Marvel’s most charming crew of rogues and reprobates return in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and director James Gunn manages to make the sequel even better than the first volume. This comic space opera has style to spare, and tells an emotionally resonant story about the complexity and necessity of family. Despite the frequent jokes and constant banter, the movie takes its themes and characters seriously—right down to the talking raccoon Rocket, who is given one of the most touching character arcs in the movie.
We rejoin the Guardians in the midst of a mission to slay a monster. The team succeeds, yet also manages to earn their clients’ wrath and end up fleeing with a fleet of spaceships on their heels. All in a day’s work for cocksure earthling Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), repentant assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), blunt strongman Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), misanthropic raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and adorable tree-creature baby Groot (Vin Diesel). They may be galactic saviors, but they’re still fairly fractious, petty, and insecure. Rocket in particular is not used to having people care about him or depend on him, so he acts out by stealing things, insulting his friends, and generally being an ornery beast. His pranks and snarky lines are funny, but the audience is still rooting for Rocket to stop pushing away his surrogate family of fellow spacefarers.
Enter a mysterious cosmic being claiming to be Peter Quill’s long-lost father. His name is Ego, and he is a living planet—but he creates a humanoid avatar (played by Kurt Russell) to interact with the universe, especially the son he never knew. The Guardians are wary of this self-proclaimed god (“with a lowercase g,” he modestly adds) but they pay a visit to his planet—which, again, is he—so Quill can bond with his divine deadbeat dad.
Ego lies at the intersection of two of the film’s big themes: family and power. The Guardians are a family of sorts, a motley crew of orphans, widowers, and science experiments thrown together by fate and gradually learning to have a life together by choice. But each of them, we learn, has connections outside the group—even if those are exactly what they’re running away from. Gamora, for instance, is hounded by her sister/rival Nebula (Karen Gillen). Their relationship is tense—they spend plenty of time trying to kill each other. And yet, after all, they still care about each other, and we see them grope towards less murderous ways of expressing their sisterly bond. Drax, meanwhile, develops a sweet, sibling-like bond with Ego’s naïve sidekick Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an empath with antennae and a secret. Rocket finds an unlikely foil in Quill’s old space pirate mentor Yondu (Michael Rooker), another crusty scrapper with hidden emotional depths. James Gunn wisely decided to keep Groot as a baby in this film, and the responsibility all the Guardians feel for the infant tree-creature in their charge is a focal point of their burgeoning family unit.
Ego bonds with Quill by playing catch with him (Yes, Chris Pratt gets to delightedly play catch with a planet in this movie) and making him an offer: Quill can learn to channel the cosmic energy Ego does and become a god like his father instead of a mortal. It’s a temptation that recalls Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus is offered immortality by the nymph Calypso—provided he remains on her island and doesn’t return to his wife, Penelope. Ego evokes this myth again when he shares what he believes to be the greatest piece of Earth music: “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” the 1972 hit by Looking Glass. Ego identifies with the sailor in the song who says, “Brandy, you’ve a fine girl,/What a good wife you would be/But my life, my love and my lady is the sea.” Here we discover exactly what kind of god Ego is: he is a pagan god in the mold of Jupiter or Neptune, sowing the universe with his seed in search of the false transcendence offered by male promiscuity. Unless he gave up his self-centered quest of cosmic sexual tourism, the only kind of father Ego could be is an absentee one.
After the first film threw together its titular misfits in delightful fashion, this sequel takes seriously the ways the Guardians need to grow up and learn to live as a family—without sacrificing any humor, but with a more pronounced streak of pathos. The antagonists and foils in the movie show many ways the Guardians’ family could go astray, becoming mutinous man-children like the space pirate Ravagers or succumbing to the common male impulse to treat the universe as raw material for a flattering self-portrait (which Ego represents on a planetary scale). Other secondary characters like Nebula and Yondu are given a chance to shine with arcs that bend toward redemption, showing that no one, neither the Guardians nor their foes, may be as far gone as they themselves believe.
The colors are still eye-popping, the heroes still wisecracking, and the tunes still groovy, but the second Guardians surpasses the original by asking something harder of its characters: not just saving the galaxy, but acknowledging their own limits and their dependence on one another.