Long story short: I watched "Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2" (hereinafter "G2") a second time this past Sunday, so I guess I must have thought it was pretty damn good. The sequel doesn't quite rise to the level of the first movie, but that's mainly because there was simply no way to evoke the sheer novelty of the earlier film. Despite that slight deficit, I remain impressed by Marvel Studios' consistent quality in terms of direction, acting, cinematography, scripting, and character development. What the new "Guardians" lacks in plot, it definitely makes up for in character. The sequel continues to explore the basic themes of friendship and family (especially family), but despite having mostly the same cast, it is, in many respects, a very different film from the first one, thus making it hard to compare the two.
As other reviewers have noted, G2 has relatively few story beats. The movie is more interested in exploring relationships than in exploring the galaxy, although the revelation of Peter Quill's father's homeworld is marvelous to behold. Peter (Chris Pratt) learns that his father Ego (Kurt Russell) is a godlike being called a Celestial who has existed for millions of years, beginning life as a disembodied consciousness that, over the eons, learned to manipulate matter, thus forming a shell around itself that eventually became the "living planet" on which Peter stands. As a bonus divine power, Ego also learned how to incarnate himself in human form, making it possible for him to procreate in the standard humanoid way. Peter learns he has the Celestial genes himself, which is why he was able to hold an Infinity Stone in his hand (cf. the previous movie) and not die. He is effectively immortal as long as "the light" at the center of Ego's world continues to burn.
Only half the Guardians visit Ego's planet at first; the other half get involved in a subplot involving the Ravagers, including their exiled leader, the blue-skinned Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker in a hilarious, scene-stealing, and ultimately sentimental performance). Udonta is sent to capture the Guardians on behalf of Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), high priestess of the Sovereign, a race of genetically engineered and overly captious golden humanoids who consider slights against their honor to be a heresy punishable by death. When the Ravagers think Udonta has gone soft after capturing some of the Guardians, the space-buccaneers mutiny and throw Yondu in the Ravager brig along with Rocket (Bradley Cooper's voice, Sean Gunn's mo-cap body). Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) is taken by the Ravagers as a sort of mascot. Nebula (Karen Gillan), known as an adopted daughter of the evil and powerful Thanos (cf. the previous movie) and originally a prisoner of the Guardians, is allowed to remain free.
At this point, the movie takes a dark turn when we learn that Ego and his planet (which, as you'll recall from what I explained above, is also Ego) are not exactly what they appear to be. It's not that Ego has lied to Peter about his origins and cosmic desires: it's more that Ego has woven a skein of half-truths to ensnare Peter and compel his loyalty. And once Peter learns the true nature of Ego's relationship with Peter's mother Meredith as well as the real scope of Ego's ambitions... well, that's when all hell breaks loose.
Rounding out the cast are Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer, Pom Klementieff as Mantis, and Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Thanos's other adopted daughter and Peter's love interest. We also get an applause-worthy cameo from Sylvester Stallone as Stakar Ogord, the Ravager big cheese who has exiled Yondu Udonta for child-trafficking. Other recognizable faces are Michelle Yeoh as Aleta Ogord, Tommy Flanagan as Yondu loyalist Tullk, Ving Rhames as the giant Charlie-27, Sean Gunn as Yondu's henchman Kraglin, and Stan Lee, whose cameos in this film reveal him to be some sort of cosmic entity who has been quietly watching, and occasionally participating in, superhero-related events for years. G2 is written and directed by James Gunn, who wrote and directed the first movie as well.
The soundtrack to G2 is a continuing homage to the pop music of the 1970s, with some songs having more thematic significance than others. Two such songs are "Brandy, You're a Fine Girl" by Looking Glass; and "The Chain" by Fleetwood Mac. In a sense, these songs are saying opposite things, as "The Chain" is used in the movie to symbolize the bonds of love and family, whereas "Brandy" is used to symbolize a wandering heart with no settled loyalties. When Peter, Drax, and Gamora arrive on Ego's awe-inspiring, phantasmagorical planet, we hear George Harrison's 1970 "My Sweet Lord," which seems apropos when you're meeting a god and entering his realm. The music for the ending credits is pure disco, straddling the late 70s and early 80s, and reminding us of nothing so much as the disco version of John Williams's "Star Wars" theme. Along with the 70s homage, though, there are visual homages to 1980s video-game culture. First, when Rocket steals some super-powerful batteries from the easily angered Sovereign, they send out their remote-piloted fighter-drones to pursue Peter Quill's ship, the Milano. The Sovereign pilots, headquartered on their home planet, sit inside control pods that hilariously emit sounds recognizable to anyone who has ever stepped into a 1980s video-game arcade. Later on, when Peter Quill has summoned his own godlike powers to combat his father (being half-Celestial, Peter has learned to tap into the living planet's energy, which he can channel for as long as the planet exists), he creates a gigantic Pac Man, complete with "waka-waka" sounds.
As I mentioned above, G2 explores relationships. Peter's relationship with his father is front and center, but the story also spends time with sisters Gamora and Nebula, two abused girls who fear and hate their adoptive father, Thanos. The movie could have taken the sappy route and had the sisters kiss and make up after a huge fight, but writer James Gunn took the more mature tack and ended that plot line on a prickly note that was truer to the battle-hardened nature of these two women. Another relationship, mined more for its comic potential but hinting at the possibility of something deeper, is that of Drax and Mantis. Mantis is a large-eyed humanoid who has empathic powers that allow her both to feel others' emotions and, to some degree, intensify or abate them. Her main purpose on Ego's world is to help Ego get to sleep.* Drax claims that Mantis is horrifically ugly, but by the end of the movie, we can see there's the possibility of a relationship there. And while Yondu's relationship with Peter arguably informs the entire movie—even though Yondu and Peter barely interact for most of the film—Yondu also develops an interesting relationship with Rocket that begins while they're both locked in the Ravager brig and continues when they go off to rescue Peter, et al., from Ego's clutches.
Let's talk about the actors' performances for a bit. Chris Pratt remains his cheerfully goofy self as Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord. Zoe Saldana does solid work as Gamora, striking the right balance between being a steely veteran of many battles and having a soft spot for Peter while also playing Mom to Baby Groot. Bradley Cooper's voice work for Rocket the enhanced raccoon hits all the right notes, including some pathos that comes out in the final third of the film. Pom Klementieff, who is French but of Russian-Korean extraction, manages to inject a comic note of Asian weirdness into the proceedings. Her character is essentially naive, having been raised exclusively by Ego as a sort of handmaiden/pet whose function seems to be primarily medicinal or therapeutic. By interacting with the other Guardians, Mantis begins to blossom socially; her arc goes from diffidence and timidity to something approaching independence and self-confidence. Sean Gunn, the director's brother, does double work as henchman Kraglin and as Rocket's body (he did the latter while wearing a motion-capture suit, Gollum-style). Though a minor character, Kraglin brings a good bit of comic relief to the table. Dave Bautista's Drax is still funny, but I think the story has him belly-laughing a bit too often for my taste. In the first film, when Drax laughed, it was because he knew he was about to die, and he was ready to join his murdered wife and daughter in the land of the dead. In this movie, Drax has loosened up and developed an almost bubbly sense of humor that seems at odds with his former self. I don't blame Bautista for that issue, but I do blame the writers for how they developed the character. Kurt Russell, meanwhile, is the perfect choice to play Ego; as the character says, he's got "rugged good looks," which makes him a convincing father for Peter, and his transition from benevolent parent to violent, greedy monster is smooth and professional. For my money, though, the absolute stand-out performance in the film comes from Michael Rooker as Yondu, the blue-skinned, snaggle-toothed Centaurian. The first film establishes that Yondu has long had a soft spot for Peter Quill, and that he's been a stern, sometimes abusive father-figure to the lad over the years. One issue that the new movie explores is who, exactly, Peter Quill's true father is, and in the end, Yondu tells Peter, regarding Ego: "He may have been your father, boy, but he wasn't your daddy." That's a powerful moment. (And the "Mary Poppins" moment, not long before, is a gut-buster.)
The thing that truly fascinated me about G2, though, was the theological angle. This movie, unlike the previous one, focuses on what it's like for mere mortals to meet a god—or the next closest thing to one. Ego's name is fitting, given his mission in life, which is to turn the universe into himself. He has a lot in common with Agent Smith in "The Matrix," who filled the Matrix with so many copies of himself that no one else was left. Note, too, that religiously speaking, the noble ideal is to turn away from the self toward ultimate reality. Turning toward the self, inflating the ego (or Ego, in this case), is always associated, in religion, with a demonic nature. This is who Ego turns out to be, ultimately: a self-obsessed creature who is more demon than god. His planet's beauties are, in the end, just so much hypnotic artifice, and like the planet he created, Ego is shown to be a spiritually hollow being with no patience for mortals and the exigencies of mortality. The true horror of Ego is revealed when he casually confesses how and why his relationship with Meredith Quill ended. At that point, Peter's choice between living life as an immortal Celestial and living life as a regular mortal becomes perfectly clear.
Despite how fascinating the theological angle was, though, I saw at least two problems with Ego. First, the story he tells Peter when they first reach Ego's planet doesn't quite add up. Ego tells Peter that, while he was still alone in the cosmos, he imagined what biological life must be like, then began to fashion a body for himself that matched his vision of such life. That vision somehow just happened to be human. I have to wonder how Ego, even with his godlike intelligence, was able to guess so exactly what human life would look and be like, down to the chromosomal level. It would have made more sense, story-wise, for Ego to have assumed some other form, then to have created a human form for himself after stumbling upon humanity. My second problem with Ego is that he proved disappointingly easy to kill. A bomb at his core—really? After millions of years of self-evolution and matter-manipulation, Ego—who was supposedly a Celestial—was somehow unready for a "Star Wars"-style attack to his core? I find this hard to believe, and I have to wonder whether Ego is really dead. I suspect that, like Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen, Ego has the power to reassemble and reconstitute himself no matter how severe the insult to the mortal aspects of his being. But that's only a guess. I have no idea what James Gunn has in store for Peter's and/or Ego's future. With Ego apparently gone, Peter now appears to be a mere mortal. He still possesses Celestial genes (trivia: Ego is not a Celestial in the comics, nor is he Peter's father), and that has to mean something, even if Ego's destruction has rendered those genes dormant.
In all, G2 is a well-crafted audiovisual treat. The story, such as it is, moves along at a healthy clip and deals both humorously and seriously with important issues like friendship, family, mortality, and apparent immortality. The film was good enough for me to want to see it twice, and I'm sure I'll be snapping it up once it's available on video. If you haven't seen it in theaters yet, go catch it before it disappears from the big screen forever.
*Ego has spent years in obsessive pursuit of his son Peter ever since Yondu Udonta failed to deliver Peter, as a child, to him. Ego is also obsessed with the purpose he discovered for himself—an event called The Expansion, in which Ego has seeded thousands or millions of worlds with plant-like buds of his own essence, spores designed to take over the worlds on which they've been planted, turning those worlds into extensions of Ego himself, eventually making Ego as large as the universe. Ego can't realize the Expansion on his own, which is one reason why he fathered Peter: the Expansion requires the power of a second Celestial. These are the issues that keep Ego up at night.