This post contains spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
The first Guardians of the Galaxy, released in 2014, was an impressive feat of world-building. It faced the same challenge as most of the films in the early phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: It had to get the audience up to speed with a whole cast of characters based on a comic-book property that lacked the popularity of Spider-Man. Beyond introducing Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and his merry band of alien friends, Guardians also had to expand the Marvel world into the cosmos, setting their adventures in a realm of complicated intergalactic politics.
It might be hard to remember, but there was a time not so long ago that Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Guardians were not thought particularly bankable. But now that origins have given way to sequels, the Marvel universe seems focused on maintaining the churn of its ever-growing brand, leading to films (like 2016’s Captain America: Civil War) that serve largely as advertisements for future installments. Every plot outcome seems temporary, every shake-up of The Avengers a gimmick.
It’s an approach that’s been wildly successful, imposing a coherency and firm sense of a shared universe, down to each movie’s crisp but unexciting visuals, carefully choreographed action, and samey musical scores. But until last week’s release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, it had been a long time since a superhero movie really echoed the small-scale feel of classic comics. That is, the film is less worried about setting up multiple sequels or crossing over with other characters, and more focused on a tightly plotted, self-contained story arc with a proper conclusion. The only fear is, looking ahead to Marvel’s future, it seems very likely viewers won’t see another movie like it anytime soon.
Guardians 2 had multiple things going for it in this regard. It’s still relatively walled off from the rest of the Marvel world, taking place as it does in deep space, far from the Earth-bound concerns of the Avengers and their ilk. It’s one of the only Marvel films made by a real auteur—James Gunn, who wrote and directed both movies and seems to operate with some slight independence from the larger studio machine (overseen by the producer Kevin Feige, who’s responsible for the general continuity between Marvel movies). And, best of all, it has a story that’s actually structured around a charismatic villain (Ego, played by Kurt Russell).
In Marvel lingo, Guardians 2 feels like a great six-issue arc, the kind of storytelling that used to be the backbone of superhero comics. It resolves the question of Peter’s parentage (his father is Ego, a celestial being whose true form is a giant planet), a mystery introduced in the first film and fully resolved here. Like many a classic team story, it breaks the Guardians up for most of the movie, sending them on separate but related missions, then reunites them, their bonds tested but stronger than ever. And it takes full advantage of the series’s intergalactic setting, layering in the wacky psychedelic imagery and boundless imagination of classic ’70s space comics (like Silver Surfer or Journey Into Mystery).
The franchise would be wise to draw from this old-school well more often. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 features no appearances from other Marvel superheroes or villains for basically the first time since the series launched with Iron Man in 2008. It ends with several post-credits scenes, but they’re all in-jokey nods to events that happened in the movie, rather than teasers for unrelated, upcoming films. And it’s centered on an emotional arc about family—in which Peter comes to terms with Ego’s villainy, and accepts the more conventionally flawed Yondu (Michael Rooker) as his real father figure.
But the Marvel Cinematic Universe cares more about imitating the current mode of storytelling for comic books, where vast, intertwined story arcs that draw in every A-list superhero title compel the reader to buy any and all related issues to keep up. One could just watch Marvel’s Thor movies, or every Captain America entry, and avoid the rest, but each film makes references to a half-dozen others, as if to make them almost impossible to understand on their own. It’s a careful, calibrated approach—that so far hasn’t applied to the Guardians movies.
Soon enough, Peter Quill and his friends will be drawn into the bigger morass. The entire Guardians cast is taking part in Avengers: Infinity War, 2018’s superhero-laden extravaganza that will center on the cosmic Infinity Gems and the looming villain Thanos (Josh Brolin), who appeared briefly in the first Guardians movie. Gunn has promised to return to an already greenlit third Guardians, and he may be able to continue sheltering those movies somewhat.
Still, the franchise is more important than the sub-franchise: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 could be the last movie where Rocket Raccoon doesn’t buy a drink with Doctor Strange, or Ant-Man doesn’t hitch a ride on Groot’s back. A comic-book film used to be an unusual enough event to generate interest on its own; now, it partly exists to hype another five coming attractions, like some never-ending pyramid scheme. Guardians 2 isn’t getting enough credit for breaking that mold, but it’s a distinction viewers may soon cherish.