No less silly or cheaply manipulative than Vol. 1, but it knows what it is, what its audience wants, and how to push things forward.
I was the party pooper in the corner for Vol. 1 because I refused to be emotionally manipulated by soundtrack choices in an essentially silly movie with questionable world-building. While fun and a full-colour spectrum are welcome in a comic book movie, I see them less as revolutionary and more as a sad indictment of the standard mean of the comic book movie genre in general. Plus, I don’t find that stories about assholes becoming slightly-less-assholy offer particularly redemptive, fulfilling, or even worthwhile arcs.
Vol. 2 sits better with me, not because it’s any less manipulative or silly, but because it knows what it is, what its audience wants, and how to push things just enough to make the universe created in Vol. 1 seem like a place worth exploring. The microcosm for this is Baby Groot: the breakout star of Vol. 1 was dancing Baby Groot in the end credits, and so Vol. 2’s opening credits is a full dance number featuring Baby Groot, with the other Guardians literally in the background and out-of-focus, except for each one’s parenting moment. Director James Gunn gets the party started while planting the thematic seeds, which is deft, tight film-making.
Vol. 2 goes more interesting places thematically, and it ups Vol. 1’s already-impressive VFX from beautiful to often stunning (standouts include the overhead shot of the prison escape scene, featuring the light trail of Yondu’s arrow):
If Vol. 1 was about family, then Vol. 2 is about family trauma – and maybe it takes setting a story in psychedelic space to get away with lines like “I may not have been your father, but I was your daddy” and “You just wanted to win. I just wanted a sister.” And as much as the ’70s & ’80s tracks are chosen and employed as substitutes for the actual work of earning emotional beats, to writer/director Gunn’s credit, much like Edgar Wright, he incorporates his soundtrack choices into his scriptwriting.
The characters are less consistent in Vol. 2, and not that consistent with their Vol. 1 selves, particularly in the cases of Drax and Rocket. If Drax has grown as a character (read: developed a sense of humour?) as a result of his time with the Guardians, then Rocket has shrunk: I recall him having more wit and co-ordination in Vol. 1 (which is why the “sarcasm” and winking gags did not land for me). But generally, everyone here is fun (particularly Kurt Russell, Kurt Russelling-about), and each character has their moment (except Nebula – every moment from her was a flat note, an awkward tonal pause that deflated ever scene she was in. I’m not sure if it’s Karen Gillan‘s performance, the direction or the writing, but I’m hoping her character, like some of the others, is reconfigured in Vol. 3).
P.S. for all its use across the film’s promotional material, where was “Fox on the Run” in the actual movie?