Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 improves upon its predecessor in every way to deliver the best film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It really doesn’t feel like six years have passed since Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 came out back in 2017. I still remember the night I saw it: I had just finished my final semester of college, I was celebrating by going out with friends to our local theater, I was ready to have a great time like we all did with the first Guardians … and when it was over, I was the only one of us who liked it. Whoops! Not only did I like it, but as someone who already loved the first Guardians of the Galaxy, I loved this one even more. My friends looked at me like I was crazy, but I adored everything about what I saw, and as the months continued and I kept thinking back on it, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 wound up being my favorite film in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, and one of my favorite movies, period. Now, let’s discuss why, with full spoilers included.
Taking place soon after the first film, Vol. 2 sees the ragtag team chased down by an alien race they’ve wronged, the Sovereign. Along the way, they’re visited by Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) father, Ego (Kurt Russell), who turns out to be a god with his own planet – or rather, he is the planet, because this movie’s awesome enough to run with that weird idea. Ego invites Peter, Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), and Drax (Dave Bautista) to his planet/himself to show Peter the powers he’s inherited and tell him about his ultimate goals. Meanwhile, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) are imprisoned by the Ravagers, along with the newly exiled Yondu (Michael Rooker). Also involved is Nebula (Karen Gillan), who’s initially dead-set on hunting down her sister Gamora but comes to possibly want to turn things around.
My friends weren’t the only ones let down by this sequel. Though Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was mostly well-received, the general consensus from critics seemed to be that it was inferior to the first Guardians. Though I heavily disagreed from Day 1, I will say that if you go into Vol. 2 expecting the same totally upbeat, wiz-bang energy the first movie had, you may be really taken aback by what you end up getting. Vol. 2 is a much slower, much darker, and much more emotionally charged experience. A lot of its runtime is spent with characters simply talking or engaging in longer moments of silence without much action going on. Some of the imagery and ideas can be genuinely uncomfortable to watch, and the ending is far more bittersweet than anyone was probably expecting. While the first Guardians had me leave the theater laughing, this one had me leave the theater misty-eyed.
Almost every character is going through some sort of personal crisis or revelation about themselves, and the slower pacing helps keep all of that in focus. All of the character quirks from the first film are dug into with more detail and actually analyzed instead of largely being played for jokes. Peter is obviously confronting his heritage as an immortal god, slowly drawn to his father’s way of living and growing further apart from his friends. What makes this particularly compelling is Ego himself, who’s tied with Thanos as my personal favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe villain. As we ultimately discover, Ego is a megalomaniac whose goal is to spread his consciousness across the universe until everything is him. That sounds like a basic, shallow motivation, but it’s elevated substantially by how he carries himself and why he feels the need to do it.
Ego tried to walk among mortals and even fell in love, but because of his essence as a higher being, he still felt empty, even when he claims to have felt the same emotions of a mortal human being. But the most fascinating part is that Ego acts like he wishes he could have found happiness with that kind of life. When he says he loved Peter’s mother, enough to nearly give up his plan, I believe he genuinely means it. But his urges and ambition overrode that. It may be due to his own literal ego as a god, or it may be because his very nature will not physically let him accept anything less than constant expansion. It’s a nature that’s on a far higher level than anyone else, but one that came so close to gaining a humanity and finding value in it.
The more I think about it, the more tragic it is. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that type of dichotomy done this convincingly, and it’s all thanks to the writing and especially Kurt Russell’s work in the role. He brings so much charisma, conviction, and even heart to his performance that sells you on his sincerity, to a point where I spent a lot of my first viewing unsure as to whether or not he was a genuine threat … and then we see the bones of his children and, yeah, that was kinda the final nail in that coffin. A morbidly dark final nail, which I love. He’s also just a great metaphor for the film’s themes of vulnerability and … well, ego. Even before meeting Ego, we see the detriments of Peter’s ego when he’s resorting to reckless measures to escape the Sovereign. It keeps growing the more of his true nature he discovers, similarly to how Ego himself grows throughout the universe like the very cancer he gave Peter’s mother.
Rocket and Yondu also try to preserve their own egos by lashing out at those supposedly closest to them. I never would have anticipated what a fantastic choice putting these two together would be, as it lets us learn a lot more about Yondu’s fatherly connection to Peter and see that, like Rocket, a much more vulnerable person is hiding behind his gruff, cruel exterior. He even addresses this when expressing how both he and Rocket try subconsciously to chase loved ones away, which hits even harder now that we know Rocket’s backstory from Vol. 3. The raccoon lost his only friends and is likely afraid of experiencing that again. We also see the loud, savage, sadistic Ravager culture at its worst as Yondu’s defectors drunkenly kill and torture their enemies. This toxic masculinity is also is personified by the ugly meathead Taserface (Chris Sullivan), whose overcompensation via that name is rightfully made fun of even when he’s about to die.
Even Gamora, the most mature member of the group, needs to own up to her ego from her younger years. It turns out Nebula’s body parts were replaced with machinery by her father every time she lost a fight against Gamora … and yet, Gamora still kept winning. That’s, again, very dark, giving Nebula’s already off-putting appearance a depressing new layer. But it also gives them both a great conflict to overcome, with Nebula thinking she’ll be happy after killing her sister, only for them to have their fight, talk it out, and ultimately make up when Gamora apologizes. It’s like a warped, twisted version of how actual siblings fight, right down to their petulant screaming when shooting at each other.
So much of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 operates like this. It takes such insane, surreal, sometimes childish setups and ties them into very real, very relatable emotions and introspections. All of the multiple threads end up coming together in some way, surprisingly so. On first viewing, I actually found myself a little restless during the first half because of how seemingly meandering and aimless it was. But once it was entering the home stretch, all of the seemingly disjointed pieces suddenly came together, and now I can watch the entire film and marvel (hahaha!) at all the setup that I recognize as being worth it.
And still, for all of that heightened drama, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 miraculously keeps the fun factor of the first film intact. All of the characters retain what made them so loveably hilarious in both the writing and the performances. Sure, Drax’s huge belly laughs are a bit too frequent, but he’s still the same well-meaning numbskull we all know and love. Even on the rare occasion a joke doesn’t land, it’s barely a dent on the otherwise constant stream of great oddball humor. The opening credits are a great riff on the typical irrelevant starting battle you’d get in many action movies. I love how the Sovereign chase the Guardians through drones that they control like arcade games, right down to a group of them excitedly gathering around the best drone pilot to watch him. And of course, the single greatest declaration anyone could ever make: “I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!” Because hell yeah, he’s cool.
Outside of Infinity War, this is easily the best the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever looked, even including Vol. 3. Ego’s planet alone is a smorgasbord of some of the most eye-pleasing colors and serene alien backgrounds I’ve seen in any movie. At a glance, it looks like a paradise akin to Heaven itself, constantly bathed in gorgeous sunlight and perfectly composed wildlife and architecture … too perfect, which gives you the slight visual suggestion that something isn’t right. The shots on board the Ravagers’ ship are often claustrophobic, putting their vile nature right in your face. Even the big, bombastic climax that most MCU movies have is boosted by the uniqueness of the location – the interior of Ego’s planet – and invokes a particular sense of danger, since the setting itself is alive and easily able to kill the Guardians at any moment.
The CGI isn’t always 100% convincing, but it feels like it’s only used where the plentiful makeup couldn’t feasibly work, and it’s believable far more often than not. Rocket in particular is still a stunning effect, to a point where I find myself constantly forgetting he is an effect while watching. The digital work is also always used in a way that still gets across the weight of every bit of movement, helping you still feel like you’re in every setting. Even when the CGI and greenscreen are a bit noticeable on Ego’s planet, that injects a sort of uncanny valley into the environment that enhances the creeping sense of darkness. Excuses for imperfect filmmaking for the win!
The action in general is more memorable than the already-entertaining first Guardians. My personal favorite scene in that regard is the fight between Nebula and Gamora, but it’s closely followed by Yondu, Rocket, and Groot laying total waste to their former captors after they’ve escaped. Its inventive simplicity and gleefully high body count in contrast to the upbeat pop song is pure Guardians. The new additions to the Guardians’team, like Ego’s former assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and the returning Ravager Kraglin (Sean Gunn), are both really funny and sneakily heartfelt, and it’s always great to see how what are now mainstays of the Guardians cast officially joined up with the titular heroes.
Lastly, there’s the staple of every Guardians of the Galaxy movie: the music. The first film’s soundtrack is great, but it contains a lot of the kinds of staple songs you’d expect for a classic pop rock soundtrack. Here, the music feels a lot more personally chosen, from the endlessly catchy Lake Shore Drive, to the majestic My Sweet Lord, to the somber closer Father and Son, to the eternally kickass masterpiece that is The Chain. The songs also sound more reflective and subdued in general, matching the film’s tone and even fitting its themes lyrically. Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl) is dissected directly by the characters, and now the song will forever have an ominous undercurrent because of how it’s used and interpreted in this movie. You’re welcome, Looking Glass. That’s not to slight Tyler Bates’s score, which is still lively and makes great continued use of his excellent Guardians main theme.
I’m often critical of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially in more recent years. But I do still enjoy a majority of its films and believe it to have a huge number of strengths. And when I think of what those strengths could achieve at their highest capabilities with their potential totally uncompromised, the first film I think of is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The well-written yet silly humor, the effortlessly charming cast and chemistry, the imaginative worlds and storytelling, and the perfect mix of fun and drama, are all at their peak here. I went into Vol. 2 thinking it would be another fun blast like its predecessor, probably not as good but still enjoyable. But it completely blew me away and still holds up no matter how many times I watch it. And after being surrounded by people who didn’t see what I saw, I’m very happy that the film has since gotten the love it deserves over the years.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is now available to watch on Disney Plus.