterior motive, and the Guardians must put frustrations aside when Ego's is revealed.

In a curious move, those aforementioned first 45 minutes serve as a sort of GotG primer, implying that Marvel believed the hype outweighed the amount of people who'd seen the original. That's an odd assumption, considering the first Guardians made $773 million worldwide; regardless, we get a lot of "characters addressing each other by name and noting specific personality quirks" or "incessant reminders that Peter Quill likes tunes and the soundtrack will be good."

Fortunately, after that we settle into the good stuff. There's an excellent subplot between Rocket and Yondu (Michael Rooker) who has become a mercenary outcast after the reveal that he kidnapped children for Ego. The raccoon and the blue guy with a telepathically controlled arrow bond over being ornery pieces of shit, and officially join forces when Yondu finally opens up about Ego's dastardly plans. It's a wonderful idea to make Rooker such a key cog, and it unexpectedly provides the movie's most emotional moments. I'm not ashamed to say I teared up a tad, a rarity for a comic book movie.

There's been some consternation among critics about Vol. 2's cavalier attitude towards murder, and it's admittedly far more gruesome than other Marvel movies in regards to its heroes (and villains) killing people. It's also often done with a smile and a yacht rock song playing, which always raises an eyebrow even higher. I'll admit to wondering about halfway through, "It's curious that we're supposed to be very pleased about all of these deaths," but come on. I understand being annoyed when a blockbuster destroys an entire city as an afterthought; that sort of mass destruction shouldn't be deployed without a damn good reason. If we're telling a classic "good guys and bad guys" story, that should be the master plan or at least the last fucking straw.

But to get mad at the shiny irreverent movie about the wacky 2000s superhero team for standing out in its depiction of cartoonish slaughter feels like a major waste of time. I think people just aren't sure how to respond when a sometimes-cuddly narrative like this pushes boundaries; comic books themselves come in all shapes and sizes, but onscreen Marvel is Marvel and DC is DC. We're used to Captain America bashing people into unconsciousness with his shield, not death, and Thor's hammer somehow battering without shattering. And the massacre even sits well within the sketchier morals of characters like Yondu and Rocket; it just seems like nitpicking when we're surrounded by so much other incompetent shit in theaters these days.

With Gunn returning to the helm as writer-director, it's hard not to go into Guardians Vol. 2 with high expectations. And once you realize that Quill is stuck with a not-as-great-as-he-should-be Ego and Gamora will spend most of her time tussling with Nebula (Karen Gillan), it's fair to wonder if this second foray has spread the team too thin. But then Russell starts quoting "Brandy" by Looking Glass with utter sincerity, and Bautista recaptures his Drax brilliance in scenes with new friend Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and you realize you're in the right place. The novelty and surprise might not be there, but you can't recreate your first time. Gunn keeps his characters afloat and finds the fun again; that's more than enough for me.