Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 doubles-down on everything that audiences loved about its predecessor, to still-entertaining but diminished returns.
Shortly after making a name for themselves in the year 2014, the Guardians of the Galaxy - Peter Jason Quill aka. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and now-Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) - are officially in the hero business and have become famous across countless planets for their galaxy-saving deeds. Old habits die hard, however, and so the Guardians find out during a mission in which they are hired by a genetically-engineered race of super-beings known as the Sovereigns, led by one Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), to protect their highly-valuable batteries in exchange for a recently-captured Nebula (Karen Gillan). One thing leads to another and the Guardians soon find themselves on the run from the Sovereigns, for some not-so-heroic behavior.
The Guardians are on the verge of being destroyed by the Sovereigns' drone fleet when, out of nowhere, they are rescued by a mysterious being who calls himself Ego (Kurt Russell)... and who claims to be Peter's long-lost father. Peter, Gamora and Drax in turn agree to accompany Ego and his associate, the empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff) to Ego's planet, while Rocket and Baby Groot remain behind to repair their heavily-damaged ship. Unfortunately for the Guardians, more trouble comes looking for them when the Sovereigns hire Peter's old boss Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his gang of Ravagers to hunt down and capture the "biggest a-holes in the galaxy."
Written and directed by James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a sequel that fills in story gaps and paints certain plot points/characters from Gunn's first Guardians movie in a different light, more than it progresses the franchise's overarching narrative forward. Vol. 2 similarly continues to expand the cosmic side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, putting the pieces into place for more exciting developments (and, of course, fan-favorite comic book characters) to come, without delivering an equally satisfying standalone MCU film, in the process. In these respects, the second Guardians film is a solid-if-standard MCU followup more along the lines of Avengers: Age of Ultron, rather than one that sets a new benchmark a la Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 doubles-down on everything that audiences loved about its predecessor, to still-entertaining but diminished returns.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 quickly re-establishes the now familiar, but still enjoyable dynamics between the core Guardians team members (Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot), before jumping right into the first big action sequence of the film. The banter between the Guardians and revisiting of jokes/gags from the first movie (for example, once again a character dances to an "Awesome Mix" song - this time from Vol. 2 - during the opening credits) isn't as fresh here and come off more as attempts to deliver what is now expected from the Guardians "brand", as opposed to offering something more inventive. This carries over to the majority of the movie's content, when it comes to the humor and interactions between characters: there's plenty in the way of fun spectacle and funny/touching moments to be had here, but the overt attempts to recapture the "lightning in a bottle" elements from the first Guardians movie, tend to fall flat.
On the other hand, from a directorial perspective, the experience that Gunn gained making Guardians of the Galaxy (his big-budget feature helming debut) serves him well here. This in turn gives him and his many artistic collaborators the confidence to assemble together multiple sequences and set pieces here that are more sophisticated in design than those from the original Guardians movie. Guardians 2 thus offers much in the way of delightfully psychedelic colors and clever visual comedy, as well as sharp cinematography that plays well in both 3D and IMAX (though of those two viewing formats, IMAX is the one that is recommended more for an enhanced theatergoing experience, in this case). The MCU's cosmos has never looked more gorgeous and felt more three-dimensional than it does during Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, using a nice blend of candy-colored practical sets and CGI to bring its intergalactic environments to life - not to mention, great makeup/prosthetics to create its various weird alien players.
The second Guardians of the Galaxy movie also leans heavily on the series' main characters and the actors behind them - all of whom are as charismatic and engaging as ever here - to keep its somewhat-disjointed narrative moving along. Whereas the original Guardians film has a tightly constructed three-act plot structure (one that was co-written by Nicole Perlman), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is more flimsy in design and doesn't weave its story threads together in the same tidy fashion (suggesting Perlman might have been more responsible for that element of the first Guardians than Gunn). Vol. 2 brings to mind Age of Ultron again in this sense, as both MCU movies examine their characters with greater depth and explore richer themes - in the case of Vol. 2, the dangers of hero worship and how personal trauma can blind people to the good things they have in their lives - but get tripped up a bit, in their efforts to juggle their MCU-building responsibilities while delivering "bigger and better" versions of their predecessors.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 focuses on resolving Star-Lord, Gamora and Nebula's respective lingering "daddy issues" from the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, setting the stage for them to enter more interesting character development territory in future MCU films. Yondu and Ego serve as flip sides of the coin in Peter's storyline here (both being father figures to Star-Lord), allowing for Yondu in particular to evolve into a more complicated character, and presenting an intriguing, personal journey for Vol. 2's male protagonist to undergo. Meanwhile, Gamora and Nebula's relationship gets proper onscreen development time and attention in Vol. 2, enriching both of "Thanos' daughters" in the process and providing the emotional foundation for the characters, which future MCU adventures can further build upon. As indicated before though, these elements work better in the context of weaving the larger MCU tapestry; less so taken on their own in the Guardians sequel.
Of the new character additions in Vol. 2, Pom Klementieff's charmingly awkward Mantis is the biggest standout. The Guardians of the Galaxy sequel banks heavily on Drax being a source of humor (which, thanks to Dave Bautista's performance, mostly works), though his best interactions are with Mantis, who makes for a welcome addition to the core Guardians ensemble here. Ego, however, only really leaves an impression thanks to his unique abilities and the performance from Kurt Russell - whose casting here makes sense in multiple respects - and less so, with respect to how the (literally) larger than life extraterrestrial is written. Similarly, Elizabeth Debicki as the self-serious Ayesha and the Sovereigns (antagonists who are played mostly for Looney Tunes-style comedic effect) are less interesting in terms of the role they have in the movie and more important, when it comes to setting up the MCU's future... for better or worse.
There are also many Marvel Easter Eggs crammed into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, ranging from important supporting players in the world of Marvel Comics and possibly in the MCU down the line (Sylvester Stallone's character being the most publicized example), to locations and aliens that only die-hard Marvel Comics fans will fully appreciate or even understand. Vol. 2 splits up the primary team of Guardians for most of its running time, in order to compensate for this and cover more story ground. The downside is, Rocket Raccoon and Baby Groot (who are both entertaining during their scenes here) go on journeys here that are somewhat-literally separate from their peers, making the movie as a whole feel less connected and missing some of the great cosmic superhero team dynamic that its predecessor was built around.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 provides all the non-stop comedy and zany cosmic action that audiences now expect from the Guardians film franchise, but winds up being more of a sturdy connective bridge to bigger adventures in the future than a great chapter in the larger MCU saga, on its own. The sequel leans more on its soundtrack and colorful imagery as part of its efforts to recapture the sincere heart and crackling energy of its predecessor, but comes up short all the same. Bearing that in mind: so long as moviegoers go in anticipating a Marvel Studios film that provides more time with their favorite characters, but serves more to fill the gap between Guardians #1 and the next major MCU event - namely, the Guardians' appearance in Avengers: Infinity War - rather than stand alone, then Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 should meet their expectations. And of course, don't leave until the end credits for the film are completely done rolling.