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Guardians of the Galaxy 2 review: "A welcome return to the big screen"

Total Film, the UK's smartest film magazine, is part of the GamesRadar+ family, with unique insight and fresh perspectives on the biggest and most interesting films of the year. Here's Total Film's review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 by Features Editor Matt Maytum, giving you another in-depth verdict on one of the biggest movies of the year.

Total Film magazine's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 review

Verdict: This sequel turns up the volume on the action and spectacle for a fun and frequently thrilling ride, but can’t help but feel like a disappointment in comparison to its predecessor. 

3 stars

Expectation is a peculiar thing. Positioned as the underdog of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy blew away unsuspecting audiences with its unique, ragtag line-up, banging vintage soundtrack, expansive universe and tactile aesthetic.

So whatever Vol. 2 comes up with, it lacks the element of surprise, and that crucial freshness that made Vol. 1 stand out in the MCU. While Vol. 2 is consistently praiseworthy – it’s perfectly entertaining, frequently hilarious, occasionally thrilling – it falls short of the original in ways that are hard to ignore.

Picking up shortly after where the first film left off, the beginning sees the Guardians capitalising on their world-saving credentials as mercenaries for hire. They haven’t changed much in the brief interim period, with the exception that Baby Groot (somehow still voiced by Vin Diesel) is now toddling around. We join them on a mission to protect The Sovereign – a golden-skinned species desperate to maintain the purity of their shimmering kind – from a tentacular beast on the attack.

The opening sequence in which the quintet tackle this monster is bold and brilliant and so very Guardians in a way the rest of the film never quite measures up to. The gang collect their payment – prisoner Nebula (Karen Gillan) – but it’s not long before Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) has offended Sovereign Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), whose gilded minions will chase Peter ‘Star-Lord’ Quill and co. throughout the movie. Debicki’s gaudy epidermis and imposing throne are among many of the movie’s spectacular flourishes in the costume, make-up and production design departments.

Vol. 2 establishes several plot threads early on which take some time to cohere. In a pre-credits sequence set in Missouri, 1980, we have a glimpse of the romance between Peter’s mother and his mysterious father (an impressively digitally de-aged Kurt Russell).

When an older, beardier Russell catches up with Peter in present-day outer space, he reveals himself to be Ego, the living planet, a celestial being who sent an avatar of himself out to explore the universe. His companion, Mantis (Pom Klementieff), is a bug-eyed humanoid whose antennae give her empathic powers that she uses to read others’ feelings.

If that’s already sounding like a lot of characters to juggle in one movie, we haven’t even mentioned the increased role that the Ravagers play this time around. Even at two hours-plus, it’s a lot to fit in, and many of the characters inevitably get short shrift, including Chris Pratt’s Peter, who sometimes feels sidelined in his own family saga.

It helps that we already know the characters pretty well, and the actors continue to inhabit them with charm, warmth and humour. Pratt still has a mean line in quips and a roguish charisma, and fans will delight in seeing the gang back on the big screen, even if they’re split up for a fair chunk of the running time.

Vol. 2 is also very funny, boasting a consistent strike rate of witty one-liners. The pop-culture references and another spot-on soundtrack ensure the series retains its unique personality. Man-mountain Drax (Dave Bautista) bags even more of the best lines this time around, and some of the film’s strongest character scenes emerge from his interactions with Mantis.

Klementieff is absolutely terrific, and easily the film’s best new addition. She has an ethereal otherworldliness that feels genuinely special, and is a reminder of the unexpected surprises Vol. 1 dished out liberally. Karen Gillan also gets a little more screen time to flesh out badass blue baldie Nebula, even if her troubled relationship with adoptive sister Gamora (Zoe Saldana, underused) doesn’t quite have the heft you hope for.

The action is bigger and bolder this time around, with a couple of very impressively staged set-pieces showcasing writer/director/mixtape-compiler James Gunn’s visual imagination, as jet packs, Warhammer-scale weaponry and countless spaceships are deployed with panache.

Given that Gunn presumably had far more budget to play with after the first film, the locations and set pieces are more ambitious than before, but as a result they’re largely CGI creations. As trippily colourful as the landscapes are, it’s hard not to yearn for more of the tangible, lived-in settings that made the first film feel so grounded. The climax, in particular, suffers from the CGI deluge that seems to be the obligatory way to finish blockbusters these days.

Perhaps the most welcome surprise of Vol. 1 – and the thing that truly separated it from its MCU stablemates – was just how emotional it was. Can anyone even think about “We are Groot” without getting a little bit choked up? Vol. 2 has a couple of moments that attempt to recapture that magic, but they don’t quite land as impactfully as before.

It’s not that this film doesn’t have much to admire in it – it trounces recent blockbusters like Fast & Furious 8 and Kong: Skull Island in terms of character and invention, for example – but fans are more likely to be carried along by their goodwill towards the gang than this film’s own merits. It’s just not a patch on the first one. Expectation is a fricking nightmare, isn’t it? 

The Verdict

4 out of 5

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The Guardians get a welcome return to the big screen, which despite many positives, fails to match the dizzying heights of the original.

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