Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 Comparison
WARNING: FULL FILM SPOILERS BELOW
Going into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I have to admit my expectations were pretty high. Guardians of the Galaxy (Vol.1 as I’ll refer to it in this piece) is my favorite Marvel Studios film to date and there was so much hype from James Gunn and Chris Pratt about this being the greatest film ever that I was so ready for it to be just that. Honestly though, who wouldn’t be that confident about a project they poured everything into? I don’t blame ‘em. Then there was that story that broke about how Vol. 2 was the highest rated test screened film EVER, so I eagerly anticipated the film’s release.
However, the first time I saw it, I was filled with a bit of disappointment because I think I was expecting to see how these characters are going to get propelled to a new place together and perhaps a set up as to how they make it into Avengers: Infinity War. It wasn’t that but I didn’t hate it for it. I sat at a C+ or B- in my head if I had to grade it. That’s the weird thing about movies these days, it so easily becomes one of two polar opposite camps. Either you LOVED it or HATED it. After my first viewing of Vol.2, I felt that the team didn’t quite go anywhere new but revisited a lot of what made the first one so great. It was like an encore plugged into giant amps with each character riffing on their solos. But a lot of it still felt like the same movie as Vol.1.
To put that initial reaction to the test, I decided to watch both Vol.1 & Vol.2 back to back in order to see if the films flowed right into each other better and if it was easier to make sense of the similarities.
Right off the bat, in Vol. 1 we get a story that leads up to the explanation of the Infinity Stones and through that we meet these outlaws, with some real issues, who have to come together to save the galaxy after chasing after the precious and dangerous maguffin. The plot leads to them to quickly putting their problems aside to come together so they can take the Power Stone away from a bad guy who wants to blow up an entire planet with it. What made the film and the characters endearing is that along the way their personal problems served a threat to make the whole operation fall apart.
After tricking his way to getting the reward for the Power Stone Starlord is too busy avoiding Yondu’s (the Ravager who kidnapped him as a child) bounty on his head to collect him, Gamora tries to make a break for it with the stone many times because she works better alone, Rocket too often gives in to his short temper over being made fun of for just existing, and Drax pretty much screws everyone over when he calls Ronan into their whereabouts because as he says later he was just filled with so much rage and pain. The only one who doesn’t quite have an actual issue is Groot, who is the core of the group and brings them together and ultimately it’s his sacrifice that lets the team know they’re all they’ve got.
In Vol. 2 things shift gears in a really unexpected way. Instead of joining the team on another adventure that propels them into Infinity War (as some of us hoped), we catch up with them on a mission that goes awry when Rocket gives in to his self-sabotaging ways. Gunn makes an interesting choice to create a film about each character truly dealing with their issues. As they run away from the Sovereign, they happen to be helped by none other than Starlord’s dad Ego. And I think that’s where my issue with the plot began, the coincidence that he just shows up at the right moment didn’t feel like a natural progression of their story but rather function to set up the character narrative that the film ended up being. Okay.
So from there, we get the team to split up. Starlord is motivated by Gamora to get to know the man who claims to be his father, she follows presumably because she’s dealing with her pride but a part of her doesn’t want Starlord to feel alone in the universe like she does, Drax–well I don’t know what purpose Drax serves in following along but his meeting Mantis re-affirms the great pain and sadness still within him. Still feel that he was a bit too mean-spirited to Mantis in a way that made him almost unlikable, particularly when he assumed she was trying to sleep with him. All around a lot of the characters felt more abrasive and awful to one another but I now realize it speaks to what the film was really about.
In the first film, these characters only put aside their issues but didn’t actually deal with them. And yeah, they came back more stubbornly holding on to these things about themselves that they needed to fully confront in order to be a real family and we got that as the resolution all over again but it felt more earned. Specifically, what made it work the best were the parallels between Rocket and Yondu. The film starts with Rocket betraying his team to steal batteries just because he could. And when we catch up with Yondu, who’s still chasing Starlord down, we find out that he too betrayed a code by going rogue and later finding out that it was specifically because he delivered children to Ego–but didn’t know they were being killed until he picked up Peter Quill. Realizing that the kids were being used as batteries, he takes Quill in and keeps him around because he was small, could fit into places which was good for thieving. But in reality, as Yondu calls Rocket’s bluff about not caring about anything besides himself, you discover that they’re the same person. Two individuals who came into the world orphaned with uncaring parents/creators, who don’t allow themselves to express what they really feel and constantly pushing those they care about away. And that really pays off with Yondu’s sacrifice when he finally tells Peter that he always saw him as his own.
The whole Ego and Starlord storyline was personally very underwhelming in comparison. Quill was very reactive for most of the film until Ego told him he straight-up put the tumor in his mom’s head then we got him to get weird as a celestial Starlord and come to terms with who his father really was as he lost him.
But if there’s really any thread that salvages any sense of plot in the film, it’s the one between Nebula and Gamora. We get that our warrior and assassin is only good at winning and doesn’t know how to do anything outside of that and in this film she not only seems to come around to her unspoken feelings for Peter but embraces the person who was always there all along: Nebula. Like in the first film, any time that the sisters are on screen, Nebula is always trying to kill Gamora and Gamora always beats her but doesn’t kill her. The true nature behind that finally makes sense when Nebula breaks and tells her that all she ever wanted was a sister and all Gamora ever wanted was to win. And her winning always came at the cost of Thanos abusing Nebula by doing things like ripping her arm off and taking her brain away. In those moments, I was like if there’s anyone who deserves to kill Thanos it’s her. And even though Gamora realizes that her focus on surviving and being alone only damages the relationships she has, it’s too late when it comes to Nebula. It’s tragic that as soon as she embraces her sister, Nebula is too far gone in her mission for revenge and walks away to go after Thanos despite it being a suicide mission.
Thematically, Vol. 2 ends in the same place as Vol. 1 with the team coming closer together as a family. In that way, the similarities make sense as a film centered on their backstories to help them work through their problems. But like in the first film, the adorableness that is Baby Groot is still the glue that tethers them together because they’re all he has ever known in his new form. And upon second viewing, I’m not complaining as much because it works. Baby Groot was always a great distraction from the film re-using conventions like a break-out and having flimsy villains. Ego with his weird blue foam blob master plan and the sovereign just being there because they were slighted is no better than a guy who wanted to get a stone for a guy, who said he would use it to destroy a planet, just to realize he could just use it himself to accomplish the same thing.
So while not a movie that seems to progress into Infinity War, I was happy to spend more time with my favorite team. The film delves deeper into what made them such a-holes, which is relatable and redeems them in the end. Gunn managed to make movies that make more sense being watched one right after the other instead of undertaking the laborious task of watching every single damn MCU movie leading up to Vol.2. And I can’t wait to have both at home to watch like one would watch another series that always uses the same plot devices: Star Wars: A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back.