In 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy was very much an outlier for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nestled between Captain America: The Winter Solider and Avengers: Age of Ultron, Guardians caught everyone by surprise. It starred Chris Pratt, the doughy doofus from Parks & Recreation; featured a talking raccoon and a tree that only said, “I am Groot;” and was directed by James Gunn, who’d found cult success with Super and Slither, but little more. Three years and almost $775 million later, the a-holes are back for Vol. 2.
Set three months after the original, Pratt’s Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, and company are living off their victory against Ronan and the Kree, getting high-paying jobs across the galaxy, like protecting batteries for the Sovereign, a race that’s completely gold and considers themselves superior to the rest of the galaxy. After Rocket Raccoon steals some batteries for himself, the Sovereign are hot on the Guardians’ tail, who are rescued by Peter’s long-lost father, Ego. The living planet.
It makes sense, considering Quill’s ego, that his father would bear that name and be a planet that can manifest itself as a bearded Kurt Russell. That’s what we in the “biz” would define as ironic. Their father-son relationship sets the course for Vol. 2, which doesn’t get a good foothold until Russell appears.
For all that Vol. 2 does right, especially in the sense that it’s a sequel, it falls victim to a few sequel pitfalls. With all the characters established in the original, Gunn dives straight into the action, relying on the audience’s familiarity more than setting the stage for what’s to come. Considering all the fun mined from the characters, it’s a small concession.
Vol. 2’s marketing focused heavily on the characters and with good reason. For a film carrying a budget well north of $200 million, Vol. 2 is more character driven than anything else. One reason for sequels is to give audiences a chance to spend more time with characters they enjoy, and Gunn has taken that to heart. He’s fleshed out fringe characters from the original – Yondu is fantastic – even going so far as to give the most cardboard character in the series, Nebula, depth.
Those character moments are what define Vol. 2. Yes, there’s big action and great special effects, but the heart of the original beats through every frame of Vol. 2, and the emphasis on characters makes the sequel the most poignant and emotional in the entire MCU.
In some ways, Vol. 2 surpasses the first Guardians. The third act is more than CGI porn, and there are even more character moments than the original. Vol. 2 also struggles to gain momentum out of the gate and doesn’t establish a primary villain until late in the game. The emphasis on character may disappoint those who were hoping for a more rollicking adventure, but with time and repeat viewings, Vol. 2 may end up a more satisfying film than its predecessor.