There was no better demonstration of Marvel’s box-office magic than turning the obscure “Guardians of the Galaxy” into a major hit in 2014. The sequel, perhaps inevitably, lacks that sense of discovery, delivering some fun moments while getting a bit bogged down in an uneven narrative and a surplus of daddy issues.
Marvel’s origin stories are where it shines the brightest, while first sequels (see “Iron Man,” “Thor,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron”) have generally registered on the lower end of its cinematic accomplishments.
By that measure, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” somewhat bucks the trend, despite an underwhelming villain and a meandering midsection, which are partly offset by a strong opening and finish.
While the first movie assembled a team of space-faring misfits, this one takes off with them carrying out a mission for a race of golden aliens that goes spectacularly wrong. Forced to flee across the galaxy, the gang encounters a benefactor (Kurt Russell) who claims to be the long-lost father of Peter Quill, a.k.a. Starlord (Chris Pratt), who grew up knowing only his mother before being whisked off to become a space-traveling thief.
Writer-director James Gunn again milks plenty of comedy from the rest of the gang, perhaps foremost from the ill-tempered raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and the hulking, literal-minded Drax (Dave Bautista). At the same time, so-called “Baby Groot” – a pint-sized, indisputably adorable version of the monosyllabic, anthropomorphic tree – feels like nothing quite so much as an attempt to sell plush toys.
There is also continued flirtation between Quill and the green-skinned alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who is wrestling with her own family problems. In this case, the friction comes from her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), who’s determined to kill her for complicity in the torment she suffered at their hands of their evil father, Thanos.
“Guardians” blasts off with an initial burst of good-natured energy before indulging in some ill-advised sequences, foremost among them a slow-motion fight scene that cavalierly notches a distasteful body count, even in this over-the-top setting.
The movie rallies, eventually, with its not-so-subtle message about family being what you make of it, cheeky humor and deftly chosen classic song soundtrack, weaving in tunes like Looking Glass’ “Brandy” and Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son.” There’s even an asteroid-dodging space flight that owes a spiritual debt to “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Poised to kick off the summer box-office season in rousing fashion, “Guardians” can hardly escape the fact that it is now part of Marvel’s larger machinery, including an appearance in the upcoming Avengers movie “Infinity War” and another already announced sequel. The latter is teased during the teeming closing credits, and the brief snippet shown frankly looks more enticing, at least for comic-book fans, than the somewhat sketchy plot of “Vol. 2.”
“You are wasting a lot of time here,” Starlord grouses at one point, which might as well be a commentary about the movie’s middle.
In terms of sheer entertainment value, though, this “Guardians of the Galaxy” ultimately shares just enough with its central quintet – rather heroically getting the job done, even if the trip from here to there can be a bit disjointed and messy.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” opens May 5 in the U.S. It’s rated PG-13.