As much as I hate to admit it, I’m starting to get fatigued from all the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Both of the movies that came out in 2016, “Captain America: Civil War,” and “Doctor Strange,” just didn’t have the same level of engagement for me, especially compared to the earlier “Phase Two” films like “Iron Man 3” and “Ant-Man.” Trailers for “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” had me worried that it would be more of this same sensation, retreading familiar narrative devices and easy humor for a fine, but less exciting film.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Just as the original “Guardians of the Galaxy” surprised me with its high-quality writing and directing from James Gunn, its sequel surprised me with how well Gunn keeps it up without being entirely redundant. Sure, there are some jokes that use simple, crowd-pleasing humor that repeats what the first movie had to say, but most of the writing is faithful to the core characters and expands their familial dynamic as the eponymous Guardians. Gunn explores that dynamic to flesh out deeper relationship and fresh humor.
The narrative is also much more complex than the its predecessor. Opening three months after the first film, “Guardian of the Galaxy Vol. 2” finds it heroes performing mercenary work for an extremely pretentious alien race known as the Sovereign. Naturally, Rocket’s abrasive attitude rubs them the wrong way, and the Guardians are quickly on the run from a new enemy.
Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Ego (Kurt Russell) shows up claiming to be Peter’s long-lost father, and Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) return with their own drama. There are a lot of moving pieces introduced early in the movie that I thought might get out of hand, but Gunn does a great job of managing individual threads until they can meet in the climax.
All of this praise isn’t to say that “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is a perfect movie, because it’s not by any means. There is still too much lazy humor, relying on the increasingly repetitive humor of Drax being a violent idiot and Baby Groot being cute; likewise, some of the characters aren’t as well written as others. Although Peter has probably the largest role in this film’s narrative, his time on screen feels limited to make room for all the other characters and threads. And while Rocket is consistently funny as both the joker and the butt of a joke, Gunn can’t quite nail the dichotomy of his character, trying to balance him between compassionate and ruthless but often falling overtly into one or the other.
Beyond the characters and the humor, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” shines because of its emotional depth that is, for the most part, not phoney. Peter and Ego’s relationship is great to watch, especially a moment where they literally play catch with a ball of cosmic energy. Gamora and Nebula also get their fair share of family counseling, but it comes off much more rushed for the sake of plot. Surprisingly, Yondu provided the film with its best emotional core — and one really poorly-timed “daddy” line that had me cracking up at what should have been an emotional moment.
Marvel films have tried at legitimate emotion before with varying success. “Civil War,” for all its missteps, kept the split between Tony Stark and Steve Rodgers simple, focusing on the former’s late parents and establishing a human emotional core inside the flashy superhero battles. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” benefits from that same decision, focusing on petty disputes and family drama to keep the film grounded, even as its characters are jumping through hyperspace.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” doesn’t reach the same action-packed, comedic heights of its predecessor, but it does something that’s new, for the most part. I’m not sure if it was enough to make me excited for yet another take on Spider-Man, but my interest in the MCU at large has been renewed — for now.