Have you ever been flipping though cable channels and stumbled onto The Empire Strikes Back? Have you ever read the short description of Empire the movie that the cable provider provides? The blurb of Empire always makes it sound like a bad movie. That’s because there’s no easy way to summarize that movie because it doesn’t follow a normal narrative structure. It’s basically, “Our heroes are attacked and they run away in different directions and there’s not really an ending.”
(For the record, before you send me letters in the mail complaining: I am not comparing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 to The Empire Strikes Back beyond both using a similar structure.)
A big reason The Empire Strikes Back works is that all these characters we love – that we spent watching the first movie painstakingly putting together – are now separated from each other. (Looking back, that was a bold move for a movie that was not a sure thing. They even split up C-3PO and R2-D2. I also think that’s why Empire got lukewarm reviews then and is now heralded today.) As an audience, we are invested because we want to see them reunited.
James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 takes a page from that playbook. Heck, there’s even a scene where circumventing an asteroid field is involved. And it’s a smart strategy.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opens in 1980 in Missouri. (As someone who grew up in Missouri, I appreciate the old-school rust-colored Missouri license plates that I’m sure Missouri-native James Gunn made sure were correct.) We see Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) parents enjoying a drive. (Yes, once again we see Marvel use de-aging CGI, this time on Kurt Russell, but my gosh if it doesn’t look pretty good this time. It’s the best use of this effect I’ve seen so far, even though Marvel uses this trick maybe a little too often.) We don’t learn a lot here, but we know these two are in love – as we saw in the first film, Quill’s mother will die from cancer a few years later – and Quill’s father, an alien named Ego, is up to something.
We smash-cut to the present and the Guardians of the Galaxy have been hired to defend something or other from an evil monster alien. I’m not being dismissive: This scene exists mostly to show that the team is together and to give baby Groot a chance to dance his way though the opening credits to the sounds of Electric Light Orchestra. (This is a fun scene.) But the events that transpire here eventually lead us to that aforementioned asteroid field, then to a crash landing, then to Peter’s father showing up to offer help. This is when Peter, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Drax (Dave Bautista) leave with Ego (Russell) and his assistant, Mantis (Pom Klementieff) for Ego’s beautiful home world – leaving Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel) and their prisoner, Nebula (Karen Gillian), behind to repair the ship. So now Peter, Gamora, and Drax are on this beautiful planet that may not be what it seems, hosted by a man they don’t entirely trust, sound familiar?
Michael Rooker’s Yondu plays a huge role in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. He’s not always the gruff, tough customer we saw in the first film. On a mission to find Peter’s downed ship, Youndu’s Ravagers betray him – leaving him stuck with Rocket, Groot, and Nebula. (This movie is all about mixing and matching.) Compared to the first film, Yondu is at times a bit more of a sad sack. Yondu is also the heart behind this sequel and Rooker does an excellent job taking on the added character weight.
We also get a lot more between Gamora and her sister, Nebula. The plotline that ends with Nebula being the Guardians’ prisoner is kind of tacked on just to make it “happen,” but the end result, that they spar about their relationship as sisters for pretty much the entire movie, is satisfying. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Drax. Drax seems to be in a much, let’s say, happier place in life when we see him in this film. His tendency to laugh at people during their worst moments is in full effect in Vol. 2. Drax is a delight. And he’s a much better rounded character this time around.