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D: James Gunn / 136m

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Kurt Russell, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Tommy Flanagan, Laura Haddock

At the end of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), there was a reference to the identity of Peter Quill/Star Lord’s father. It wasn’t particularly complimentary, but it did give some idea of where a sequel might be headed if the movie was successful (which it ever so slightly was). Three months on from the events of the first movie, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 begins with our heroes working for the Sovereign, a race led by Ayesha (Debicki). Charged with protecting some valuable batteries, the Guardians complete their mission but manage to earn the Sovereign’s enmity when it’s discovered that Rocket (Cooper) has stolen some of the batteries himself. Attacked by hundreds of Sovereign drone ships, the Guardians’ spaceship suffers a lot of damage before it can make a light speed jump to safety – and before the drone ships are all destroyed by another mysterious craft.

The Guardians crash land on a nearby planet and the mysterious craft lands also. The owner of the craft reveals himself as Peter’s father, called Ego (Russell), and that he’s been searching for Peter (Pratt) for years. It also transpires that Peter was abducted from Earth by Ravager Yondu Udonta (Rooker) at Ego’s request (though why Yondu kept charge of Peter goes unexplained). Now reunited, Ego suggests they travel to his home planet so that he can be “the father he should have been”. While Peter, Gamora (Saldana), and Drax (Bautista) agree to journey with him, Rocket and Baby Groot (Diesel) stay behind to repair their ship and look after Nebula (Gillan), Gamora’s sister and the payment they received from the Sovereign for their work. However, Ayesha has hired Yondu with the mission of retrieving the stolen batteries and capturing the Guardians.

On Ego’s home planet, Peter and his father begin to bond, but Gamora senses that something isn’t right. Ego’s attendant, an empath called Mantis (Klementieff), appears anxious over Peter’s being there but remains silent. Meanwhile, Yondu has been the victim of a mutiny, and some of his crew, led by self-proclaimed Taserface (Sullivan) and aided by Nebula, have taken over the ship. Nebula takes a ship and heads for Ego’s planet intent on killing Gamora, while Rocket, Baby Groot and Yondu find they need to work together to avoid being killed. Soon, everyone, including another drone armada sent by Ayesha, is heading for Ego’s planet, and the fate of the Guardians and hundreds of other far-flung planets hangs in the balance…

The surprise success of Guardians of the Galaxy three years ago was a shot in the arm for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, proving to audiences becoming accustomed to a regular diet of superhero theatrics, that there was more to said Universe than egotists in tin suits, enhanced super soldiers, and feuding demi-gods. By making a movie that had nothing to do with anyone else in the MCU, Marvel showed a confidence in their original material, and in the movie’s writer/director, that could so easily have backfired on them. That it didn’t must lie squarely on the creative shoulders of James Gunn, the man who took a motley crew of ne’er-do-wells and made them loved the world over. It wasn’t long before there was talk of the Guardians appearing in Avengers: Infinity War (2018), but a sequel was already in place. So – what to do with them in the meantime?

The answer is…not very much at all. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 falls into the category of uninspired Marvel sequel, a placement it shares with Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor: The Dark World (2013), and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (only the Captain America sequels have avoided falling into this category). While it’s true that there’s much to enjoy this time around, and the first movie’s freewheeling sense of fun and adventure is firmly in place, the fact is that this is a two and a quarter hour movie that runs out of steam – dramatically at least – at around the hour and a quarter mark. By that time, the three main storylines – Peter finds his father, Yondu makes amends for breaking the Ravager code, Gamora and Nebula come to terms with their hatred of each other – have all reached a point where there’s nowhere further for them to go, and James Gunn’s script lurches into an extended series of showdowns and signposted revelations that offer little in the way of character or plot development.

On this occasion, and with only one post-credits scene designed to set up the already announced Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, it’s clear that this is Marvel’s first true filler movie, designed and made to capitalise on the success of the original, and to fill a gap in the release schedule. Fortunately though, and again thanks to the involvement of Gunn and his returning cast, this is a filler movie that replicates much of the first movie’s highly enjoyable charm and visual quirkiness. From the opening credits sequence that sees Baby Groot dancing to ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky while his fellow Guardians take on a multi-tentacled inter-dimensional monster in the background, Gunn’s novel approach to the material proves (again) to be one of the movie’s MVP’s, and is only bested by the sequence later in the movie when Yondu and Rocket take back control of Yondu’s ship. (However, Ego’s home planet looks like it was designed by My Little Pony on an acid trip.)

But while there’s a heck of a lot going on visually, it’s down in the story department that the movie shows signs of wear and tear. The emphasis on family ties is made over and over again as old enemies become bosom buddies in order to give the movie a happy, feelgood vibe, and the ranks of the Guardians are swelled temporarily (this is personal redemption achieved easily and without the slightest challenge). The characters remain much the same too, with Peter and Gamora still at odds over their attraction for each other, and Rocket retaining his knack for deliberately saying things that will antagonise others. Drax is even more insensitive than before, Nebula is still consumed with rage against her father, Thanos, and Baby Groot – well, he’s still just as cute (if not more so). Of the newcomers, Gunn doesn’t seem entirely sure of how to use Mantis, Ayesha is akin to a spoilt little princess, while Ego’s “purpose” isn’t fully explored, and makes Russell work extra hard in getting the idea across to audiences.

With much of the movie underperforming in this way, it’s fortunate that Gunn has retained the irreverent sense of humour present in the first movie, and there are some very funny moments indeed, from Rocket being described as a “trash panda”, to an out of leftfield reference to Mary Poppins, and the pay-off to the first post-credits scene. Elsewhere, Sylvester Stallone pops up in a role that’s intended to be expanded on in future outings, Russell is given the same younger version treatment Michael Douglas received in Ant-Man (2015), the Awesome Mix Tape Vol. 2 is exactly that, and the space battles are bewildering in terms of what’s happening and to whom. But with all that, this is still hugely enjoyable stuff, lavishly produced and glossy from start to finish, and designed to please the fans first and foremost. On that level it will probably succeed, but it won’t change the fact that this is not quite the triumphant sequel that many will be expecting – or hearing about.

Rating: 6/10 – with much of the movie feeling flat and ponderous in terms of the drama, and the characters no further forward in terms of their development, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 gets by on its often inspired humour, and the chemistry that unites its cast; a safe bet for the most part, with enough inventiveness and charm to make it look and sound better than it is, it’s a solid enough movie, but in automobile terms, it doesn’t have too much going on under the hood.