After the huge success of his first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), James Gunn brings back the unlikely, ragtag group of heroes in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Happening soon after the events of the first film, the Guardians are being hunted down because Rocket Racoon makes a stupid mistake, and Peter Quill (Star Lord) finally meets his father…and that’s about it. It’s obvious that Gunn wanted to make a more character driven sequel as opposed to making a direct carbon copy of what worked the first time. While that mostly works to his advantage, and everyone involved still brings their A-Game, the film does suffer from a really messy narrative structure and feels a bit too long at times.
Obviously, Gunn knows what worked the first time and doubles down on it for the sequel. The jokes are more rapid fire this time around, as he throws everything at the wall to see what sticks. While this rapid fire approach doesn’t mean every joke works, it gives the film a stronger sense of energy than even the first one had. With that said, the jokes do mostly succeed, and at times, it’s even funnier than the first film, with daring jokes that no other MCU director would be able to pull off. Some of this includes subverting our expectations of the traditional MCU film (or the contemporary blockbuster for that matter) including an amazing jab at the traditional opening action set piece in a lovely tracking shot. Other moments include some either delightfully crass or hilariously dark moments (a scene with Yondu, Rocket and Groot escaping captivity really comes to mind as being part of the latter).
Just like with the comedy, Gunn works to hone his already established franchise formula for the franchise with the soundtrack, which is just as toe tapping, and at times, as powerful as the first go around. For the most part, the tunes are lovely fun, but the most significant use of the soundtrack is in his use of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” during the climax. Not only does it make that moment extremely gripping and intense, but the part of the song he chooses to include adds a powerful and emotional layer of development for the characters impacted in that scene, especially through the lyrics themselves. Instead of feeling like a one-trick pony, Gunn takes what works and tries to improve it, with great results. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (as is the case with all comedy), but it does show the immense amount of creative control Gunn has as a filmmaker compared to other directors involved with the MCU, which mainly works to his, and the audience’s benefit.
This creative control also extends to his approach to the material. Just like the first film, the characters are the main focus. Gunn doesn’t seem to care as much about setting up future Marvel films with the events surrounding his films, because he’s more concerned about establishing the people that the events revolve around. On one hand, that gives initially minor characters such as Yondu and Nebula more to do and greater arcs, while further developing our protagonists as well.
However, with Gunn less worried about his narrative, not only is the film a mess from a structural standpoint, but new characters that should bear more significance just fall to the side. For instance, the Sovereigns, who should be one of the central antagonists of the film, are reduced to a B-plot in favour of other conflicts. Perhaps if they were given more screen time they would be developed a lot better than they actually were.
Gunn also suffers by introducing new characters, but never developing them enough to make us care about them. This is extremely noticeable in the writing of Mantis. Perhaps she will have more to do in Vol. 3, but for now, she works as a plot device and nothing more, contradicting Gunn’s character-driven approach. What makes the lack of development for the Sovereigns and Mantis even more frustrating is that there are other moments in the film that could’ve been trimmed, especially towards the second half and the end, in order to use that same amount of time to develop the new characters. For what it is, Gunn’s approach to the material does work extremely well most of the time, but there are issues that need to be taken into consideration.
To quote Fleetwood Mac, “if you don’t love me now, you will never love me again.” That’s exactly the case with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. James Gunn will “never break the chain” that worked for him before, and if you didn’t love it then, you won’t love it now. However, despite staying true to what makes these films so special and unique in the MCU, the flaws are more apparent this time around. While his more character driven approach is definitely beneficial for those who already care about these people, it does create a lot of problems in terms of narrative structure, which can also really contradict that approach at times. It’s a lot of the same of what worked the first time in humour, performances, writing, music, and action, but the issues this time are more difficult to avoid. For better or worse, it’s a James Gunn film, and hopefully, he puts the same amount of time and effort into structure as he does into characters for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
(Featured Image: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Disney)