In 2014, Marvel went against the grain by handing the keys to the cosmos to James Gunn, a director known for writing the Scooby-Doo films and directing cult hits Slither and Super, carrying a proclivity for injecting a dark sense of humour where it’s not often found or expected.  The press declared Marvel creatively bankrupt for greenlighting Guardians of the Galaxy, a big-budget film based on Z-list comic book heroes and starring that guy from Parks and Recreation, a talking raccoon, and a tree.  Fast-forward to this week in the weird and wonderful future of 2017 and Chris Pratt is a household name and major Hollywood star, everyone knows the phrase ‘I Am Groot’, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 just launched in Europe at the Hammersmith Apollo with a goddamn rock concert.

The Guardians of the Galaxy need no introduction now, and Vol. 2 knows it.  With their galaxy-saving reputation already established, we pick up with the Guardians working as hired guns for the Sovereign (a golden, genetically-perfect race led by Elizabeth Debicki’s Ayesha) on the precipice of a battle.  Hearing the gang playfully ripping into each other is a perfect reintroduction to the main players, and we’re up to speed before an interdimensional, betentacled abomination called the Abelisk comes screaming through the sky to play.  Cue the music, and you’re firmly back in the world of intergalactic swashbuckling bastard Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), sword-wielding assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), muscleman without a filter Drax (Dave Bautista), gun-toting trash panda Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and the oh-so-loveable Baby Groot (Vin Diesel).

guardians22The money shot.

After the last Marvel team-up Captain America: Civil War drove a big ol’ emotional wedge between one set of heroes, Vol. 2 literally separates the Guardians into two groups for a good portion of the run-time.  The Ravagers take up a larger and more antagonistic role, leaving Rocket, Groot and Yondu to have some rip-roaring fun at the expense of a guy unironically called Taserface and his minions while everyone else is on a different planet.  The separate storylines feel a little disjointed, even episodic, but the momentum is still vividly bubbling away under the surface and ultimately erupts when the team is brought back together and formed anew.

With the film taking place shortly after the events of the last one, the team are still learning about each other, still trying to work out if they belong in this eclectic gang and what it means to be a family.  And family is the ultimate core of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.  Peter has finally met his father in Ego (Kurt Russell) and confronts his daddy-issues directly, but it’s so much more than that.  Through all the wise-cracking and humour, there is a heart to these characters that feels real, and a wonderful dysfunctionality that will be familiar to many families.

“We’re not friends.  We’re family.”

Old relationships are rekindled, with tortured killer Nebula (Karen Gillan) returning in an explosive and complicated reunion with her adoptive sister Gamora, while new relationships are also forged between unlikely pairings such as Rocket and Yondu, with the surprising emotional levity of Vol. 2 testament to Gunn’s razor-sharp writing and the pitch-perfect cast.  Everyone gets their moment in the sun, even, surprisingly, Yondu’s lieutenant Kraglin (Sean Gunn).

And speaking of the gruff blue pirate, Yondu’s role is seriously beefed up from the first film, giving Michael Rooker the chance to really have some fun with Space-Merle as we explore his past.  An original member of the first iteration of the Guardians of the Galaxy in comics dating back to 1969, Yondu begins to more closely resemble his paper counterpart by donning a large red mohawk, with the return of his signature whistle-controlled arrow making for a visually astonishing sequence in Vol. 2’s middle act that I would rank as one of the best scenes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Humour was a key ingredient of Guardians of the Galaxy’s success, and a good example of how to execute it without doing so at the expense of drama, stakes, or emotional riffs (or even collapsing into farce).  Drax was hilarious as the literal, metaphor-catching bruiser in the first film, but Dave Bautista doesn’t so much steal scenes than pick up Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and ride off with it into the sunset, coming away with the lion’s share of laughs.  The sorrow over his family’s death still haunts him and his grief is beautifully understated, but his comedic timing stands out head and shoulders above a cast already brimming with comedy juggernauts, such as Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper, and Michael Rooker.  The empathic alien newcomer Mantis (Pom Klementieff) shares some wonderful moments with Drax, reminding us that the scary-looking brawler truly has a heart of gold.

nullMuch like Tony Stark in The Avengers, a maniacally-laughing Drax decides to take the tale of Jonah and the whale literally.

Groot, having made the ultimate sacrifice at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy to save his friends and stop Ronan the Accuser from destroying Xandar with an Infinity Stone, also returns as the unadulteratedly adorable Baby Groot.  The group dynamic has changed from Groot being Rocket’s right-hand man and the general muscle of the group, to the other Guardians becoming doting parents to the mischievous shrub, with intense fight scenes recurrently paused to stop Groot from putting something in his mouth, or a reminder to put his seatbelt on.  And yes, Baby Groot dances again, and if it doesn’t make you smile, you’re probably dead inside.

Awesome Mix Vol. 2, from which the sequel cleverly takes its name, lives up to its predecessor with some oddball pop choices from the 60s to the 80s soundtracking the rock ‘n’ roll space adventure.  ELO’s ‘Mr. Blue Sky’, Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’, and Cat Stevens’ ‘Father and Son’ are among the most well-known on the playlist and score some fantastic scenes, while some more off-the-wall choices play directly into the storyline, including ‘Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)’ by Looking Glass.  Brilliantly, there’s also an original disco number at the end of the mix featuring a ridiculous rap from none other than Michael Knight himself, David Hasselhoff.  Expect a serious infestation of earworms until Vol. 3 comes out.

baby groot
Baby Groot’s standout moment dancing to the Jackson 5 in the first film gets a fantastic follow-up.

There are five, count ‘em, FIVE, mid- and post-credits scenes to enjoy once the main event is over and we’re left with the James Bond-esque promise that ‘The Guardians of the Galaxy Will Return’.  The crawl is generously peppered, even outside of the scenes themselves, with tantalising teases, cameos, easter eggs, and levels of fan service that will remain unrivalled until worlds and heroes collide in The Avengers: Infinity War.

The surprise factor of Guardians of the Galaxy would always be difficult to top, but James Gunn and his team have delivered a hilarious, witty, and surprisingly emotional visual extravaganza in a sequel that lives up to it to become one of the MCU’s best films.  Breath-taking interstellar landscapes and an extraordinarily diverse colour palette delight and dominate a film bursting with wonderful characters who shine just as brightly.  Unrelentingly fun until the very end, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is nothing short of an absolute delight.