Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

It does not take much for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 to generate instant goodwill among viewers — just the earworm that is Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” the 1977 pop confection to which tiny tree creature Baby Groot so adorably grooves, oblivious to what unfolds behind him: his teammates’ all-hands-on-deck battle with a giant space monster. (Geez, Louise, how I wish I held stock in Baby Groot merch.) This opening bit is but one way in which returning writer/director James Gunn wrings maximum mileage from Vol. 2’s existence as a sequel to the 2014 surprise smash-hit original: It leaps right into the fray. No re-introducing the characters, no sequences of having to get the band back together — waste not, want not. It’s bigger, better and much, much funnier.

This time around, the wisecracking, Walkman-worshipping Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt, 2016’s The Magnificent Seven) learns a little more — okay, a lot more — about his past on Earth. In fact, he finally comes face-to-face with the father he never knew, Ego, played by the always-welcome Kurt Russell (The Hateful Eight). Family — whether real, surrogate, dysfunctional or otherwise — is the thread sewn through all the storylines, especially with green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek Beyond) experiencing sibling rivalry taken to the extreme, as her sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan, The Circle), tries to kill her. Or with Yondu (Michael Rooker, The Belko Experiment), the finned-headed baddie of the first adventure, flipping sides due to fatherly affection for Quill. Or with Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, xXx: Return of Xander Cage) serving as the needy infant to every other Guardian, upper- and lowercase. More examples exist.

In shortcutting the setup, Gunn frees more time to let Gamora and her fellow Guardians have more to do than in the first film, and benefiting most is Drax (Dave Bautista, Spectre), the superhuman muscleman with no social filter. His scenes with Ego’s antennae-bearing assistant, the telepathic Mantis (Pom Klementieff, 2013’s Oldboy remake), make for some laugh-out-loud moments. The downside to the wider canvas? An expanded running time of 136 minutes that can’t help but fall victim to third-act bloat — a problem not limited to this film or even all Marvel Studios product, but effects-driven Hollywood blockbusters in general.

At least the enormous success of Guardians of the Galaxy (which I found fine, but hardly the Greatest Thing Ever so many others did) allowed Gunn to rubber-stamp Vol. 2 with his distinctive brand of subversive humor — in permanent red ink, no less. Those who have followed the Troma undergrad‘s filmmaking efforts from the start will recognize more of his touch, and less of Marvel corporate’s. (Watch in particular for the scene where Rocket Raccoon, voiced by The Hangover trilogy’s Bradley Cooper, asks for a piece of tape.) In fact, if you watch Gunn’s two superhero parodies prior to him getting in bed with Marvel, 2000’s The Specials and 2010’s Super, you’ll notice he unknowingly had been auditioning for this gig all along. The major differences are that that he can cast Sylvester Stallone instead of Josh Duhamel, and that millions now appreciate him instead of hundreds. Gunn and his Guardians deserve it, for this and future volumes. —Rod Lott

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