When word first came about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I was ecstatic but also a tad apprehensive. After all, Phase Three was shaping up around the collapse of the Avengers in the wake of Captain America Civil War, and, with the threat of the Infinity Stones looming, how could our intrepid Guardians fit into the building narrative. The answer, at the time, was a bit surprising – they wouldn’t. In fact, Vol. 2 took place entirely in 2014, only a handful of months after their initial get-together in Vol. 1. It was an interesting choice at the time, but when Black Panther came out and did the same thing, setting its storyline mere days (or at best weeks) after Civil War, a theme began to merge which continued on with Captain Marvel being set in the 90s. My initial concerns were waived because this would address one of my biggest qualms with the MCU. The evolution of the characters’ relationships could be further developed on screen. There would be no handwaving in a rushed romantic relationship between Zoe Saldana’s Gamora and Chris Pratt’s Peter between films.
James Gunn, renowned director of Scooby-Doo, does it again. Opening up with the Guardians, known for saving the Galaxy from Ronan the Accuser in their previous adventure a handful of months ago, are aiding the planet where the Sovereign live. They have been tasked with retrieving powerful batteries in danger of being destroyed by an Abilisk, and, in truly hilarious fashion, they end up beating it while Drax (Dave Bautista) is in its gullet. Why are they doing this? Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora’s sister, was caught trying to steal the same batteries, and they are trading them for her.
We are introduced to Ayesha, the leader of the Sovereign people, played in gold by Elizabeth Debicki, who thanks them for their efforts and then sends them on their way – only to realize that Rocket the Racoon (Bradley Cooper) and, by extension the other Guardians, have stolen the batteries in the process. Considering it a betrayal, she sends her armies after them in their virtual remote-controlled ships. And while this is a difficult situation, it is resolved relatively quickly when a mysterious figure surfing in space appears and saves them from the drone army, though their ship is damaged, and they end up crash landing on a nearby planet. This is where things get truly interesting, as their savior reveals himself to be Ego (played by Kurt Russell in near over-the-top fashion, his son, Wyatt Russell, would later join the franchise in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier as John Walker, AKA U.S. Agent) – or, more importantly, Peter’s father whom Yondu (Michael Rooker) had been tasked with retrieving him for. The plot thickens.
While Elizabeth Debicki’s role in the film is a supporting one, she nonetheless eats up every second of screen time she is given. From her introduction to her final frame, she is not one to be trifled with. It simply wasn’t Ayesha’s fault that a Celestial decided to take center stage as the villain on this adventure. The Sovereign provide a continuous threat, though, with the bounty placed on their head (for Rocket’s theft of the battery), they interrupt critical moments of the storyline in the worst possible way for the Guardians. But that is an antagonist’s role, and it is clear that while Ego fills the role of villain, Ayesha and the Sovereign fill the role of antagonist. Their actions provide room for growth for Rocket, Yondu, Nebula, and Gamora – and while it’s possible they would have reached their respective conclusions on their own, the Sovereign certainly helped speed things along.
The Ravagers have a much larger presence this time, and more of their members are given increased character development. Sean Gunn especially benefits, as while he is the one to raise the initial objections about their group not turning over Quill (leading to the mutiny by Taserface, played by Chris Sullivan), he realizes his error and seeks to rectify it. More of its organization is also introduced and expanded on, including a colorful extended cameo by Sylvester Stallone as Stakar Ogord, who has held a grudge against Yondu for some time, now because of Yondu’s work for Ego. Michael Rosenbaum has a minor role, and although his character is completely CGI, I would recognize the voice of Lex Luthor anywhere.
What powers The Guardians of the Galaxy is the theme of redemption, and at what point it is no longer possible is a topic discussed throughout the film. What makes somebody worthy of forgiveness? Can somebody ever truly redeem themselves? Phase Three felt like it was bathed in redemption arcs for some characters, while others had to fall into the category of villain. Where Nebula and Mantis begin the film as, ostensibly, antagonistic characters, their story arc leads them down a very different path than somebody like Ego or Ayesha. Yondu has been trying to make up for his misdeeds for the majority of his screen time. Whether that was readily apparent is up to the viewer to decide. For the most part, those who can view their actions objectively and identify the harm they have caused while also being willing to make amends for that harm find the path of redemption fruitful.
Even though the plot hinges on Rocket Racoon’s rampant kleptomania, he has his own moral compass that he falls back on, and who he is as a person is central to his storyline, especially as he comes to grips with that reality. Gamora’s relationship with Nebula, and vice versa, continues to weave together the theme of family and whether or not it is owed anything simply because it happens to exist. Peter Quill’s own familial relationship, however, is the true central plotline for the film, as the Celestial has looked long and hard, far and wide for somebody upon whom he can use to assimilate all life in the universe. At this point, which villain doesn’t have universal designs?
Despite Ego’s plans, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is far lighter than many of its Phase Three compatriots, featuring far more comedic elements than Civil War, Black Panther, and especially Infinity War or Endgame. The time it takes to let its characters breathe is also incredibly appreciated, showing that even the quieter, more character-driven moments can be just as impactful as the colorful battles. Yondu and Rocket’s conversation – after the former captured the latter, then had his crew mutiny against him with the aid of Nebula – allows Rocket to finally identify some of his flaws and grow as a person. These comedic moments are also punctuated with dramatic effects, such as when Rocket and Peter are arguing over who is better prepared to fly them through a meteoroid field before their ship is damaged because neither was willing to relinquish control of the ship. Gamora rightly points out that had they thought “with what was between their ears instead of what’s between their legs.”
Tied to the plot is Mantis, played by Pom Klementieff, an Empathic alien who aids Ego by allowing him to sleep. She finds a particular bond with Drax during the Guardians’ stay on Ego’s planet. That connection proves crucial to their survival as, even though Nebula and Gamora’s fight causes them to stumble on the horrifying truth, her power allows them to fight Ego. At least fight him with better chances than they had on their own. Her subservient role to Ego plays on certain tropes associated that have long since persisted in Hollywood storytelling. Her growth out of that role has a greater impact on who Mantis is by the time the credits roll. That she also was the source of most of the slapstick comedy may have helped endear her, but her kindness and compassion are what I found to endear her to me as a character.
Once again played by Vin Diesel, Baby Groot acts as an adorable reincarnated addition to the team. Initially introduced dancing to Peter’s music as the team battles to Abilisk in the background, adding hilarious comedic elements to an otherwise deadly encounter. This is what one comes to expect from a Guardians film, comedy punctuated by drama or action, rather than the other way around. Thor Ragnarök would follow this path, too, later in the year.
Not everybody has made it out by the time Vol. 2 reaches its conclusion. The thing is, with Infinity War looming just one year after its release, there was already a dark cloud hanging over the entirety of Marvel’s third slate of films. Questions and theories were flying from the moment the two-part conclusion was unveiled, making each film leading up to it a critical piece in the puzzle. However, how that puzzle ended up gives its individual pieces far more gravitas than they held with initial viewings.