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Tom Besley reviews the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy, which boasts a more thorough, intimate and character-driven instalment than its predecessor.

The first Guardians of the Galaxy film was a surprise hit. The translation of the Marvel formula into space served up an action-packed and fast-paced sojourn into a Star Wars style epic and in doing so pleased a large number of superhero fans who got a twist on the usual fare.

Today though, the original Guardians feels far less fresh in a post-Force Awakens era than it did upon release. Many of its defining moments and characters are far more lacking in substance than fans may remember; it feels like an unfortunate swing towards the increasingly bloated and repetitive state of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s a lot to love about the original Guardians, but it’s a little too much of rollercoaster ride for its own good.

I’m pleased to report that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 addresses nearly all of the issues with the original, doubles down on character rather than meaningless action, and is funnier, more focused and less formulaic than the first film. It’s more Star Trek than Star Wars, taking place across only a few locations and developing the arcs of those we met in the first film with a more relaxed and measured pace.

At the heart of this film is a father/son relationship, though it doesn’t turn out quite the way one might expect

The plot is simple – chief Guardian Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) meets his father for the first time and travels with him back to his home-world. Unfortunately, they are pursued by a number of dangerous foes, including the first film’s Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillen), as well as new enemy, The Sovereign.

The first film talked a lot about Quill’s father but did nothing with the concept, so it’s a relief to see him finally here and being played so brilliantly by Kurt Russell. At the heart of this film is a father/son relationship, though it doesn’t turn out quite the way one might expect. Yondu has an expanded role with a huge pay-off and he is paired up effectively with Bradley Cooper’s Rocket for much of the film.

It’s these kinds of new dimensions and dynamics that let the film work so effectively. The original forced the five main Guardians into a group and made them feel more like pieces than characters.

In the sequel, writer and director James Gunn manoeuvres them in more interesting ways – Baby Groot is less over-powered and just as endearing, Quill and Gamora’s relationship is explored less hurriedly and Drax is more hilarious than ever, playing perfectly off innocent newcomer Mantis (Pom Klementieff).

The film takes place over fewer worlds and benefits as a result. There are just as many characters and factions in play, but it feels less like a good versus evil battle and more like a raucous adventure.

It’s more character-driven than before and that may turn off those who are there for the big budget action scenes, but even they will no doubt be satisfied by the usual Marvel third act climax that sees everyone zipping about a battlefield to beat up the film’s big bad. The overall running time is probably about fifteen minutes too long, but it doesn’t feel like it outstays its welcome.

Guardians Vol. 2 does for this series what Avengers: Age of Ultron did for the Avengers. It re-defines and re-explores characters that didn’t have a chance to get enough development in the preceding film, and delivers a cracking villain in the process.

If you were turned off by Age of Ultron, you may well be turned off by Guardians Vol. 2, but this is a great antidote for those who are feeling a bit tired of seeing the same film done over and over, or seeing fan-service-filled action scenes with little emotional investment or consequence.

As someone who hated Captain America: Civil War, it was a pleasurable surprise to find James Gunn changing up the pieces that were at play in the first Guardians, rather than just riding the series’ success. This isn’t an essential MCU film, but by this point it’s questionable whether that’s what these films should be aspiring to be.

The magic, novelty and surprise of space may have worn off of Guardians for some, but I’m glad we got a sequel that took the time to take us to a more interesting place. Guardians Vol. 2 feels like a resolution to the hanging threads of the first film and serves up a more substantial ride in the process.

Did this sequel soar? Let us know on @EpigramFilm.

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