Families. They can really f— you up. Seriously. In the reel world, though, families can bring in massive amounts of box-office revenue, especially if the words “Fast” and/or “Furious” are part of the title. Contrary to popular belief, though, the Fast & the Furious franchise doesn’t have a monopoly on the word “family.” In only the second film – or first sequel – James Gunn’s (Super, Slither) Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t just borrow the word “family” from the Fast & the Furious franchise, it makes the concept of “family,” biological and otherwise, central to the entire plot. The misfits, outcasts, and criminals who make up the Guardians of the Galaxy squabble like real families, except their squabbles often happen at the absolute worst times, like when they’re trying to escape a race of golden-skinned, genetically modified, tech-hoarding elitists with a bizarre attachment to super-batteries and a major grudge against anyone who tries to steal them.
You read that right: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 kicks off with Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), stealing a bag full of glowing super-batteries from the Sovereign, the aforementioned super-race, moments after defeating an interdimensional, tentacled monster in exchange for Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) cybernetically enhanced sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan). They defeat the monster over the opening credits as Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) dances a gig in the foreground – toys must and will be sold – while the Guardians battle the monster in the background. It’s a clever, imaginative riff on the first entry’s opening sequence, but this time, it’s not Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), stealing an Infinity Stone from a ruined temple on an abandoned planet, but the entire team, fighting and squabbling like most superhero teams do in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), while a classic-rock track dictates the action. (The Guardians of the Galaxy series are nothing if not big-screen, super-expensive music videos.)
The Sovereign’s leader and high priestess, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), doesn’t take kindly to Rocket’s theft of the super-batteries and sends out a fleet of remotely piloted drones to take down the Guardians before they escape. It seems like another in a seemingly endless series of throwaway gags, but the remotely piloted drones serve an important purpose: They keep the body count low, semi-key to getting a family-oriented PG-13 rating, and also keep the Guardians’ hands relatively clean. Later, Gunn one-ups Yondu (Michael Rooker), Quill’s one-time mentor, and his deadly, whistle-activated flying arrow with a scene that’s three or four times as visually impressive and inventive as it was the first time around. That’s pretty much the formula or template at play in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Frequent, deliberate callbacks to key scenes and moments from the first film, but reconfigured and remixed for audiences who value novelty and originality above everything else.
While Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 positions the Sovereign as the film’s major villains, they’re not. They’re more a running gag or punchline, reintroduced periodically to keep the plot humming along. Co-villain status belongs to Quill’s old comrades-in-thievery, the Ravagers (i.e., space pirates) and their leader, Yondu. While Yondu battles an unexpected mutinous uprising tied to his too-soft, fatherly attitude toward Quill, Star-Lord gets to meet his long-lost biological father, Ego (Kurt Russell). Ego literally saves the day moments before the Guardians fall to the Sovereign’s drone fleet. Taking a page, of course, from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back – arguably the best middle “Part II” of any trilogy, cinematic or otherwise – Ego leaves no doubt that he’s Quill’s actual father. Quill leaves Rocket, Baby Groot, and Nebula behind on a forest-heavy planet to complete repairs on their ship and takes off with his newfound father, Gamora, Drax (David Bautista), and Ego’s personal assistant, Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a socially challenged empath who eventually bonds with Drax.
The mystery in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t Ego’s identity as Quill’s biological father, but what his intentions truly are toward Quill and by extension the Guardians and the galaxy they’ve semi-sworn to protect. Quill jumps into father-son bonding time with little hesitation, leaving Gamora and Drax to just chill (minus streaming services). In one scene, Quill and Ego share a seemingly affectionate moment involving a game of catch except there’s no ball, just an energy sphere conjured up by Quill and Ego. It’s a highlight that depends less on visual effects than on Pratt and Russell selling each emotional beat as authentic and genuine. On the flipside, Rocket gets to show off his tactical genius in a scene involving the Ravagers and a multi-prong ambush that’s inspired less by the Guardians’ comic-book origins than Gunn’s obvious affection for the crazy-cool Looney Tunes.
But since they’re the Guardians, the galaxy has to be put in peril and they have to save it a second time. That, of course, means another massive battle pitting the Guardians against a super-powered, highly unpleasant foe. Gunn throws every variation possible on the idea, but it inevitably feels like Gunn’s ticking off check boxes to make his producers at Disney and Marvel Studios happy to give him free rein elsewhere. Splitting up the team works better than it should, especially when half of the team gets stuck on Ego’s world with little to do except play bystander while Quill and Ego do their father-son thing, but Gunn pushes character conflicts too far at times. Rocket and Quill constantly sniping at each other becomes increasingly annoying, especially when it crowds out the other characters. The jokes and gags too don’t land with the same frequency or freshness as they did three years ago (What does, though?). Ultimately, of course, it’s family first, second, and last, with the Guardians non-biological family far superior to anything Ego or anyone else has to offer. Now if only we can get a Guardians and Fast & Furious crossover, all will be right with the world, not to mention the (cinematic) universe.