The family that fights mercenaries and fascists together stays together

Rocket Raccoon and Baby Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Part of why people loved Guardians of the Galaxy so much when it came out in 2014 was how surprised they were: The Guardians are not well-known characters outside of diehard Marvel Comics fans; no (at-the-time) major starred in the movie and few knew of writer-director James Gunn beyond his screenplay for Scooby Doo.

There was not much to expect. But Guardians of the Galaxy was a massive hit because it was thrilling, funny, nerdy and it featured Chris Pratt’s arrival as a major star. It’s considered by many to be the best or at least one of the best Marvel movies. So, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 had a lot to live up to. And while I couldn’t be pleasantly amazed again, I was still impressed by how much fun I had. The movie does all the things tent-poll comic book movies are supposed to do while doing something very few of them manage: be completely character driven.

The Guardians are comprised of their wise-cracking, Earth-born captain Peter Quill, or Star-Lord (Pratt), green-skinned and humorless warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana), rascally racoon-looking Rocket (voice by Bradley Cooper), oafish strongman Drax (Dave Bautista) and the tiny, talking tree toddler known as Groot, whose only words are “I am Groot.” (The phrase can mean anything and only Rocket knows how to interpret it.) The film begins with the Guardians killing a space monster for a gold-skinned race of fascist humanoids called the Sovereign in return for a prisoner of theirs: Nebula (Karen Gillan), the angry, blue-skinned sister of Gamora .

But as the Guardians leave the planet, the Sovereign attack; they are enraged when they discover Rocket has stolen a few of the Sovereign’s super-powered batteries. The Guardians escape but only because a mysterious, absurdly powerful man named Ego (Kurt Russell) incinerates the Sovereign ships. It turns out Ego is Peter’s long-lost father – who is also a millions-of-years-old god-like being called a Celestial. As Peter bonds with his dad, Gamora and Nebula fight, Drax has hilariously deep conversations with Ego’s empath companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff), while Rocket and Groot deal with the bounty-hunters and pirates called the Ravagers and their erstwhile leader and Peter’s former guardian Yondu (Michael Rooker).

There are a lot of characters and a lot of plot threads, and Gunn handles them expertly. He develops each character, giving them motivation, conflicts and almost complex emotions. The plots are created by the characters working to resolve these emotionally oriented problems, almost all of which revolve around how they create and sustain their families. In each case, these tough and rough heroes are resisting the connections right in front of them and seeking out the wrong goal, and they confront this error when they must fight a bunch of bad guys all at once. It’s a surprising moving and surprisingly sweet plot for a movie full of space explosions and weird-looking aliens.

The soundtrack is full of hits of the 1970s (ostensibly all found on Peter’s cassette tape Awesome Mix Vol. 2), and they are not used as ironic background noise but as commentary on the action: from “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass to “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens, from “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison to “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac. “Brandy” is used particularly powerfully, with Ego explaining that he is like the sailor in the song: “But he made it clear he couldn’t stay / No harbor was his home.” It’s a romantic notion, but it’s also a sad one.

By the end, Peter realizes that nothing can replace the loss of his father, not even a God. But a family of space swashbucklers might come close.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
Written and Directed by James Gunn
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Kurt Russell
Rated PG-13

Originally published in LGBT Weekly