Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, arguably the studio’s most highly anticipated 2017 release, is finally in theaters. The original Guardians of the Galaxy remains one of the Marvel’s riskiest success stories and is now regarded as one of the best entries in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, so it’s fair to say that expectations have been high for Vol. 2 to deliver an experience at least on par with the first film. Long story short, if you enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy, you’re probably going to love Vol. 2, as it delivers the same ridiculous space opera spoof style while exploring the characters and relationships in even greater detail. At this juncture, it’s difficult to say whether Vol. 2 is a better movie, but I do think it does make some improvements in certain areas.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t avoid getting into SPOILER talk here, so if you’re worried about having plot details revealed, you should see the movie first before reading.
10. Baby Groot > Regular Groot
The various teasers and trailers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 made Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) look and sound adorable, but it was unclear whether his presence would distract or grow tiresome over the course of the film. Now that I’ve seen Baby Groot in action, I can safely say that I prefer him to his bigger version, even if at times it feels like the film doesn’t quite know how to work him into the story organically. The main drawback to the Guardians not having a big Groot around anymore is that Baby Groot is pretty much a constant liability for them, as he’s more likely to dance to some ELO in the midst of battle than worry about things like, you know, not getting killed.
In simple terms, Groot is essentially the Guardians’ pet dog in this film and that dynamic works surprisingly well. Not only is Baby Groot freaking adorable (although he can get quite feisty when the mood strikes), the paternal/caregiver roles that each of his teammates have to play in order to keep him alive actually seems to strengthen the bonds between them, as each member gets their turn to supervise the “Twig,” as Yondu affectionately refers to him at one point. Sure, it’s a bit disappointing not to have Adult Groot and his ability to lay waste to enemies, but I really enjoyed this bold change in direction for the character and feel like it only helped bolster the personality of a film already overflowing with it.
9. It Handles Thanos Better
It’s no secret that every corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — including the Guardians of the Galaxy — is on a collision course with the Mad Titan Thanos, who will be the main villain of next year’s Avengers: Infinity War (and presumably Avengers 4, set for release in 2019). The original Guardians of the Galaxy actually gave us our first real look at Thanos following his brief tease at the end of The Avengers, with an entire scene dedicated to the villain. While it was definitely cool at the time to see Thanos floating on his rocket throne and speaking lines of dialogue for the first time, this scene really didn’t add anything to the film and barely told us anything about the character other than that he prefers his daughter Gamora to Nebula.
What’s great about Vol. 2 is that it doesn’t even have Thanos in it and somehow does a better of informing the audience of just what a twisted, evil bastard he is. Nebula, given a much more substantial role this time out, tells of how Thanos mutilated her every time she failed to best her sister Gamora in combat, replacing parts of her body with machinery each time she failed. That Nebula is able to forgive her sister and realize that Thanos is truly to blame for everything requires quite a bit of maturity and also helps set up just how much the galaxy should fear the Mad Titan heading into Infinity War.
8. It Might Actually Be Funnier
This is something that is admittedly hard to quantify, but all I know is that it felt like I laughed harder and more frequently during Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 than I did while watching the first film. Does that make Vol. 2 better? No, of course not, but it’s certainly refreshing to see a sequel that looked at an already riotously funny movie and thought, “We can do better.” I’ve seen some complaints about how there are almost too many jokes in this film and that some of them don’t land, thereby dragging down certain scenes.
Obviously, senses of humor differ from person to person, so not every joke is going to appeal to every person; but also, it’s unfair to expect a movie to accomplish this sort of feat. Vol. 2 may double down on the humor, yes, but it also leaves plenty of room for character development and drama, and I don’t think that having Drax joke about his bowel movements undermines any of the more serious-minded stuff going on in this film.
7. The Musical Sequences Are More Inspired
Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack for GotG Vol. 2 is stellar, with James Gunn again hand-selecting a variety of stone cold classic 70s pop tunes. While it’s certainly up for debate as to which soundtrack is better (I might still have to give the edge to Awesome Mix Vol. 1 for the presence of David Bowie alone), Vol. 2 arguably does a better job of marrying its music with what’s happening on screen. For my money, the opening sequence involving Baby Groot dancing to Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” (arguably one of the greatest pop songs ever written) while the rest of the team fights a hideous space monster is pure magic and tops Star-Lord’s dance-off challenge from the first film. I also highly enjoyed the fact that the final fight sequence is set to Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” another classic cut.
Throw in the fact that Kurt Russell’s Ego and his obsession with Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” and it’s fair to say that Gunn has his work cut out for him when it comes time to assemble Awesome Mix Vol. 3.
6. The Team/Family Dynamic Is Better Explored
The jokes fly fast and frequently in GotG Vol. 2, but the film doesn’t let its screwball structure prevent it from exploring some surprisingly emotional territory. While you’re unlikely to shed tears, it’s hard not to feel touched by some of the final act drama that unfolds, to the point where this is arguably one of the Marvel’s most emotionally resonant films to date. There’s the obvious absentee father drama going on with Kurt Russell’s Ego and Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill, but the film also goes more in-depth into Quill’s relationship with Yondu and reveals the truth behind why he decided to keep him and raise him as a ravager.
There’s also the aforementioned relationship between Gamora and Nebula, but the real emotional heart of the film is the dysfunctional family dynamic between the Guardians themselves. The first film explored this theme as well, but the characters were more reluctant allies than close friends at that point. Here, the Guardians are still trying to figure out how to work together without killing each other, but over the course of the film, it becomes clear just how much they care about and need one another. The Avengers are great and all, but Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 clearly establishes which MCU superhero team is its greatest.
Obviously, thanks to GotG Vol. 2’s bump in budget, it’s easy for it to have better visuals than the first movie, but better CGI is only half the story. Vol. 2 is simply gorgeous. Gunn has saturated the whole thing in dynamic color hues designed to evoke the 60s/70s nostalgia style he’s going for and it’s all pulled off with a aplomb. However, even from a design perspective, Vol. 2 has the first movie trumped, as the characters get to travel to some incredible-looking places, with Ego’s planet in particular being one of the best alien worlds I’ve seen on screen in years (nothing from the most recent Star Wars films even comes close). Most films in the MCU have started to become uniform with their visual designs, but Gunn has proven yet again with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 that the cosmic corner of the Marvel Universe is anything but boring to look at.
Oh and let’s just quickly acknowledge how awesome young Kurt Russell looks in the film’s opening scene. Coming hot on the heels of Rogue One and its uncanny valley representations of both Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia, Disney’s visual effects teams deserve credit for proving this technology can be convincing when done properly.
4. The Supporting Characters Are Fleshed Out
Vol. 2 spends much more time developing the core group of characters, but it also doesn’t skimp out on its supporting players, with characters like Yondu, Nebula, and even Sean Gunn’s Kraglin getting much more to do this time out. The film as a whole feels more tightly focused than the original and because it doesn’t have to spend much time on introducing characters, there is more time to just hang out with these characters and see what makes them tick. As Peter Quill’s morally bankrupt father figure, Yondu was certainly an enjoyable character in the film, but Michael Rooker comes close to stealing the show in the sequel, chewing the scenery as usual while also digging up some emotional complexities that were barely even hinted at in the first film.
It’s also nice to see Karen Gillan get much more to do this time out as Nebula, who’s intense sibling rivalry with Zoe Saldana’s Gamora has to be one of the most interesting female relationships yet seen in the MCU. As for Kraglin, he’s used sparingly but gets some great moments (his memorable scene with Nebula is a particular standout). All-in-all, it’s great to see Vol. 2 fleshing out characters that don’t necessarily fall into the main group, so to speak, and this all bodes well for the eventual Vol. 3, which will most certainly be adding some new members to the Guardians.
3. Less Attachment To The MCU
One of the main criticisms leveled against films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (including from other directors) is that they’ve started to turn into glorified trailers for the next entry and never seem to be able to tell a cohesive, self-contained story. Like it or not, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is part of the MCU, so it still has to do some setup work for the next films in the franchise, but what’s refreshing about the film is that it keeps all this stuff to a minimum. In fact, other than a very brief post-credits scene and a few references scattered here and there throughout the film, you’d be hardpressed to find much that really ties Vol. 2 to the rest of the MCU.
Instead, James Gunn has crafted a film that is able to get out from under the weight of franchise building and just do its own thing, telling a story that is significant to the MCU as a whole and yet, feels personal and not beholden to what came before or what’s yet to come. The first Guardians of the Galaxy largely achieved this narrative freedom as well, but there are a few scenes in it that you can tell were studio mandated (such as the aforementioned Thanos scene). Vol. 2 contains no such scenes and is better off for it.
2. Way Better Villain(s)
The original Guardians of the Galaxy had very few issues, but its biggest drawback was arguably its villain. Ronan the Accuser was not only poorly-fleshed out, he just wasn’t all that interesting to begin with, and it was a shame to have such dynamic heroes fight such a boring villain. Like pretty much every Marvel movie, Vol. 2 is still a bit lacking in the villain department, but it comes tantalizingly close to giving us a pair of great ones. The film’s marketing positioned Elizabeth Debicki’s Ayesha as the primary antagonist and while this ended up being a bit of a misdirect, she’s still pretty good. Ayesha and her golden-skinned Sovereign race are perhaps the most prissy bad guys we’ve yet seen in the MCU and while they largely come off as more of an annoyance than a legitimate threat, one of the film’s post-credit sequences makes it clear that the Guardians aren’t free of Ayesha’s malice yet.
While it becomes clear a little too early that Ego the Living Planet is not the loving father Star-Lord thought him to be, the reveal of his true motives remains riveting and the third act face-off against him goes a long way in solving Marvel’s finale problems by being both exciting and refreshingly different. Kurt Russell gets a lot of mileage in simply being one of the coolest actors ever, making it all the more disappointing for Quill (and the audience) when he turns out to be a douche. It’s hard to imagine how the next film will be able to top a living planet played by Kurt Russell, but as long as they don’t pull another Ronan, it should all work out alright.
1. Better Character Development
Guardians of the Galaxy did an excellent job in making each member of the titular team feel integral, but at times it felt like the Chris Pratt show, as Pratt’s Star-Lord/Peter Quill definitely took center stage. Although Vol. 2 still feels like it’s Quill’s story in many ways, none of the other characters are ignored; if anything, they’re even better developed than they were originally.
The two characters that benefit the most from this are Gamora and Drax, who were arguably the characters that got the least attention in the first movie. Gamora’s relationship with her sister Nebula gets a lot of attention this time out and as a whole, she’s presented as a much more human character than in the first film, where she was mostly relegated to being the team’s stick in the mud. She’s still the one keeping the rest of the team in line, but doesn’t come off as a buzzkill this time; she just doesn’t suffer fools.
Drax seems to have settled into his role as the team’s adrenaline junkie just fine and Dave Bautista is as hilarious as ever in the role, but the character’s tragic backstory isn’t forgotten about and his bond with newcomer Mantis (Pom Klementieff) is simultaneously uproariously funny and emotional. By the end of the film, you’ll not only like these characters even more than you did before, but feel like you know them much better as well; if that’s not the mark of a good sequel, I don’t know what is.