If Marvel's Avengers was the MCU Greatest Hits, then Guardians of the Galaxy was surely the indie favourite. While it took it's influences from previous bands on the same label, it had it's own sound. Of course it had the obligatory tracks (damaged hero, death-from-above climax), but it was rougher around the edges and all the better for it. The sophomore album has killed off many a band that either did too much of the same or went too far when they experimented with the formula. If you don't hit the right notes, you can leave your audience feeling taken for granted or totally alienated.
Thankfully, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 benefits from the fact this is something writer/director James Gunn is blissfully aware of. Even the first few bars is a pitch-perfect intro that offers us the comfort of familiar riffs, but rubs more funk on it. There's a brazen confidence in the action packed opener that's almost reassuring. The titles are emblazoned in neon laser, while Baby Groot storms about a platform and our rag-tag band are battered by an inter-dimensional beastie. As first tracks go, it's as much a statement of intent as it a welcome back.
Gunn's often unorthodox approach is what stops the familiar from getting old. While the first volume brought the band together, the second is about why they should stay that way - rather than force them apart a la Age of Ultron. Like any band that's stayed on the road too long, this surrogate family has its inherent dysfunction and that particular melody has never been so in tune. Whether it's discussing "famously huge turds" or slinging names like "trash panda" at one another, what should be scathing exchanges are oddly sentimental because you can only really be that mean to people who love you enough to put up with it.
One of the toughest things for a band with equally talented members is making sure no ones gets upstaged. Bautista's riffs on Drax' too-honest responses are welcome, yet he manages to keep them from becoming a schtick. Likewise, Baby Groot's cuteness could become an insufferable one note, but Gunn also manages to pull off playing two instruments at once by adding another dimension without reinventing the character. Even Rocket gets a surprisingly fulfilling arc, that doesn't retread the Frankenstein's monster motif from the first Guardians of the Galaxy. As the front man Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) gets the lion share of narrative spotlight, but not at the cost of the other band members. The recognisable harmony of will-they-won't-they is to be expected and even addressed by Quill, but it's the father/son signature that really strikes a chord. Not only is it more effecting than you might expect, it's not drowned out by the action or the laughs.
With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 making character its chorus, there's less room for drawn out action moments. That being said, there's still plenty of set pieces that take it to the bridge. There's temporal asteroid chases, swarms of ships attacking the Milano and a particularly satisfying scene that sees Rocket's ingenuity fend off a marauding group of ravagers. Even if the last act does start to sound like the tried-and-tested big villain climax we've come to expect from Marvel, it's still our band of star-trekking idiots that keep it from going off key.
Ultimately, the kick drum of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is its beating heart and the rhythm is beguling. They may have been thrown together because they had no one else in Vol 1, but even when they bicker here it's clear they couldn't be without each other. It's such a strong emotional core pulsing through the entire suite, you may just hurt yourself tapping your foot to it - if you didn't have to stop to wipe your eye now and again.
5* - The difficult second album