With Avengers: Endgame on the horizon, it’s time to take a look back at everything that has led us to where we are. After the surprise success of Guardians of the Galaxy in Phase Two, the Marvel Cinematic Universe went properly cosmic in Phase Three, first and foremost in the form of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. With the absence of the Fantastic Four in the MCU until (potentially) Phase Four, there’s an argument to be made for the Guardians of the Galaxy to be Marvel’s “first family,” at least on the big screen. But I’ll get into that in a bit. Let’s take a look back at this stop on the path to Endgame, and the fifteenth film in The Infinity Saga.
[Full spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 follow!]
With how critically and commercially successful the first Guardians of the Galaxy film was, expectations were sky-high for the franchise’s second installment, and rightfully so. That installment felt like the first movie in the MCU with a distinct sense of style, a truly original voice in the comic book film genre. James Gunn brought style, color, and a cosmic swagger to the MCU, and with Vol. 2 he set out to continue that with his stellar cast.
What people were likely not expecting was a much more personal follow-up to the sugar rush of the series’ first installment; moments and set-pieces just as bombastic as those in the first are offset in Vol. 2 by quiet and emotional character beats that help expand upon the ragtag group we met in Guardians. Returning are the titualar Guardians, led once again by Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), and joined by Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (the voice of Bradley Cooper, as well as the motion capture talents of Sean Gunn), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel). Also returning are Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillian).
The prologue of Ego (Kurt Russell) and Peter’s mother Meredith Quill (Laura Haddock) on Earth setting up the plot in two ways: Ego’s plant foreshadows the film’s final act, and the mere presence of Peter’s mother with someone sets up the main draw of finding Peter’s father. The second of those two points is infinitely more important than the first; the “saving of the universe” aspect of this film is easily its least important element. While by no means uneventful, Vol. 2 is a quieter film than the first in more ways than one.
This is not to say that Vol. 2 does not have exciting moments, because that is simply not the case. The opening fight against the interdimensional monster on The Sovereign is colorful and explosive, but relegated to the background as we follow a dancing Baby Groot. Likewise, Rocket using gadgets and traps to dispatch the Ravagers once the Guardians crash on Berhert is kinetic and comical, but light on actual combat. It’s mainly a showcase for Rocket’s ingenuity, but also serves the film’s more reserved tone.
Now, that reservation does not stretch to the film’s production, which is every bit as colorful and varied as the first and then some. Many worlds are just so exploding with color that it’s hard to believe this takes place in the same universe as some of the MCU’s more drab entries like Thor: The Dark World. It is a beautiful movie, filled with wide shots that showcase its dreamlike worlds (especially Ego’s Planet) and inventive action, with Yondu, Rocket, and Groot’s escape sequence being a standout. This movie is definitely the most science fiction of the MCU, following closely in the footsteps of its predecessor. While the Thor movies introduced the cosmos, they were firmly rooted in fantasy. The first Guardians brought sci-fi to the MCU in a big way, and this film only furthers its concepts and pushes the boundaries of this universe farther, with new beings sprinkled throughout the film. Most notable are the brief cameos by The Watchers (and the late, great Stan Lee) and the appearance of the Sovereigns, a group that will almost certainly be the main focus of Vol. 3.
Then, of course, there is the soundtrack. I’ll refrain from saying too much on this subject, as you’ve surely listened to it dozens of times yourself. It is easily the best soundtrack in the MCU (of those few who have them), with songs such as Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” and Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” framing key moments and getting stuck in your head constantly. It’s excellent.
With all that being said, however, the film makes a name for itself in the MCU by being almost entirely self-contained. Many have said that because it has no major stakes or role in the larger Infinity Saga, it is an inessential film. This is incorrect.
For this sequel, it appears Gunn and Co. realized that bigger does not always mean better for a sequel, so they went the other way instead. This is important, because this second installment in what Gunn has said is a planned trilogy serves the plot of that trilogy’s arc, its conclusion being untold at time of writing. It also serves the characters, the series’ undeniable strength. The movie works so well because it feels like a natural progression for the Guardians as actual people/beings. And it does that by not doing what so many Marvel films often stumble with, which is trying to tie it into the larger universe at every turn. Vol. 2 is brilliant because it commits fully to characterization and relationships, not because of its connection to other films.
To see this in action, you don’t need to look any further than the film’s final act. Over the course of the movie, the characters talk about family and what that term actually means. Peter finds his paternal father in Ego, while losing sight of his real family, the Guardians. Rocket struggles with feeling distant from the group, Gamora and Nebula’s extreme sibling rivalry leads to extreme violence, Yondu loses the Ravagers except for Kraglin (Sean Gunn), and Drax fights fitting in with Mantis (Pom Klementieff). The characters struggle to understand where they all fit in, where they belong.
In the final act, a series of payoffs for all of these relationships occur, and the true meaning of this movie snaps into focus. Rocket and Yondu realize they are the same and become something of kindred spirits, taking comfort in knowing there is someone else who knows what the other feels like. Kraglin loses all his friends in the Ravager mutiny only to find a new home among the Guardians. Drax, a being with very stunted emotions, finds balance in his friendship with Mantis, who is defined by empathy. Gamora and Nebula do not perfectly settle their rivalry, but find an understanding by speaking to each other instead of fighting, as they have their whole life. And in the end, Peter finally meets his real father, a truth he has been missing or ignoring his entire life.
Yondu is the beating heart of this film, and his final scenes with Peter really cement the purpose of this film. His infamous “I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!” line is hilarious, but also great in the context of Peter and Yondu’s relationship. Peter had the opportunity to make fun of Yondu but chose not to, because he really does care for him. And when Ego is defeated, the movie comes full circle in Yondu’s sacrifice.
“He may have been your father boy, but he wasn’t your daddy.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t do none of it right. I’m damn lucky you’re my boy.”
In those three sentences, Yondu expresses his love to Peter. In return, Peter can only panic and try to save his father, knowing he cannot. Yondu pays the ultimate price for his son, something I am sure all parents understand. Who wouldn’t give everything for their child? Peter wordlessly conveys all the grief of finding a parent and immediately losing them, to gutting results. It’s a deeply moving scene in a movie full of them, and to follow it up with Yondu’s Ravager funeral really hammers home the movie’s ideas of family. The ones who originally exiled Yondu return to see their fallen brother off, and the Guardians come together as one to mourn and watch the fireworks. It’s a colorful and cathartic final scene, giving the characters time to accept a loss and take stock of what really matters to them, a rarity in many blockbusters.
When all is said and done, it’s true that the central story of the MCU is unchanged. That does not make Vol. 2 any less essential, though. It tells the most complete standalone story in the MCU, with probably the most emotionally resonant throughline in this saga. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is a movie about the family you’re given being put at odds with the family you choose. While it might be relatively minor in the grand scheme of the MCU, it is the most major in heart of any film in The Infinity Saga.
Odds & Ends
- The quantum asteroid field is a really, really cool idea. Asteroids popping in and out of nowhere makes for a great setpiece.
- Ego’s ship really embraces the Jack Kirby art-style roots that much of Marvel’s cosmic stories are based on.
- I feel like the slo-mo lineup walks are Gunn’s signature shots with these movies. There’s one on Berhert with Quill, Gamora, and Drax as well as one during Yondu, Groot, and Rocket’s escape. The one from the first film is iconic, I’m glad he continues that.
- Peter finally playing catch with Ego, his dad, is a very tender moment, making good on a conversation with Gamora earlier. The film is full of payoffs like this.
- Ego is a very interesting villain that gets disappointingly one-note by the film’s end. Kurt Russell really chews the scenery though, he’s great.
- This might be a reach, but I found Peter immediately shooting Ego after he reveals that he is the one who gave Peter’s mother her tumor to be an interesting bit of foreshadowing to him attacking Thanos in Infinity War after he reveals that he killed Gamora. It’s the same situation, and definitely sets a precedent for his character.
- The final post-credit scene teases Adam Warlock, and that’s truly exciting. He’ll definitely arrive and shake up the MCU (he wore the Infinity Gauntlet in the original Infinity Gauntlet comic arc!)