It would have been easy to make Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 do the heavy lifting of leading up to Avengers: Infinity War. It has two characters with a close relationship to Thanos, and the film is “in charge” of the cosmic side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Instead, writer-director James Gunn made a personal, separate, and unique superhero movie that is more concerned with family than saving the universe. Of course, saving the universe is a part of the story, but it’s almost an afterthought for the primary mission of the movie, which is to take the Guardians from being a team, and showing that they’re a family.
Almost every hero in Guardians has some growing up to do, some of the face of past abuse. There’s Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), who literally has to grow up and is being raised by the rest of the team; Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) who have to see each other as people who were traumatized by a cruel father rather than foes to be defeated; Rocket (Bradley Cooper), who continues to try and push people away with his attitude and antics; Yondu (Michael Rooker), who must own up to the fact that he loves Peter (Chris Pratt); and Peter who must realize that his biological father, Ego (Kurt Russell), may not be the family he’s been searching for. None of that has anything to do with Infinity Stones or the Avengers or any other aspect of the MCU. It’s a self-contained story that isn’t even really concerned with its own plot; it’s all about character.
That focus on character and relationships at the expense of plot is rare among movies in general, let alone Marvel movies, and it’s wonderful that the studio just let Gunn tell this standalone story that’s about the fractured, dysfunctional, wonderful families we form with unlikely people. The first Guardians of the Galaxy is a lot of fun and it eschews standard superhero storytelling, but the sequel is a far more daring and rewarding picture because of how it concerns itself with every character arc (except for maybe Drax (Dave Bautista), who seems to be doing just fine) rather than universe-ending stakes.
Let’s take a look at just Star-Lord. In the first film, he’s the roguish hero, and it was a breakout role for Pratt. In the sequel, Gunn questions his hero and shows that rather than the group’s leader, Peter is still a gigantic child who has some serious growing up to do. It’s not just about losing his mother when he was a kid and being abandoned by his father; it’s about holding on to all of his childlike things and trying to use them as the sole way to relate to the universe. He never completely loses that (like when he turns into Pac-Man or talks about David Hasselhoff during Yondu’s funeral), but it’s clear by the end of the movie he’s no longer the guy who thinks that he should end up with Gamora just because their relationship resembles Sam and Diane from Cheers. He has to lose two fathers to grow up, but he’s more of a man at the end of the movie than he was at the beginning.
You could do this kind of deep breakdown with almost any main character in the movie, and that’s a testament to Gunn’s focus and how much he cares about this world he’s crafted. Rather than zipping all over the cosmos, he really zeroes in on what makes each character tick. It feels like perhaps more than any other Marvel director, Gunn has true ownership over this part of the MCU whereas other directors either come in to other people’s domain or they’re a hired gun. That’s not to say those approaches don’t work, but there’s something richer about what Gunn is doing and I hope that Marvel follows his lead because eventually you have to move away from massive crossovers into individual movies that work because we love the characters.