Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the 15th (!!!) Marvel Studios film. That’s kind of amazing, when you think about it. As other studios flail about trying to replicate Marvel’s incredible success in creating an ongoing shared universe that can both satiate critics and make absurd amounts of money, it’s worth taking a look at just how they’ve managed to become the enduring juggernaut that they are. Really, the secret of their success is quite simple: they have an impeccable track record at hiring unique creative voices and then mostly staying out of their way as they execute a singular artistic vision that still fits within the larger, interconnected Marvel sandbox.
This strategy was never more apparent than with 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which when it was announced represented the studio’s biggest gamble to date. They’d been able to pack cinemas with films about signature characters like Iron Man and Captain America, but Guardians was a much lesser known property. This didn’t prove to be an issue for eccentric writer/director James Gunn (Dawn of the Dead, Slither), whose surprisingly sweet space comedy starring a then-unproven Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana painted green, former WWE Champion Dave Bautista, a sentient tree, and a foul-mouthed raccoon, turned into one of the studio’s biggest success stories and the 3rd highest grossing film of 2014.
So, the question this time around was whether Gunn would be able to replicate the success of the first film, now with higher expectations from audiences, critics, and the studio. The answer? Kinda!
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does feel at times like it’s trying just a bit too hard to replicate some of the magic of the first film, sometimes lingering for one or two beats too long on a bit of banter, sagging a little in the second act (which could have easily lost 15 minutes or so), and on a few occasions, veering a little too wildly between extremely earnest sentimentality and crude comedy. But these are minor gripes; the film is absolutely a worthy successor to the original, delivering on its promise of zany space hijinks—an RV trip across the stars with your best friends and some good tunes, if you will—that simultaneously stands alone and fills in an important section of the larger Marvel tapestry.
But the main way Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 differentiates itself from the rest of the Marvel cinematic universe is that, like the original, it relies on a pervasive sense of nostalgia—an analog approach in an increasingly digital universe. Part of this is that it doesn’t lean on massive space battles for its signature moments (though it does have them, in spades), but moreso through the smaller moments built around the sparks that fly between the various, well-defined personalities orbiting each other. Arguably, the main method Gunn leans on to achieve this unique tone is through the extremely well-curated soundtrack of classic rock and pop hits. He’s got a Tarantino-esque ear for music and he once again employs it here to great effect. Awesome Mix Vol. 2 might be even better than the first, where again, many of the songs are tired directly into the narrative in an interesting way.
“Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” acts as an extended analogy for the relationship between Star-Lord’s mother and Kurt Russell’s Ego. George Harrison’s classic “My Sweet Lord” perfectly compliments the extended introduction to Ego’s planet. Cheap Trick’s pop masterpiece “Surrender” appears in the closing credits and, according to Gunn, was included as a way of saying thanks to the band for contributing music on the cheap to his 2010 film Super. The soundtrack is anchored by Fleetwood Mac’s iconic hit “The Chain,” an appropriate track given that the movie is ultimately a story about the bonds that form between a disparate collection of misfits and turns them into something resembling a family.
Of course, these bonds get tested as the film progresses, as Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill/Star-Lord attempts to turn his “unspoken thing” with Gamora into something a bit more tangible, competes with Rocket the Raccoon for alpha status, and struggles to reconcile between the tough love of surrogate father Yondu and the designs of his newfound deadbeat dad with a planet-sized ego.
The final encouraging aspect of the unlikely ascent of the Guardians to the very top of the Marvel flagpole: it seems to have emboldened the studio to take further forays into classic sci-fi atmospheres. The trailer for Thor: Ragnarok looks like it was somehow plucked from the resurrected imagination of Jack Kirby and blended together with original series Star Trek, and its inclusion of Zeppelin’s fist-pumping “The Immigrant Song” certainly seemed like a nod to Gunn. So, though it may not quite capture the lightning in a bottle magic of the original, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does offer up some more rollicking, classic rock-infused space action with one of the best ensembles going today. And now the wait begins for the final film—and Awesome Mix—in the trilogy.