The one thing that must be said about “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” by those who will love it and those who don’t, is that it aspires to be bigger than the first in every way. The action is bigger and more inventive. The cast not only adds new characters but adds new layers to the old ones. There are so many jokes packed into every scene — every line of dialogue — that the whole thing starts to feel reminiscent of “The LEGO Movie.”
In many ways, this lends the new “Guardians” movie a freshness that it might otherwise lack, and with the ever-confident direction of James Gunn (“Super”) once again leading the charge, the resulting film is sure to be one of the most deliriously entertaining films of the year. From an early gag that takes the action movie staple of the pointless opening fight scene and gleefully flips it on its head to the last of the five pre/mid/post-credits stingers, every scene of “Guardians Vol. 2” will in some way elicit a smile. Not every joke lands, but considering the sheer volume of one-liners and witticisms tossed about, that’s hardly a problem.
Of course, all of the humor would be pointless if “Guardians of the Galaxy” didn’t star the most entertaining ensemble in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is where Gunn does his best work; while the film may have been good had it centered on the humor, Gunn continues the character-driven approach that made his first entry such a treat. These characters are, by their own admission, “a-holes,” and “Guardians Vol. 2” doesn’t just give lip service to that idea: It full-on embraces it and uses the Guardians’ most unlikeable aspects as the driving force of the story.
This allows Gunn, both as writer and director, to add new layers to his leads and their relationships. Nowhere is this more evident than with Yondu (Michael Rooker, “The Walking Dead”) and his first mate, Kraglin (Sean Gunn, “The Belko Experiment”), who go from being secondary antagonists in the first film to the characters behind some of the sequel’s funniest and most emotional moments. There’s even laudable restraint shown with Baby Groot (Vin Diesel, “Fate of the Furious”), whose sheer adorableness could easily have caused him to take up exorbitant amounts of screen time, likely with few complaints from the audience.
One new addition to the team comes in the form of Mantis (Pom Klementieff, “Oldboy”), an alien empath who strikes up a strange yet endearing relationship with Drax and winds up being a highlight, even among the already established characters. The scenes she shares with Dave Bautista (“Spectre”) also gives the former pro-wrestler further opportunity to flex his acting muscles. Bautista already proved his comedy chops in the original, and he shows the same talent for comedy here, but his best moment is completely dialogue free and reliant on surprisingly subtle facial expressions. It’s a truly impressive bit of acting.
This greater scope allows Gunn to tell a unique and more emotional story, but it does come at a cost to the pacing. The character-centric scenes and comedy bits are great on their own, but there are several moments where the two must come right on each other’s heels with little warning. It may seem like a nitpick, but the resultant tonal whiplash inevitably robs one moment or the other of its weight.
That aside, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is nothing short of a delight. Its pacing issues mean it may not meet the sky high expectations set by the first, but considering the original is one of the most purely entertaining cinematic experiences of the last decade, that’s by no means a serious issue. Instead, Gunn focuses on growing his first entry into the MCU wherever he can. “Guardians Vol. 2” is funnier than the original, the action is better shot, the characters are better developed and by the end, it has become a surprisingly moving story. Fans of the original rejoice. James Gunn has done it again.