This article contains potential spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Near the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, hero Peter Quill and the film’s main villain are ready for their big fight. Before it begins, though, Quill angrily lashes out at his enemy: “You shouldn't have killed my mom and squished my Walkman!” This outburst encapsulates the movie in microcosm: It wants to get us hooked on a feeling of real human emotion and struggle, but also wants to instant-mix such moments with the safety represented by its jokey nods to 1980s popular culture.
Like director James Gunn’s 2014 breakout Guardians of the Galaxy, the sequel aims to make equal space for both humor and heart. Fans of its stellar cast—Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (voice by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (voice by Vin Diesel)—will find plenty to enjoy about this misfit space crew’s mercenary adventures.
But as Peter suggested near the first film’s end, he and his new friends accomplish “something good, something bad, a little bit of both.” Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at Vol. 2’s very literal fulfillment of this promise. When the filmmakers show discipline by focusing separately on the crew’s very human griefs, with humor that helps power these struggles, the film blasts off. But moments of uncertainty—especially when the story retreats from its own big ideas in favor of tiny ideas or distracting jokes—threaten to undermine the film’s own fun characters and original ideas.
In 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy explored new worlds even while following the standard Marvel Cinematic Universe formula: likeable heroes, superpowers, and a magic MacGuffin that bad guys want and heroes guard. Vol. 2, however, courageously disregards MacGuffin-driven drama in favor of trusting in its already-famous heroes’ relationship dramas.
This time, the Guardians, having truly bonded in the first film, are finishing their latest space-mercenary job when they end up on the run from their employers, the gold-skinned elitist Sovereign race. They hire Peter’s former adoptive father, the space pirate Yondu, and his band of Ravagers to hunt them down. Genuine thrills and danger ensue—and, impressively, it’s not at the expense of slowing down to take in the sights. Guardians eagerly showcases animation genius, not just in the photo-real Rocket and Groot, but the splendid backdrops of space and the organically built, gilded worlds half the crew visits for most of the story.
The film’s official description says the Guardians must “unravel the mystery of Peter Quill’s true parentage.” However, the mystery is actually solved within 30 minutes (having already been revealed by many Vol. 2 trailers and clips). Peter’s father, it turns out, is Ego (Kurt Russell), a “celestial,” or small-G god. (For spiritually sensitive viewers, he’s careful to de-capitalize himself). As a planet-sized entity with Demiurge-style creation powers, Ego has spent eons searching for purpose to his existence.
What is the chief end of a self-evolved godlike entity? Ego’s solution is genuinely scary, and very nearly pushes the story, as goofy as it can be, into the territory of classic science-fiction philosophy about the nature of humanity and our moral limits. In this case, apart from the wise rule of an uppercase-G God, even parenthood can turn into a perversion that seeks to spread evil across the universe.