Expectations are a funny thing. The expectations you have going into a film can, more often than not, dictate how you’ll feel coming out. This was something that worked in favor of the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie as many people, myself included, walked into the theater knowing little-to-nothing about the Guardians comics or stories, and thus, weren’t expecting much at all. That isn’t the only reason for why the movie was successful – it’s incredibly well-paced, funny, and the story and characters are top-notch – but not having high expectations saved viewers from setting the bar too high for themselves only to see the film fall flat.
This was my main fear going into the second installment of the Guardians franchise, which lacked the ability to be an unknown gem simply because of how many people ended up seeing and enjoying the first one. Ask any Marvel movie fan, and odds are that the first Guardians movie cracks their top three, or at least is regarded as a “must watch” film in the series. For these reasons, expectations ran impossibly high for the sequel, and so as I sat in the theater last night and the movie started, I felt a small inkling of dread that I’d walk out disappointed.
Let me put it this way: my expectations weren’t met, but that is actually a very good thing.
Guardians Vol. 2 manages something that few sequels do in that it changes the formula for how you expect the movie to play out, and shifts the overall focus and themes of the film as a whole. But don’t take this to mean that it isn’t similar to the first: the characters are all the same, and we see a healthy amount of growth and development that builds off of the first movie. There are also jokes – almost too many, but more on this in a second – packed into every crevice and corner that you can look in. There’s also an excellent soundtrack, packed with classics, and the use of music in this series continues to be Marvel’s best. But while the first movie largely focused on character introduction, world building, a story that isn’t too difficult to follow, and other things that a first-of-series installment should focus on, the second film took a much more thematic and introspective approach. The idea of family, both as it is defined and how we think of it, plays a large role throughout. This isn’t just for Peter Quill though, which was obvious given what we already knew about the movie and certain characters going in. But every character has their own moment to shine in this respect, and all of them have heavy moments of reflection and realization on things ranging from family and friendship, to a sense of purpose and/or belonging.
This works surprisingly well for every character, and I think that’s a testament to the approach the writers took to this second installment. They could have easily tried to mimic the first, but doing so would likely have fallen flat once the luster wore off and folks realized they’d just been given more of the same (a fear I’ve mentioned is what might be the case with Thor: Ragnarok). Instead, director James Gunn and team chose to go in a different direction than what I and many others were expecting, and it works with ease and charm. I even caught myself getting misty-eyed as these themes, arcs, and moments all crescendoed in the film’s final act, something that very, very few movies have ever accomplished.
That isn’t to say that Guardians Vol. 2 is perfect by any stretch – in fact, I’d argue it’s actually slightly below the first if I were ranking them. The story isn’t all that complex, and after thinking about it for a while, I might even venture to say uninteresting. This is in contrast to the first film, in which the story was air-tight and incredibly fleshed out. I also would’ve liked some of the characters to get more time in the sun, so to speak, and felt like some themes and moments didn’t hit me as a hard as I wanted them to. This is almost certainly a byproduct of having to focus on so many characters, elements, and themes, while still having to have some semblance of a story to show throughout the two hours and 18 minutes of runtime.
I also would’ve liked some of the serious and impactful moments to have lingered longer, and hung in the air long enough for a viewer to really feel them. This is arguably my biggest gripe with the movie: the humor tends to get in the way. This movie has more comedy than any other Marvel movie twice over, and while most of the jokes land, a few don’t. The thing is, that wouldn’t bother me if everything didn’t have to be a joke. But I felt like there were a few different moments that would’ve benefitted from lasting a bit longer, without being cut short or leading immediately into some sort of gag. And I get it, the Guardians series is supposed to be fun and lighthearted (even by the standards Marvel movies have set) but I just felt like for all the focus on inward themes and ideas the writers didn’t credit themselves enough to let those cut deeper into the viewer.
Don’t get it twisted, these gripes are minor, and you should absolutely go see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 immediately. It’s a fun, charming movie that manages to defy expectation without leaving a viewer disappointed. While the action lacks a bit from the first (intentionally so, I felt, and mostly not in a bad way) and the humor is cranked up to 11, we get to learn a lot more about the characters, and actually understand and sympathize with them – something we haven’t experienced much of with Marvel characters at any point in any series. And beyond all of that, it’s just a good time. And that’s one expectation from the first film that was met in its entirety.