In The History of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ScreenCrush editor-in-chief Matt Singer looks back at every film in the MCU to date, leading up to the premiere of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27. Previous chapters can be found here.

Chapter 15: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Director: James Gunn
Writer: James Gunn
Release Date: May 5, 2017
U.S. box office: $389.8 million
Worldwide box office: $863.7 million
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 83 percent
Metacritic score: 67
Letterboxd average grade: 3.6
CinemaScore: A

My Original Review

Marvel

“Any hardcore comic-book reader will tell you that most comic series alternate between big stories and the stories between the big stories, where the characters get room to breathe and the creators resolve lingering mysteries and subplots before the next big crossover. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the movie version of that. It’s likable but uneventful, even when the fate of the galaxy inevitably (but mostly theoretically) hangs in the balance.” - Read more here.

What Holds Up

Marvel

Like Guardians of the Galaxy before it, Guardians Vol. 2’s greatest strength is its screenplay. Director James Gunn uses these characters to say something very personal. The first movie was about outcasts looking for connection in the universe. Now that these misfits have found one another, the sequel is about something else: The fact that families are f—ing nuts.

All of the movie’s subplots involve interfamilial warfare. Peter Quill, AKA Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), finally meets his real father, Ego the Living Planet (Kurt Russell), only to discover he’s a planet-sized a—hole. Peter also resolves his complicated feelings about his adoptive father, Yondu (Michael Rooker), who Ego hired to snatch Peter from Earth after his mom died. Recognizing that Ego was a planet-sized a—hole, Yondu kept Peter, but his parenting technique (mostly threatening to eat him when he misbehaved) left something to be desired.

Meanwhile, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) continues her family feud with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), and they both have issues with their a—hole father Thanos (Sir NotAppearingInThisFilm) and there’s all sorts of squabbles between the adopted family that is the Guardians; most importantly, the sibling rivalry between Peter and Rocket (Bradley Cooper), the group’s resident misanthrope and trash panda.

Guardians Vol. 2 is one of the funniest movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (anything involving the ludicrously named Taserface, a Yondu lieutenant who leads a mutiny of his crew, is sheer comic perfection), and also one of the saddest. Rewatching the film, I admired Gunn’s commitment to making a major blockbuster with such a genuinely sad ending: Peter loses both of his fathers in the span of five minutes and the Guardians are shaken to their core.

Of all of Marvel’s filmmakers, Gunn is somehow the most sarcastic and the most sincere. Yes, this movie includes jokes about Kurt Russell’s alien penis. It also ends with a long, lingering close-up of Rocket’s tear-soaked face as he mourns Yondu’s death while Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” plays on the soundtrack. That is one bold combination of elements.

What Doesn’t Hold Up

Marvel

The first Guardians was a great “vibe movie.” The characters were so fun that it almost didn’t matter what they did on a plot level; the audience was just happy to groove along with the movie’s vibe. The worst thing about Vol. 2 is that it sometimes strains a bit too hard to replicate that vibe. There’s a lot of the Guardians (particularly Dave Bautista’s Drax) laughing hysterically at each other and even their own jokes — like the scene pictured above, where Drax and Ego’s assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff) cackle with glee at Peter’s discomfort when his true feelings about Gamora are revealed.

If I have one knock against Gunn as a director it’s that he sometimes doesn’t seem to trust the audience to get his point. That’s certainly the problem with Guardians Vol. 2’s worst scene, where Ego explains the lyrics of the Looking Glass song “Brandy,” which is about a sailor who falls in love with a girl in a port town but leaves her to return to the sea. By this point in the film, we’ve already heard the song once, and the lyrics’ connection to Ego and Peter’s mom’s relationship are not subtle. Ego explains them to Peter anyway, and he does it very slowly, line by line. Every time I watch the film I just want to yell “We get it! He’s like the dude in the song!” during this scene.

(Also: Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) is cute but nowhere near as funny as the adult Groot from Guardians Vol. 1. Don’t @ me.)

Coolest Foreshadowing of Future Marvel Events

Marvel

Guardians Vol. 2 came out less than a year ago, which means we’re in territory where we have to guess what elements of the movie are foreshadowing future Marvel events. My favorite tease of something that might return down the line (perhaps in Avengers: Infinity War, or more likely in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3) is the introduction of comics’ original Guardians of the Galaxy.

The team featured in James Gunn’s movies was introduced in a Guardians of the Galaxy series from 2008. Before that, and for decades in Marvel Comics, there was a totally different Guardians team; a group of alien heroes who protected the universe in the far future. Their membership included characters like Yondu, Starhawk, Martinex, Charlie-27, and an Earthman from the past named Vance Astro. In Vol. 2 all of those characters (minos Vance, sorry bro) appear as Ravagers, a collection of honor-bound mercenaries who operate throughout the galaxy. Yondu tells Rocket the old Ravagers “weren’t so different from you and your friends,” a clever nod to the fact they were the comics’ first Guardians of the Galaxy.

The original Guardians (played by Sylvester Stallone, Michael Rosenbaum, Ving Rhames, and Michelle Yeoh respectively) show up for Yondu’s Ravager funeral and then, in a post-credits scene, it’s revealed their team has reunited for a new heist. I don’t think anyone wants to see these Guardians replace Star-Lord’s crew. But it could be cool to see all of these characters work together in Guardians Vol. 3.

Best Marvel Easter Egg

As part of the subplot involving Star-Lord and his father, we learn that when Peter was young he used to keep a picture of David Hasselhoff in his pocket. If anyone asked, he claimed Hasselhoff was his dad. He wasn’t around because he was touring with his band in Germany.

Later Hasselhoff himself has a cameo (Ego assumes his form during his big fight with Peter), and over the closing credits we hear the song “Guardians’ Inferno” featuring Hasselhoff as well. Though it doesn’t come up in Vol. 2, mega Marvel nerds will know that in another life, long before the era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (around the time Hasselhoff was touring Germany with his band), the Hoff starred in a TV movie as Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD.

It’s just too bad Samuel L. Jackson isn’t in Guardians Vol. 2 so he could have shown up in the scene with Hoff and given him a dirty (one-eyed) look.

Final Verdict

Marvel

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 might be the weirdest movie in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most sequels are bigger than their predecessors; Guardians Vol. 2 is smaller than the first film in almost every significant way. It’s a much more intimate story, and while the fate of the universe is theoretically at stake (Ego wants to use Peter’s untapped Celestial power to spread himself across the galaxy), everything really boils down to a struggle between a dad and his son. Vol. 1 got bogged down in Thanos/Infinity Stones nonsense and it ended with Drax vowing to murder Thanos to avenge his dead wife and child. In Vol. 2, that never comes up and Thanos doesn’t even get a cameo (although he is mentioned by Gamora and Nebula).

Instead, the film opens with a big action sequence (or at least one takes place in the background of the opening credits; mostly we just watch Baby Groot dancing in the foreground) but the second act is pretty much all dialogue, as the characters talk about their histories and discuss their potential futures. The obvious model is The Empire Strikes Back: After a bombastic intro, the heroes face overwhelming odds and go on the run, where the team is separated before a big finale that involves betrayals and shocking parental revelations. Still, even with one of the most popular movies ever as a template, it’s a little surprising (and kind of refreshing) to see a Marvel movie where so little happens, and so much rests on the characters’ relationships.

It’s also nice to see how organically this film grows out of the first one. Gunn clearly had all of this planned when he wrote the original Guardians, and all of his hints about Peter’s mysterious dad and Gamora’s relationship with Nebula are paid off nicely. When watched as a whole back to back to back, it’s easy to see the places where Marvel didn’t have a plan, or their plan changed midstream, leaving behind some pretty big plot holes. Everything in Guardians Vol. 2 works, right down to Ego saying he finally found Peter after he heard about a man from Earth who held an Infinity Stone and didn’t die.

After two films though, my favorite Guardian is still Rocket. Everyone on the team is an outsider, but most of them aren’t doing so badly. Gamora is a ferocious warrior, Drax has sick abs, and Star-Lord looks like Chris Pratt. Rocket really is a weirdo. He looks like a raccoon but he insists he isn’t one. He has no home, no family, no parents; he was created in a lab by mad science. He’s funny, but only because that’s his way of masking his pain and frustration. And Bradley Cooper’s vocal performance perfectly evokes the character’s rage and suppressed love for his fellow Guardians.

Even though he’s a CGI creation, Rocket’s the only Guardian I could see successfully headlining his own MCU film. And 15 movies in, when he looked into the camera with tears in his eyes, he was the first MCU character to ever make me cry.

Gallery - The Best-Dressed Characters in the Marvel Universe: