How 'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2' Beat Marvel's Sequel Curse

'Age of Ultron' and 'Iron Man 2' couldn't top their predecessors, but a mix of emotion, character growth and personal stakes helped James Gunn's film rise above.
Courtesy of Marvel/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.]

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 had the nearly impossible task of living up to the expectations of the surprise 2014 hit — and in some rather surprising ways, it succeeded.

Marvel Studios has a mixed track record with second installments (there are few fans who would rank Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron above their immediate predecessors, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier is largely considered to top the first Cap movie). And while the reviews were positive, even many praising the film argued James Gunn's follow-up didn't totally recapture the magic of the first installment. I humbly submit that those claims are wrong, and here's why:

Vol. 2 is more emotional than its predecessor.

Movies like The Avengers feature makeshift families, but never has a Marvel movie tackled the theme of family so poignantly. Unlike another Vin Diesel-starring blockbuster, the way writer-director Gunn employs family throughout Guardians Vol. 2 makes it more than a buzzword. The main plot shows Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) finally meeting his father, the man-shaped planet known as Ego (Kurt Russell), while Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her vengeful sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) attempt to smooth over their rough history, and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) bonds with the Ravager Yondu (Michael Rooker).

From the outset of the first Guardians, the mystery of Peter’s heritage has hovered over his arc; when he first meets Ego, he’s encouraged by Gamora to get to know the old man better. But Gunn’s script, aided by the performances from Pratt, Russell and Rooker, gets at the larger question: Does being Peter’s blood relative really make Ego his dad emotionally, or is that Yondu, his old overseer?

The third act makes it clear that the answer is the latter. Ego’s plan is to rebuild the universe and destroy the current one with Peter at his side, until he reveals he gave Peter’s mother the brain cancer that killed her. Then we learn that Yondu’s choice to abduct Peter as a youth was to save the boy from Ego, who deliberately impregnated life forms on various planets to gain a god-like progeny. He simply killed those who didn’t measure up. That revelation demonstrates that, of all relationships, the bond between Peter and Yondu is the beating heart of the film.

The most touching moment comes at the end, when Peter realizes Yondu is sacrificing himself so his surrogate son can survive. After all the explosive action (and there’s plenty), the image of Pratt shouting a distraught “No!” as Rooker’s Yondu touches the younger man's face in a loving gesture hits home hardest. There is emotion in the first Guardians of the Galaxy, but the familial connections here are written and performed in a stronger-than-expected way. If there’s any obvious improvement between films, it’s here.

The characters grow more than in prior Marvel films.

Some of this is literal: Groot is in his infancy when the movie begins and he only approaches teenage-hood in a post-credits scene. Much of it isn't so obvious, but what's apparent is Gunn is less concerned about whether the action is bigger and badder than with building upon the characters we were introduced to three years ago.

There are hints in the first Guardians that Yondu has a soft spot for Peter, or that Rocket Raccoon is, at heart, caring. But even the vicious sibling rivalry between Gamora and Nebula plays out in natural, spiky fashion, not as if it was forced to bring the Guardians closer to the Avengers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (despite their adopted dad being the main connection). Nebula, nowhere near a “good” character in the first film, gets layers through Gunn’s script and Gillan’s performance, suggesting nuance where little existed originally.

It speaks to the strength of the ensemble, as well as to Gunn’s script, that each time the action shifts from Peter to Gamora, or from Drax to Rocket, each in their own subplot, the pacing never flags. The cast, even the newbies, are all clearly enjoying themselves (though Russell may be having the most fun of all); moreover, these actors are so well-suited to their roles, selling their characters’ emotional shifts wholeheartedly. Gunn’s script makes these shifts feel genuine, and so do the actors.

The universe may be at risk, but the drama is still small.

So many blockbusters, specifically comic-book films, feel the need to go big or go home. The first Guardians is no stranger to this: The final setpiece takes place on Xandar, where Ronan the Destroyer is going to ... well, destroy the planet, and soon the galaxy, unless the Guardians stop him. Here, too, the universe is at stake, but Gunn handles the action so the characters' fates are vastly more important. (There are brief cutaways to planets, such as Earth, being affected by Ego’s attempt at destruction, but they’re at blink-and-you’ll-miss-them levels.)

What’s key is that Gunn doesn’t use this movie to overstuff his story with tons of new characters. There's Ego, as well as his personal empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and the golden-faced aliens known as the Sovereign, who shift from employing the Guardians to wanting them dead. But at its heart, this movie is still about the lead quintet; it doesn’t lose focus by trying to go bigger. Even if the galaxy is at stake in the climax, the characters’ interpersonal relationships are what matters most. Peter’s faux-Cheers romance with Gamora, his rocky connection with Rocket, and others are what makes this film tick.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, like a lot of sequels, wanted to emulate one of the greatest of all time, The Empire Strikes Back. This film isn’t that good, but like Empire, Vol. 2 is a step above its predecessor; it expands on the original without feeling excessive or obnoxious. Unlike some of Marvel’s sequels, Vol. 2 manages to stay true to the spirit of the original while expanding and improving just the same.

For more from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, check out our interviews with Sean Gunn and Michael Rooker.

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