Do you remember how the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie (2014) opened? You’re going to have to cast your memory back for a moment.
A young Peter Quill clutches fiercely to his Walkman, drowning out the world with ’80 chartbusters, because in the other room his mother is dying of cancer. Her last words to him are a promise: He won’t be alone in this world, in this galaxy, because one day his father will come for him. And his father, she says, was an angel, composed out of pure light.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is director James Gunn coming through with that promise. It is a different film from the first one – not necessarily better, but different, at least in the ways that matter. And that’s what sets it apart from the rest – its predecessor, other Marvel films, and the ones with superheroes flying in and out of them.
It was always going to be a tall order to replicate the success of the first movie, especially since this time, we know what to expect. Or at least – and this is The Prestige of the magic trick Gunn has so elaborately pulled off – we’ve been led to believe that we know what to expect. Once again, try and remember what you liked about the first film, the moments that stuck with you all this while. Was it the jukebox soundtrack, the one that left you enamoured by David Bowie and Joan Jett, however briefly? Perhaps it was the banter between the characters and the desire to watch an entire movie in which Rocket Raccoon hurled curses at grotesque aliens (doubtless about the shape of their nose, or the smelliness of their feet). Or was it Groot, that humanoid tree, who with a vocabulary of just three words (spoken in the same order, and in the grunty tones of Vin Diesel), stole the show.
Delivering on these elements is sequel 101. You identify what clicked with audiences, and you find ways to recreate those emotions and beats, presumably with slight variations and a general air of bigness that makes it seem – at least subconsciously – that what you’re seeing is an improvement on what you expected.
But if the first Guardians movie, on a spiritual level, mirrored the joy of the first Star Wars film, Vol 2, emotionally, is the Empire Strikes Back of the series.
In it, Peter Quill meets his father, who opens his future up to new possibilities, but also drags to the forefront the baggage of his past.
But no matter what your expectations from it, or from sequels in general, Gunn finds a way to subvert them all. He will deliver on the superficial – the soundtrack has bigger, more familiar hits; Groot is, in his new avatar as Baby Groot, an even greater scene-stealer than he was before; and this time, the villain does not succumb to Chris Pratt’s dance moves – but this is all just a means for Gunn to explore the heart of his story: Family. The real deal, not that nonsense the Fast & Furious movies have been feeding us. It’s a convenient barter that he has struck – with an overbearing studio, toy manufacturers, and with us – to tell the story he wants to, one about fathers and sons, childhood trauma, and parenthood.
Vol 2 succeeds on its own merit, and not by cashing in on the love we have for the first one. It makes characters we didn’t think twice about in the first movie – busy as we were wondering what a Rocket and Groot spinoff would look like –the stars in this one.
It is true that not many people would want their superhero movies to carry the emotional heft of a Pixar film – especially a Marvel superhero movie, movies that have become notorious for dressing the same skeleton with colourful new costumes and calling it a new franchise – but, as it turns out, I did. Because Marvel is at its best when a visionary filmmaker steps in, if only briefly, and shows us what creative freedom can produce. It happened with the first and third Iron Man films, the first Avengers, the second Captain America, and, of course, Guardians of the Galaxy.
James Gunn’s sequel is perhaps the most visually inventive Marvel has ever been, despite the psychedelia of Doctor Strange. It prompted me, for the second time in a row after last year’s The Legend of Tarzan, to note the talents of cinematographer Henry Braham. There isn’t a colour on the spectrum that he doesn’t use to light the gloriously crafted sets, and the faces of actors performing with great sincerity.
It is the most surprising Marvel has been since Iron Man 3, and for a series 15 films in and facing the very real danger of having most of its movies congeal into one shiny mess a few years down the line, being imaginative and original, despite the trappings of its franchise, is the best compliment I can give Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2.
Watch the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 trailer: