James Gunn returns as writer-director for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 this week and from what Marvel Pictures head honcho Kevin Feige recently said, Gunn’s work on the sequel has earned him a place in the brains trust of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe); this is the core team who are responsible for building the ever-growing interconnected body of films which started with Iron Man in 2008 and now encompasses 15 films with 7 more to come by May 2019.
Gunn brought a new dimension to the MCU with the first GotG film in 2014; these characters were known only to Marvel fanboys and so, unencumbered by preconceived audience expectations, the studio was able to experiment with a different look (a brighter colour palette) and tone (a self-aware comedic sensibility, more violent, edgier language) compared to the previous Marvel films. And of course, there was the ‘Awesome Mixtape’ of 70’s tunes, a risky approach which paid dividends in spades and really brought some of the scenes alive.
In Vol. 2, Gunn builds on those successes with a bigger budget – using a fresh batch of music from the ‘Awesome Mixtape 2’, he goes for a more ambitious audio-visual experience (including a couple of intricately choreographed set-pieces) but most importantly, he continues with the character development, fleshing out some key characters, not just Peter Quill, but also Yondu, Nebula, Rocket Raccoon and introducing interesting new ones like Mantis and Ego.
Of course, all the 5 members of the GOTG team are appealing in their own way and we know that Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana as Star-Lord and Gamora respectively are effectively the romantic leads with the most screen time. But all credit to the director and to the visual effects teams for elevating the other 3 members (2 of whom are CGI) and ensuring they are more than just comic relief. Outstanding voice work by Bradley Cooper makes us forget that we are empathizing with a bunch of computer pixels arranged to look like a talking raccoon. Likewise, Dave Bautista as Drax, while mostly serving as comic relief, also provides one of the strongest emotional beats to the film in the scene where he sits on the steps of Ego’s palace with Mantis and reminisces about his daughter. And of course, Baby Groot is oh-so-cute in every single scene and has 3 significant set-pieces in the film – one is the opening title sequence, the second involves his attempts to steal a new ‘head fin’ for Yondu and the last has him trying to set off a powerful explosive device.
Beyond these 5, James Gunn manages to give sufficient space to develop the characters of both Yondu and Nebula who return with larger roles that fill out their back story.
Among the new characters, French actress Pom Klementieff makes quite an impact as the empath Mantis and rising Australian thesp Elizabeth Debicki chews up the scenery as the high priestess of the Sovereign race.
Visuals and songs perfectly matched
Complex battle scenes fought in three-dimensional space are the order of the day in scifi blockbusters these days. Although all the different moving parts in these battles can now be pre-visualized and choreographed using 3D computer models, it still takes a degree of skill to make the scene comprehensible and entertaining. In GotG Vol. 2, director James Gunn shows off this skill in abundance, not just in terms of visual imagination, but also in the juxtaposition of those visuals against a superb collection of 70’s songs. My favourite scenes are:-
- Battling the inter-dimensional beast/ title sequence – Mister Blue Sky by ELO: Accompanying what James Gunn describes as “the most hugely insane shot I’ve ever done” at the start of the film, the song powering the scene puts a smile on your face and gets your feet tapping.
- Arrival at Ego’s planet – My Sweet Lord by George Harrison: This song really showcases the power of Ego (Kurt Russell) and what he has created on his lush and gloriously beautiful planet.
- Yondu takes revenge – Come a Little Bit Closer by Jay and the Americans: Revenge is sweet, especially if it can be choreographed to music while the main characters walk through the mayhem in majestic slo-mo!
- Battle at Ego’s planet – Wham bam shang-a-lang by Sliver: Reminiscent of the way in which Beastie Boys’ Sabotage punctuated the attack on the USS Yorktown space station in Star Trek Beyond, this little known song is the perfect choice to herald the start of climactic battle scene.
- Ravager funeral – Father and Son by Cat Stevens: Given that the main theme of the story is father-son relationships, this funeral scene which takes place to the tune of Cat Stevens’ tear-jerker song forms the perfect coda for the film.
After the movie ends, stay back for not 1 or 2, but 5 mid-credits stingers.
I know critics are not giving this one as high ratings as the first movie, but it’s normal for critics to be disappointed and it’s so difficult to break new ground with a sequel and still give audiences the familiar elements they have come back for (yes, we know Empire Strikes Back is an exception). I’ll look forward to seeing these adorable “rogues with hearts of gold” in GotG Vol. 3 at some point of time in the future and as part of the larger Marvel ensemble in Avengers: Infinity War next summer.