It is mostly accurate to say, without hyperbole, that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is simultaneously the most overpraised and the most unfairly maligned blockbuster franchise of modern times. Rarely has any strictly commercial film or series of films inspired such reams of glorification or barbs of hatred, as both sides seem to hail the MCU as alternatively the lifeblood and the death knell of cinema. Both of these extremist positions are, of course, ridiculous; the idea that one series, even the most profitable, could make or break American blockbuster cinema, let alone world cinema, is intensely narrow-minded. Perhaps a more rewarding and certainly more revealing approach is considering each incarnation, pros and cons, as its own discrete unit, despite Marvel’s insistence on making them blend together in a maze of references and character continuities.
Such dueling intentions typify, for better or worse, the latest such entry in the series: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The rather fascinating sequel to the 2014 film follows its eponymous protagonists a few months after the events of its predecessor, as they experience all of the camaraderie and squabbling that befits a team that has stayed together that long. It is a surprisingly non-narratively focused film, though, in the MCU tradition, it ends up being just as high-stakes as normal. Functionally speaking, it is split into two plotlines. One follows Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Drax (Dave Bautista) as they explore the planet that comprises Peter’s father who abandoned him as a child, a cosmic being known as Ego (represented in a humanoid form by Kurt Russell). The other follows Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) as they are separately captured by a faction of the Reavers, headed by Yondu (Michael Rooker), Peter’s adopted father who seeks to regain his standing within the Reavers as a whole.
As might be surmised from this parallel construction, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 concerns itself, The Fast and the Furious style, with the odd and conflicting tendencies of families and friendship in a manner almost too sincere, at least part of the time. The other half of the pointed emotional beats – which seem to conclude every other scene with alarming regularity – are carried out with a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humor. This sense of the characters snickering at their own neuroses plays to mixed results, leaving the viewer partly confused.
However, it must be said that this ribbing is baked into the entire film’s modus operandi. The jokes, insults, and plainly hilarious moments come fast and a good deal of them land. Much of the credit must go to the main cast, all of whom continue their uniformly excellent work from the first film. But far and away the most impressive performance (and one of the best performances of the year thus far) comes from Kurt Russell. To say more about his role would constitute a fundamental spoiler, but suffice it to say that he excels no matter what the script demands of him, fusing cool with world-weariness in perfect harmony.
This idea of harmony is vital to the general success of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, despite and occasionally because of its flaws. The seams show strongly in many moments, but nevertheless the movie provides what can only be described as some of the most intelligent, exuberant, honest, and eventually heartbreaking images in the MCU. Sure, the impact of the jaw-droppingly gorgeous – in terms of both color and pure expression of emotion – finale may be dulled somewhat by the five post-credit sequences, each more frivolous than the last, but it still lingers in the head, something that is truly rare and should be treasured in this spotty but competent franchise.