It happened so fast the first time around that by the time the dust had settled, everybody had forgotten exactly why the first Guardians of the Galaxy was as good as it ended up being. Nobody was arguing against the movie, but it almost seemed as if everybody forget the reason why they were all on the same side to begin with. A fun movie’s a fun movie, after all, but there was always something more — a lot of somethings more, actually — working underneath the surface of that first movie than even its most ardent fans were willing to give it credit for.
It was, first off, an exceptional film built entirely from the ground up to be exactly that. From its irreverent script to its talented and staggeringly expansive cast to the fresh new director that everybody was underestimating from the outset — that bottomless pool of talent alone guaranteed that it would be at least a good movie, let along the great one that it turned out to be.
And, more than just technically proficient, it was downright inspired. Guardians of the Galaxy hit theaters at the exact moment that the newness of the Marvel moment had expired. Marvel-branded (but not Marvel controlled) properties were already on their second runs, or just about to be: sanitized, assembly-lined products like The Amazing Spider-Man, X-Men: Apocalypse and Fant4stic. Publishing cum cinematic rival DC had already put forth its contender to the Marvel throne, the contentiously-received Man of Steel. Del Toro’s Hellboy trilogy had already been canceled two entries in. Watchman had come and gone. V for Vendetta had come and gone (as much as that counted towards the genre in the first place).
Even for as remarkable as the Marvel movies had been until this point, the cracks in the veneer were starting to show. The lack of their missing powerhouse properties was starting to show with every new and increasingly obscure property they brought to the big screen (first Thor, and later both Ant-Man and Doctor Strange). Their winning formula at origin movies — just make the villain an evil version of the hero — had already been mapped out and was proving as predictable as it was ultimately effective and for as amazing as Iron Man 3 and The Winter Soldier were, the sequels were not quite living up to the originals when all was said and done (notably Iron Man 2, but also Age of Ultron).
Guardians of the Galaxy came at the exact time it needed to. Not only was it a really, really good movie — one that is still often lauded for being the best Marvel movie period — but it was a fresh and original take on a genre that was starting to feel all too familiar. The character felt different, the soundtrack was infectious and the entire production felt too perfectly idiosyncratic to have come out of the Hollywood machine. It was a powerful, hilarious, endlessly rewatchable film, and after its debut, it was always going to get a sequel. I just don’t think that any of us were ready for the exact way that that sequel was going to take form, however.
What’s interesting is that, no matter how original the movie felt, it smartly never tried to reinvent the wheel. Rather, it simply built a little bit on everything that was introduced in the original film. By contrast, Vol. 2 feels downright intimate. It has noticeably fewer locations, far less action and the only thing that it really tries ramping up are the quiet character moments that the first movie always excelled at.
The second and third Captain America movies gets a lot of credit — and justifiably so — for being mini-Avengers sequels. While never quite properly Avengers-sized, they always feel so much bigger and more important than, say, Thor: The Dark World (which made all the thunderous noise it wanted to about saving the nine realms, but just felt like a minor upgrade from the first movie). Guardians of the Galaxy, and especially Vol. 2, never get the credit they deserve for doing the exact same thing: telling a bigger story than it really, by rights, ought to and deftly balancing an imposingly large cast of well-developed characters while keeping both the action and dialog lighter and pithier than any hundred-million-dollar Summer blockbuster has any right to be.
And yet, two volumes in, this is what we’ve learned to expect from this franchise. It’s not about explosions and fisticuffs (although there is an excellently choreographed Pacman fight set to Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain), but about a talking racoon learning to open up to his friends, a pair of step-sisters coming to terms with the abuse that they both suffered and were forced to participate in as children and a half-Human man-child coming to terms with his complicated feelings toward his two dads. For its explosive, world-ending finale, it’s a surprisingly quiet movie — with few actual action scenes and a lot of moments where characters are simply allowed to exist and interact on the screen. And, like The Avengers, these moments of character interaction and development are by far the best thing about it.
When all is said and done, Vol. 2 is about its characters, not about any larger plot or tentative connection to the developing Marvel mythos. It boldly asserts, in a major studio franchise film, that all of the fireworks and special effects can be put to the sideline so that we can watch Peter try desperately to advance his relationship with Gamora, or Yondu come to terms with his inequities as a father, or Drax make himself vulnerable to a woman he just met about the family that he is perpetually trying to avenge. And while it might be a stretch to say that it is strictly speaking the best Marvel movie, it is easily the most emotionally resonant and, by extension, the most real. And in an industry like this one, that counts for a Hell of a lot.