That feeling Christmas morning when you were a kid and still knew Santa was magic, when you woke ridiculously, inexplicably early, ran down the stairs bleary-eyed and full-hearted, saw the twinkly lights and way more presents than you could have hoped for. Smells of cinnamon and coffee (even if you didn’t yet recognize them as such) filled your nostrils and the room was warm and glowing, and it felt like whatever fights you and your brother ever had never happened, and for an hour or two, your parents didn’t care about messy rooms or whatever it is parents snipe at each other about — they just smiled and laughed as you tore open wrappings and ribbons, oohing and aahing as if they’d never seen such things before … That, that explosion of wonder, that billowing, contagious happy-in-your-heart holiday morning feeling, is what James Gunn inexplicably bottles and corks until he lets it explode across a giant screen, Drax’s laughter ringing in our ears and starry-eyed visions of this ragtag family’s adventures invading our brains the rest of the night. Whether or not you’re a comic reader or ever heard of Ego the Living planet before, what’s so great about Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 is that once you buckle in and hear the first infectious beat kick it off, nothing else matters. You’re in for the breathtaking, side-splitting, chair-dancing ride of your life.
In a blink, and in the middle of an exhilarating, action-packed opening that features a promised Abilisk’s quick, if hilariously disputed, defeat, Gamora quickly asserts her dominance over the second cinematic Guardians outing. In a job-for-trade with the Sovereign’s golden Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the gang retrieves Gamora’s still volatile sister, Nebula, who wants nothing more than to finally finish off her nemeses. Holding her snarling, snapping Tasmanian Devil-ish sibling just at arm’s length, and in between watching over her adopted family, Gamora works at chipping away their shared pain. Amidst the many raucous, boasting personalities and hazardous situations, Saldana’s visible and rational inner calm shines through. Gamora’s instincts guide the gang through group-speak, blind acceptance and general foolhardiness, alike. Still, it is Drax — former wrestler turned surprisingly great actor, Dave Bautista — who practically steals the entire movie with his perfect deadpan delivery of tone-deaf insults, and glorious, incredibly infectious laughter, the kind that fills your belly and lungs until both threaten to burst. Of all the Guardians casting choices, Bautista’s natural talent blasts right through his fully body make-up; his Drax perhaps the unlikeliest of heroes, as he clumsily and thoroughly plods right through everybody’s emotional barriers. Speaking of, after Rocket foolishly and predictably steals what the gang was supposed to be protecting — super-batteries — the group finds themselves under attack, and then suddenly rescued by the incredibly charming Kurt Russell aka Ego, who claims to be Star-Lord’s Celestial dad.
A movie man’s weakness is always his parents, and anxious to discover everything about the father he always wanted to know, Peter Quill follows Ego to his home planet (… er, self), where dad walks him through a sappy tale of love and self-discovery that takes a decidedly dark turn. While Gamora carefully follows her nose for danger, Peter is swept up by his apparently impressive bloodline, discovering new and hidden talents and along the way, a disturbing detail or two (dad’s a ho!). As such stories of finding long lost parents often do, his father’s hunt for Peter comes with unexpected motives, and thanks to Gamora and the only other living creature on Planet Ego, the truth is uncovered, barely in the nick of time. Speaking of Ego’s … “pet”, the object of of Drax’s terrible and wickedly funny slams is newcomer, Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an empathic creature who, despite her outright nervous timidity, earns Gamora’s immediate distrust. Klementieff’ quickly proves she belongs in this group of fine players able to push-past the piles of make-up, which — if you think about — can’t be nearly as simple or easy as it looks.
In important more-than-asides, Michael Rooker’s delightful Yondu — seemingly up to his old tricks — reveals a softer, sweeter side after circumstances land him trapped with a captured Rocket. Angry and disillusioned by Yondu’s consistently weak hand when it comes to Quill and Co., mutineers led by the unfortunately (and extremely mockable) named Taserface threaten a nastier Ravaging regime. During one of the film’s myriad simply fun scenes, with a little bit of help from the adorably tiny Baby Groot, Rocket and Yondu form an alliance, and together with Kraglin and a Groot-freed Nebula, head out to rendezvous with the rest of the gang.
By the time the adventures — which include Sylvester Stallone’s Stakar Ogord, as well as Michelle Yeoh, Ving Rhames, Michael Rosenbaum and Tommy Flanagan, a few surprises and the obligatory Stan Lee cameos — conclude, everyone figures things out and come together to rescue each other, some characters are dead and the rest, forever changed, which is exactly what should and must happen to all proper heroes. The standout performances are too many to mention; a sacrifice by one of them hits particularly hard. Of Quill and Co., Star-Lord himself takes a bit of a backseat, a move that allows us deeper inside his friends’ and family’s psyches, and we walk away feeling ever so grateful for the hours spent in their inner circle. It’s the unfailing heart of all these players, this director, in the way he tells his stories, that make the Guardians more than simple comic fare, and even in its cheesiest moments, we’re happy to gobble the whole meal down, go back for seconds. Gunn’s ability to translate familial ideals through beloved characters who spring to life from comic pages (read by many an impressionable youth), fills our souls as much as our desire for pure entertainment, and when we head into a theater, we can hardly hope for better than Vol. 2.
***Post Credit Secenes Spoilers ahead:
As for the multiple after-credit vignettes, the most interesting leads the uninitiated (me included) down another curious path, to Ayesha’s new creation, Adam Warlock, super-species, the Watchers, and if you caught him in the credits, Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster (who’ll next appear in Thor: Ragnarok). Also, teenaged Groot? Perfection.